With the impending departure of Brevard to Division III plus new scheduling alliances, South Atlantic Conference football will be changing over the next couple of seasons. While North Greenville’s alliance with the SAC ended last season, two new alliance members – football independents Limestone (2015) and North Carolina-Pembroke (2016) – bring some short-term stability for football scheduling. That’s not to say the SAC isn’t looking to welcome new members to the fold in the future. “We have put together a committee of four presidents and two athletic directors to look at membership expansion,” SAC Commissioner Patrick Britz said during Wednesday’s online media day. “Our first meeting is next Tuesday so we will know more after that.” As for on the field news, it’s no secret Lenoir-Rhyne has been the king of SAC football for the past four seasons. Yet, the rest of the conference looks to catch up with the Bears. “The parity is strong in our league,” Britz said. “All of our teams continue to impress me with wins at certain times. We have a great group of coaches that respect each other and their programs.” Amid that backdrop, let’s take a look at all eight SAC football teams as camps prepare to open. Here's where BennettRank has them ranked in D2 at large going into the season:
BR-110 Brevard Tornados
2014 Record: 1-10, 0-7 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 8th Head Coach: Paul Hamilton (9th season, 23-64; 18th overall, 67-121) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 6 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 9 As noted earlier, the Tornados will be transitioning from D2 to D3 over the next few seasons. “From a standpoint of our enthusiasm and commitment to the 2015 football season, in no way at all has it affected the program,” said head coach Paul Hamilton. “In fact, it has increased our commitment to be a good football team this fall.” Despite 321.6 rushing yards per game ranked third in the league, the Tornados couldn’t capitalize, thanks to a D2 worst 18 lost fumbles. “The turnovers are something that we've put a great emphasis on since the start of spring practice,” Hamilton said. “When I coached at Air Force, we had a year where turnovers became a problem and we started some things in practice the following spring and on into preseason that made a big difference in us the following year becoming one of the best offensive teams in the country concerning least turnovers. I've implemented a lot of those same principles that helped us turn things around at the Academy.” With most of Brevard’s run production lost to graduation, several players are expected to take on bigger roles this season. “Our offensive line and the fullback position, even with the loss of Jordan Ollis, are two areas that we feel very good about going into the season,” Hamilton said. Four of the Tornados’ starting offensive linemen are projected to return, while redshirt freshman Tyler Gregory could potentially see significant playing time at quarterback; Brevard attempted 66 passes the entire season. Defensively, Brevard brings back a lot of talent from last season, but also have some new faces in the defensive middle for depth as the Tornados look to improve a defense that allowed nearly 41 points per game last season. “Our front has a chance to be one of the best that we've had here,” Hamilton said. “We're excited about the addition of several junior college transfers at the linebacker positions.” Senior free safety Marcus Lunsford (76 tackles) has the chance to become one of the top players in the SAC, Hamilton said. [divider]
BR-68 Mars Hill Lions
2014 Record: 4-6, 3-4 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: T-6th Head Coach: Tim Clifton (22nd season, 119-111) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 7 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 4 The Lions look to take the next step despite key losses on defense and a couple of big losses on offense. “Our biggest concern right now would be offensive line and finding a few cornerbacks,” said head coach Tim Clifton. It may be difficult to replace offensive lineman Denzell Goode, who was picked in the seventh round by Indianapolis in the 2015 NFL Draft. “It was great for Denzell,” Clifton said. “For Mars Hill, it shows that you can come here and that the NFL will find you and that it is possible to be drafted. For him to come out as a junior and be drafted is pretty amazing. We're very proud of him.” The Lions have a two-headed tailback combo in junior Jamel Harbison (1,204 yards, 9 TDs) and senior Shaikel Davis, who redshirted in 2014. There’s a three-way battle for quarterback between senior Matt Layman, senior Zach Lappin and redshirt freshman Austin Brown. “We don't have any of them in order right now,” Clifton said. Mars Hill’s defensive line sports three returnees, led by senior DT Christiaan Davis (7.5 TFL), while junior Carl Mattox (6 TFL, 3 sacks) is the lone returning starting linebacker for the Lions. Depth in the secondary is a big concern for a Mars Hill defense that allowed the most yards per game in the SAC (443) last season. [divider]
BR-65 Wingate Bulldogs
2014 Record: 6-5, 3-4 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: T-6th Head Coach: Joe Reich (15th season, 87-65) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 6 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 6 Wingate comes into camp with a different offensive philosophy. “We are looking for more balance between the run and pass,” said head coach Joe Reich. “In the last few years we have been pass heavy and we are seeking balance this year.” That could mean an expanded role in the offense for senior Mycah Gaylord and sophomore Lawrence Pittman, both of whom are being called upon to replace the offensive production of Nestor Lantigua, whose 753 rushing yards accounted for nearly 57 percent of the Bulldogs’ rushing output last season. Junior quarterback Kyle Johnson (2,073 passing yards, 15 passing TDs, 14 INTs) will have three experienced receivers, led by junior Jordan Berry (50 rec., 585 yards, 6 TDs), to work with. The skill players will be working behind an offensive line led by senior Mathu Gibson, who has started in his previous three seasons. “We expect this to be a solid group,” Reich said. “We must depth establish depth in camp. I’m looking forward to how the younger guys react.” While the Bulldogs lost five starters to graduation, Reich has a lot of returning talent in the linebackers and secondary. “We have a lot of depth and talent returning at these positions,” he said. “(Senior safety) Brandon Hathaway (6 INTs) is a huge impact player for us. (Senior) Eric Mapoles (7.5 TFLs, 3 sacks) is one of many linebackers who will contribute.” With Nick Napolitano having graduated, watch for junior Andre Foulks (5.5 sacks) to play a bigger role as he solidifies the defensive line. [divider]
BR-70 Tusculum Pioneers
2014 Record: 6-5, 3-4 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 5th Head Coach: Frankie DeBusk (18th season, 92-93) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 6 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 7 Tusculum’s 1-4 start doomed the Pioneers to the middle of the pack last season. There is a fair amount of talent on both sides of the ball returning, however. With Kyle Dickey graduating, sophomore Malcolm Pendergrass (1,393 passing yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) would seem to be the favorite heading into camp. Not so fast, cautions head coach Frankie DeBusk. “Malcolm progressed well in the Spring,” DeBusk said. “But, he will have serious competition this preseason.” Watch for junior Fernando Smith (512 yards, 8 TDs) and sophomore D.J. Haney (566 yards, 6 TDs) to split the rushing load this season, while senior Justin Houston (66 catches, 643 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Ken Funnye (44 catches, 464 yards, 2 TDs) headline the receiving corps. DeBusk has several defensive starters returning, particularly in the back seven. Junior Brandyn Bartlett (3 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles) and sophomore L’Keith Brown (5 TFLs) bring depth and experience to the linebackers, while senior Mike Mosah (4 TFLs, 3 fumbles recovered), junior Cameron Thomas (4 TFLs, 3 INTs) and sophomore Akeem Peoples solidify the Pioneers’ secondary. “These are all very talented and exciting players,” DeBusk said. “We are very excited about our defense this year.” The Pioneers recorded seven interceptions last season, second fewest in the SAC. [divider]
BR-49 Catawba Indians
2014 Record: 6-5, 3-4 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 4th Head Coach: Curtis Walker (3rd season, 12-10) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 9 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 7 Many starters from last season are returning, boosting Catabwa’s chances to targeting Lenoir-Rhyne and Carson-Newman. Junior quarterback Mike Sheehan leads an offense which lost only two players from last season. Entering his second full season as the a starter, Sheehan (2,273 passing yards, 17 passing TDs, 15 INTs; 490 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs) is a dual-threat quarterback whose experience will solidify the Indians offense. “Having him back helps with the continuity,” Walker said. “I think he gained respect within the league from his numbers from last season.” Junior Carlos Tarrats (39 catches, 691 yards, 7 TDs) and senior Gary Williams (35 catches, 443 yards, 5 TDs) are the Indians’ leading returning receivers. While Tyler Hamilton has graduated, Walker is confident the running game will be as strong, with junior David Burgess (577 yards, 5 TDs) and senior Cary Littlejohn (564 yards, 4 TDs) expected to lead the way. But, they’re not the only players who could fill Hamilton’s absence. “We have four guys we really feel good about,” Walker said. “Each brings a little something different to the table. I think they all have the ability to step in and make plays for us at that position. But, they can only go as far as their veteran offensive line can take them. “We have three senior offensive linemen which adds to the strength of our running game,” Walker said. Senior cornerback Marc McDaniel (6 TFLs, 5 INTs) is emerging as a top defensive leader for the Indians. “His ability to make plays will add strength to our secondary,” Walker said. Catawba has some talented, but young, players filling the defensive front seven, led by three solid linebackers in junior Jamal Lackey (9 TFLs), sophomore Michael Peppers (2 TFLs, 1 INT) and sophomore Kyle Kitchens (5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles). Walker warned, however, that they Indians are still “trying to find some depth on the defensive line.” The Indians will be tested right out of the gate when they open the season with Super Region 2 champion West Georgia at home. “Anytime we have a chance to start our season with a high level of competition it prepares us for the challenges we have within our conference,” Walker said. “[West Georgia is] coming off a great season and it will definitely give our young men a chance to see where they are Week 1.” [divider]
BR-41 Newberry Wolves
2014 Record: 5-6, 3-4 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 3rd Head Coach: Todd Knight (6th season, 33-31) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 9 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 7 Newberry has as deep an offensive stable as anyone in the SAC. Just two seasons removed from their last postseason appearance, the Wolves have a couple holes to fill on offense, starting with quarterback. “(Junior) Raleigh Yeldell is a special kid on and off the field,” said head coach Todd Knight. “I think he's a dual threat guy. If everything around him goes wrong, he can make it right. He can beat you with his arm and his feet. We just had a problem keeping him healthy since he’s not a big guy.” The Wolves are deep at running back, with junior Romelo Doctor (83 carries, 447 yards, 5 TDs) and senior Ryan Barnwell (63 carries, 297 yards) leading the way. Senior Jalen Cook (25 catches, 345 yards, 5 TDs) and junior Braxton Ivery (22 catches, 182 yards) are Newberry’s leading returning receivers. Senior linebacker Taylor McDonnell (13.5 TFLs) headlines a front seven which helped the Wolves hold opponents to less than 300 offensive yards per game last season. “Taylor McDonnell is one of, if not the best, player we have on defense,” Knight said. “He's very versatile at linebacker and can do a lot of things. He matches up well against different offenses due to his athleticism.” McDonnell will be called upon to solidfiy the linebackers with Ed Robinson’s graduation and subsequent drafting by the Minnesota Vikings. “I'm very proud of Ed, to start off with,” Knight said. “Not only because he was the first to get drafted in D-II last year, but because of the young man he is. He graduated in December and was a model student-athlete.” That pipeline to the NFL, which now stands at four former Wolves, is impressive for a school whose enrollment is barely over 1,100 students. “It helps us a lot in recruiting and we use it to our advantage,” Knight said. The Wolves will see their entire starting defensive line from last season returning, led by senior Alstevis Squirewell (16.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks). “The game is won in the trenches and I think we're going to have that” on both sides of the ball this season, Knight said. Another big concern for Newberry is the kicking game. Although senior Kyle Clark returns as both placekicker and punter, he missed eight of 15 field goal attempts last season. “If we hit three or four different field goals last season, we would be in a position to go back to the playoffs,” Knight said. “It might come to that again.” Clark is expected to face some competition during camp, Knight added. [divider]
BR-30 Carson-Newman Eagles
2014 Record: 7-3, 5-2 SAC Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 2nd Head Coach: Ken Sparks (36th season, 325-89-2) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 6 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 4 Ken Sparks, the dean of SAC football coaches, will be breaking out a different offense this season, bringing the split-back veer option offense to Jefferson City next season. “We've got new quarterback and wide receiver coaches,” Sparks said. “The word is that they're going to put pressure on [offensive coordinator Mike] Turner to throw it 50 times a game.” The Eagles, however, shot themselves in the foot at untimely situations, costing them a chance at the SAC title and a second straight playoff bid. “We had the turnover disease at times last year,” Sparks said. “We have to be more disciplined too. We had a five yard penalty against Lenoir-Rhyne last year that really hurt us. We have to eliminate mistakes so we don't beat ourselves.” Senior quarterback De’Andre Thomas (1,170 passing yards, 9 TDs, 8 INTs; 157 carries, 850 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs), along with four offensive linemen, are projected to return, as is senior wideout TraShaun Ward (14 catches, 294 yards, 4 TDs). With the entire defensive front gone, look for a lot of young players to step up for the Eagles. “We've had a lot of young guys around for voluntary summer workouts.” Sparks said. “We're excited about those possibilities.” Incoming freshmen Hayden Hester and Brian Bembry are seen as two players who could see significant time on the defensive line, while Jordan Price and Brandon Ballard, a top high school wrestler, are also expected to compete for playing time. “I've been saying that we'll be very young,” Sparks said. “I've changed it to we'll be very exciting. I think we've got some players who will be very good once the season starts.” Senior linebacker Sha’Heem Stupart (4 TFLs, 1 sack) is the lone returnee on the front seven. The Eagles, however, have depth in the secondary, led by senior cornerback E.J. Jacob (4 pass breakups, 3 TFLs). [divider]
BR-4 Lenoir-Rhyne Bears
2014 Record: 11-1, 7-0 SAC (SAC champions, lost to Valdosta State in second round of NCAA Playoffs) Projected 2015 SAC Finish: 1st Head Coach: Ian Shields (2nd season, 11-1) Projected Returning Offensive Starters: 6 Projected Returning Defensive Starters: 6 It didn’t take long for Ian Shields to keep Lenoir-Rhyne at the same level that brought them four straight SAC football championships. However, the Bears lose a lot of talent with 10 starters graduating. “We lost around 5,000 total yards out of our backfield and a few All-American/All-Conference players,” Shields said. “We have huge holes to fill, no doubt.” Senior Mike Patrick (117 carries, 788 yards, 9 TDs) and sophomore quarterback Evin Sims will play huge roles in the offense, while sophomore Calvin Edwards is also seen as another young talent in the backfield. Sims got some quality playing time down the stretch last season, including his first career start at Carson-Newman, and, according to Shields “is an explosive athlete that has the capability of being a great one.” Senior offensive lineman Joe Ray, a Gene Upshaw Award finalist, is one of three linemen returning for the Bears. Defensively, there will be a lot of holes to fill in the as three defensive linemen and both safeties are back, but only one starting linebacker returns. Junior linebackers Rodney Singleton and Jordan Forney are seen as key experienced players with an opportunity to start this season, while junior defensive back Marcus Kincaid (8 pass breakups, 3.5 TFLs, 1 INT) brings depth to the secondary. While there’s a lot of turnover within the roster, as the young Bears only have 11 seniors, the biggest change has nothing to do with personnel, but rather a new artificial turf field at Moretz Stadium installed during the offseason. “It is spectacular,” shields said “It is a first class facility in every way that speaks to the commitment here at Lenoir-Rhyne from our Administration and proud alumni.” Lenoir-Rhyne will be tested early as they face West Chester in a rematch of the 2013 national semifinals. “The West Chester game will be a great test for our young team on the road to start the season,” Shields said. “They were 11-2 last year and are loaded heading into 2015. That’s quite a challenge that will tell us a lot about ourselves.” [divider]
2015 SOUTH ATLANTIC CONFERENCE FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Sept. 3 Lenoir-Rhyne at West Chester (PSAC), 6:00 p.m. Cumberland (Ky.) (NAIA) at Carson-Newman, 7:00 p.m. Sept. 5 Brevard at Virginia Union (CIAA), 1:00 p.m. West Georgia (GSC) at Catawba, 1:30 p.m. Wingate at Johnson C Smith (CIAA), 6:00 p.m. Mars Hill at Western Carolina (1-AA), 7:00 p.m. Newberry at Florida Tech (GSC), 7:00 p.m. Tusculum at Virginia-Wise (MEC), 7:00 p.m.
Sept. 12 Shorter (GSC) at Carson-Newman, 12:00 p.m. Bowie State (CIAA) at Brevard, 1:00 p.m. Mars Hill at Chattanooga (1-AA), 1:00 p.m. Jacksonville (1-AA) at Newberry, 1:00 p.m. Virginia State (CIAA) at Tusculum, 1:00 p.m. Wingate at Shaw (CIAA), 6:00 p.m. Catawba at Davidson (1-AA), 7:00 p.m. Lenoir-Rhyne at North Greenville (IND), 7:00 p.m.
Sept. 19 *Catawba at Carson-Newman, 1:00 p.m. Limestone (IND) at Mars Hill, 1:00 p.m. *Brevard at Wingate, 1:30 p.m. *Lenoir-Rhyne at Tusculum, 2:30 p.m. North Greenville (IND) at Newberry, 4:00 p.m.
Sept. 26 *Carson-Newman at Mars Hill, 1:00 p.m. *Tusculum at Newberry, 4:00 p.m. *Wingate at Catawba, 6:00 p.m. Lenoir-Rhyne at Limestone (IND), 7:00 p.m. Brevard at Southern Utah (1-AA), 8:00 p.m.
Oct. 3 North Greenville (IND) at Mars Hill, 1:00 p.m. Limestone (IND) at Wingate, 1:30 p.m. *Newberry at Catawba, 1:30 p.m. *Carson-Newman at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2:00 p.m. *Tusculum at Brevard, 4:00 p.m.
Oct. 10 *Brevard at Carson-Newman, 1:00 p.m. Univ. of Faith (Fla.) (ASCAA) at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2:00 p.m. (Exhibition) *Wingate at Tusculum, 2:30 p.m. *Mars Hill at Newberry, 4:00 p.m. Catawba at Limestone (IND), 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 17 *Mars Hill at Catawba, 1:30 p.m. *Wingate at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2:00 p.m. Tusculum at North Greenville (IND), 2:30 p.m. *Newberry at Carson-Newman, 3:00 p.m. Limestone (IND) at Brevard, 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 24 *Lenoir-Rhyne at Mars Hill, 1:00 p.m. *Carson-Newman at Wingate, 1:30 p.m. UNC Pembroke (IND) at Catawba, 1:30 p.m. *Brevard at Newberry, 3:00 p.m. Tusculum at Limestone (IND), 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 31 *Catawba at Brevard, 1:00 p.m. *Mars Hill at Tusculum, 1:30 p.m. North Greenville (IND) at Wingate, 1:30 p.m. Carson-Newman at Limestone (IND), 2:00 p.m. *Newberry at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2:00 p.m.
Nov. 7 Limestone (IND) at Newberry, 12:00 p.m. North Greenville (IND) at Carson-Newman, 1:00 p.m. *Wingate at Mars Hill, 1:00 p.m. *Catawba at Tusculum, 1:30 p.m. *Brevard at Lenoir-Rhyne, 2:00 p.m.
Nov. 14 *Tusculum at Carson-Newman, 1:00 p.m. *Lenoir-Rhyne at Catawba, 1:30 p.m. *Newberry at Wingate, 1:30 p.m. *Mars Hill at Brevard, 6:00 p.m. (*) SAC Conference Game If you have any comments, questions, or corrections, email me directly at [email protected].