HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs, with three teams being released each day from June 17 to July 28. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 1-4. Today, we present … Gardner-Webb.
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GARDNER-WEBB (3-8 IN 2018)
The Big South (GWU was 4th in 2018)
COACH: Carroll McCray – At School: 7th year (24-44 record), Overall: 12th year (40-83)
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: None
2018 OFFENSE: 20.1 ppg. (102nd in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 37.0 ppg. (107th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Nov. 2 – vs. Charleston Southern: We feel like this is a measuring stick type of game for the Runnin' Bulldogs. We could easily put Campbell here, or maybe one of the newer Big South programs like North Alabama or Hampton, but to really see where this GWU fits in, we think the CSU game is a 2019 test. Last year, CSU won 16-0 in Charleston. What will happen this year in Boiling Springs?
SUM IT UP: When you take a look at Gardner-Webb's depth chart, the first thing that jumps off the page is how many underclassmen will be starting this fall — 17 in all. So let's begin to analyze this as a two-year process. I know the coaches are certainly going to look at it as a "one game at a time" deal and certainly at least a "one year at a time". That's fine. But we're in the media and can throw things like this out there: Gardner Webb can begin to set things up this year, and then in 2020 this program could very well be a solid contender in the Big South and certainly could have a winning record. So why is this prognostication a strong one? Well, GWU has had one winning record this decade.
GWU came into the I-AA/FCS level in 2000 and has been fighting an uphill battle for much of that time. Now, this program does the right things. When you check out the Twitter feed of people affiliated with the program, the academic shout outs are as loud as the athletic shout outs. It's fun to see these programs get that winning spark from time to time, and GWU might be a year away from exactly that.
Why? Well, we got into why above a little bit … but let's break down the personnel a bit. Freshman QB Jordan Smith was thrown into the fire last year and held his own, and he's only going to get better. He will have weapons to work with on offense who've been productive before, and he has three stout linemen back who have combined for 60 career starts (see "The Foundation" below). Defensively, getting former All-Conference nose guard Josh Ramseur back for a 6th year is a massive addition. In all, six of the top eight tacklers return, as well as the top two negative-yardage producers.
OUR TAKE: The non-conference schedule is not very forgiving. To begin the year, the Runnin' Bulldogs face FBS trips to Charlotte and East Carolina (who both hired 2018 FCS coaches by the way). A winnable game against North Carolina Central is sandwiched between those two FBS games and tough FCS matchups with SoCon front runner Wofford and offensive juggernaut Western Carolina and its electric QB Tyrie Adams. If GWU nabs a win in any of those tough non-conference matchups, that's a massive plus. GWU surely isn't backing down from tough competition in the first month of play. Once it hits Big South play, there are certainly some potential wins ahead. Perhaps toughened by that first month's stretch, we could see GWU as a top half Big South program, even though the league certainly gets better this year with the full-time additions of North Alabama and Hampton. Look for GWU to surpass its win total of a year ago (three) and then even bigger things will be ahead in 2020. Also, the GWU coaching staff crushed it in recruiting this past cycle, and that will pay dividends down the road — and it might even help out some this year.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Jr./LB Darien Reynolds (2nd Team All-Big South – 75 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT).
THE FOUNDATION: Soph./DE John Singleton (HERO Sports Freshman All American – 51 tackles, 3 sacks); Sr./NG Josh Ramseur (6th year of eligibility after injury last year – 2nd Team All-Big South in 2017); Sr./LB Devin Mines (63 tackles, 5 PBUs, 26 career starts); Soph./QB Jordan Smith (1,588 yards, 10 TDs); Sr./RB Jalyn Cagle (474 yards, 4 TDs); Jr./RB A.J. Moses (313 yards rushing, 3 TDs); Sr./OL Brandon Leahey (22 career starts); Jr./OL Jack Nichols (22 career starts); Jr./LB Shai Thomas (68 tackles, 8 TFLs); Sr./WR Chuma Awanna (Transfer who caught 66 passes for 867 yards and 5 TDs in 3 seasons at Norfolk State); Jr./OL Daniel Smith (16 career starts); Sr./CB A.J. Keene (51 tackles, 6 PBUs)
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr./DB Jamari Brown (No. 103 in HERO Sports FCS Recruiting ranking; South Florida decommit who reported 6 FBS offers)
THE QUOTE: "This was a perfect match for Chuma, our football program and university. He was very interested in pursuing an MBA after graduation and we needed to add some size at the receiver position. Chuma's character and presence will make a big impact on our young skill players this season and he has a chance to catch a lot of balls in 2019 while getting a strong graduate degree." — Head Coach Carroll McCray said after talented WR transfer Chuma Awanna came aboard in June
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's Gardner-Webb Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The Big South
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast