NEWBERRY, S.C. - What is the recipe for turning a program around? Start with a conference losing streak that stands at 18 games over three seasons, during which time the team is 5-21 overall. Add a new coaching staff, a new coaching philosophy, and a bevy of new players. Sprinkle in some excitement, and throw in a dash of luck.
Going from a 1-10 season to a 3-7 campaign may not seem like headline news, but Newberry College is experimenting with the aforementioned recipe, and 2004 just may be the year that the Indians reap returns on their investments. Newberry improved in so many more areas than can be measured in terms of points or yards.
“Obviously, last year turned out better than expected,” head coach Zak Willis said of the 2003 team. “The kids worked hard, and that squad may be my favorite team that I’ve coached because the attitudes were so good. We want to continue to build on that positive momentum.”
Willis is very clear about his goals for the upcoming campaign: “One, we want to be truly competitive in every game. Two, we want to move up in the conference.” Newberry was 2-5 in 2003, good for a three-way fifth place tie, but could have secured a sole fourth-place finish with a handful of plays going in the Indians’ favor.
Square pegs in round holes might be cliché, but the example would illustrate the way that a mostly Mike-Taylor-recruited class fit into Willis’ offense during the 2003 season. Willis and company inherited a team ingrained in I-formation, ball control offense. Many incumbents adapted, and transfers and recruits aided the growing process, but last year’s campaign was an exercise in re-learning a football scheme. With a full season and off-season tucked away, the Indians prepare to unleash an offensive attack that fans and opponents were only able to preview on a limited basis in ‘03.
“We must establish a running game,” Willis said. “I believe in the adage, ‘to win you must be able to run the ball, and to stop the other team from running’. We won’t be successful until we can run.
“The offensive line is a year older and stronger. Gerard Jackson will help us in our running game as well.
“Certainly our strength will be our receiving corps. If we can run the ball and balance out the offense, our passing game can be even that much better.”
One of Newberry’s downfalls last season was the inability to open doors for running backs to run the football. Lack of consistency on the line forced a one-dimensional offense and allowed defenses the luxury of double coverage without worrying about a rushing attack. The battle in the trenches will be more competitive with four returners and several key newcomers.
Only Jeremy Durham, a two-time All-SAC performer, was lost to graduation. Charles Lamar will move back to his natural position, tight end, from tackle and is favored to start with a better understanding of the offense after playing both positions.
A preseason All-SAC second team selection, Zak Farr will center the offensive line. He took every snap in 2003 and is considered “the O-line coach on the field” according to Coach Hall. While undersized, he compensates through his extraordinary effort and aggressiveness. He understands the system, having played at Pikeville under Willis. Matt Baxley, a redshirt freshman, will back up Farr and will groom for the starting job next year or, if needed, this year.
Ryan Jones, last year’s other starting tackle, will face stiff competition from two transfer players. Heath Benedict has the pedigree to be considered a favorite for weak-side tackle. The 6-6, 311-pound transfer from Tennessee was the #1 rated player in New Jersey as a high school senior in 2001-02, but did not play a single down for the Volunteers. Ralph Sanders, a 6-6, 320-pound junior, comes to the Tribe from Merced Community College to challenge for the other tackle position.
Chase Bentley and Rob Brannam started at guards for Newberry in 2003, and have done nothing in spring ball to endanger that privilege. Both come into the fall bigger and stronger from offseason conditioning.
Daren Vaughn will make a run at the tight end position. The junior came to Newberry as a quarterback, but has bulked up enough to challenge Lamar for the starting nod. Vaughn is versatile enough to handle multiple roles within the offense, including holding for PATs and field goal attempts.
Aaron Mazyck, a freshman from Summerville High School, is the top newcomer at tight end and could see time. Richard Ford from Coffeyville Community College is good enough to play any of the five positions upfront and will make an immediate impact.
With the departure of both of last year’s starting quarterbacks and Daren Vaughn’s move to tight end, the job of signal-caller is wide open. The early favorite to fill the position is transfer Josh Stepp.
Stepp will be the only Indian quarterback with college game experience. The redshirt sophomore suited up last year for the Furman Paladins, completing 59% of passes for 381 yards and a touchdown in six games. He rushed for 118 yards and two more scores. Stepp was named Southern Conference Freshman of the Week when given the opportunity to start against East Tennessee State. As a prep player, he won the Shrine Bowl MVP award for his efforts in the 2001 edition of the classic.
Beyond Stepp, expect true freshmen to battle for the backup spot.
Newberry will have the task of filling the shoes of its all-time leading receiver in yards, receptions, and touchdowns, Kendal Brown. A two-time All-SAC second team member, Brown’s 2001 and 2002 campaigns were both among the top ten season-best receiving yard numbers. Along with Brown, Derrick Higgins will not play this season after setting two school records in his freshman campaign. Nonetheless, the Indians are still well-stocked in quality receivers, and the group will be supplemented well by newcomers.
Tymere Zimmerman was the premiere receiver in last year’s offense and will be featured again in 2004. The Bennettsville, S.C. native caught eight touchdowns in 2003, tying a single-season record. His 771 receiving yards was good for the third-best season in school history. Zimmerman was honored with a spot on the 2003 All-SAC second team, and another season like the last will surely land him on the first team and set more Newberry records.
Junior LaBarge returns for his senior season after catching 31 balls for 315 yards and two TDs as a junior. Expected to play slot receiver, he can shift to tight end to give the offense a different look when needed.
Lining up opposite Zimmerman could be a number of players. A favorite list would start with Chris Wright, a 6’4”, 215-pound transfer from Division I-AA Murray State University. Wright’s speed and hands should keep the opposing secondary honest. Michael Williams transferred from Pikeville College in the spring 2004 semester, and his advantage is knowing the offensive scheme, having played under Willis in Kentucky. Charles Brandon and Antwan Surratt, former Shrine Bowl receivers, both had tremendous spring practices and either could start.
Matt Stephens, Corey Seawell, and Chris Robbs are very capable backup receivers who double as special teams players. The speedy trio will see time on the field in 2004.
Due to a patchwork O-line, Newberry’s rushing attack in 2003 came in the form of a scrambling quarterback more often than through designed running plays. The two signal callers finished first and fourth on the team’s rushing yardage list. The Tribe’s designated back, Mike Brown, gained 323 yards on 102 attempts and finished second in rushing. With these three not returning, the question is “who will run for Newberry?”
Gerard Jackson is the likely answer. A junior college transfer from Dodge City Community College, he was one of Florida high school’s all-time best running backs and a second-team All-American (NJCAA) at DCCC. As a freshman, Jackson led the nation’s junior college ranks with 145 yards per game, and came in fourth nationally as a sophomore with 144.6 a game. Jackson is a classic bruising back that will punish defenders with his power. His style will fit well in the one-back spread offense that Newberry looks to execute.
When the Indians want a change of pace, DeShon Roddell will step into the backfield. The redshirt sophomore played in all ten games last season, but carried only 30 times for 85 yards. He is the speed to Jackson’s power, and the duo should put balance into the Scarlet and Gray attack.
Titus Davis is the only true fullback on the squad. The redshirt junior will make room for the featured back when the Indians revert to an I-formation ball control offense. Alex Haynes, a 5’11” freshman from tradition-rich Summerville High School, will try to crack the starting lineup and should prove to be a force later if not sooner.
The new-for-2003 coaching staff inherited the worst defense in the South Atlantic Conference in both points allowed and yardage allowed. With nowhere to go but up, defensive coordinator Todd Knight took a harder stance: he presented the goal of having the best defense in South Carolina--all divisions, all conferences--and escaping the SAC basement.
While Newberry did not become the standard of defensive excellence in the Palmetto State, the “War Party” did escape the conference cellar. Still finishing in the lower half of the league in total defense and rushing defense, the Indians made a vast improvement in passing defense, jumping all the way to second. Three SAC teams gave up more points than Newberry, but the team will have to find a way to improve on the -8.1 point differential from 2003.
“We know that we’ll have to stop the run and prevent big plays,” Willis said of his defense. “For 2004, we look to present a multi-faceted defense to keep constant pressure on the other team.
“To do this, we need our secondary to step up. We will try to blitz more and keep the opponents on their heels.”
Good defense begins with controlling the line of scrimmage, and the coaching staff believes that this year’s crop of linemen have a chance to be really good.
Tony Ransom, a preseason All-SAC first teamer, will get his share of attention at defensive end. Fourth on the team in tackles (47) and team leader in sacks (5.0), his 12.5 tackles-for-loss made him sixth best in the South Atlantic last season.
Adam Scott, a redshirt junior, and Jonta Siebert, a sophomore, will rotate with Ransom to fill both end positions. The pair saw some time in 2003 backing up Robert Holley, who compiled 39 tackles (10 for loss) in his final season of eligibility.
Sosefo Mailangi looks to come back from offseason knee surgery to improve upon his 15-tackle initial campaign for the 2003 Indians. Kent Beauford and Gannon Mozeak will contend for time after watching last season from the sidelines as redshirt freshmen.
Newcomers on the line who will make contributions right away are Emil Gibson, a 6’4”, 275-pound tackle from Spartanburg by way of Hutchinson Community College, and David Harris, a true run stopper and power player who can swing from tackle to end. Coaches are high on Jonathan Breaux, a freshman from Charleston-area Stratford High School, and feel that he may have an immediate impact.
Newberry’s linebackers are to the defense what the receivers are to the offense: each group has an all-conference performer; each carried the brunt of the load on its respective side of the ball; each group is loaded with proven talent from top to bottom. Unlike the wide receivers, every starting linebacker returns from 2003.
No discussion of Indian linebacker greats would be complete without Terrance Leverett. The former high school quarterback has blossomed on the other side of scrimmage, leading the conference in tackles last season and earning a second-team All-SAC berth. His 112 tackles ranked him sixth in the nation and landed him spots on both the Daktronics All-South Region and Football Gazette All-South Region teams. Labeled a hard worker and overachiever by his coaches, TL was named team MVP at last year’s postseason banquet and is turning heads around the league as a preseason All-SAC first teamer.
Sharing the inside with Leverett is James Breland, an equally punishing run-stopper. The 6’2”, 240-pound junior was second on the 2003 team with 62 tackles. He forced a fumble and recovered two. Breland has the talent of an all-conference linebacker, and with offenses focused on Leverett, this could be Breland’s year to shine.
Gary Parker and Clayton Collins used redshirt seasons last year, but are expected to find playing time this year. Sherel Anderson, a fullback with 57 yards on 16 carries in last year’s campaign, will move to inside linebacker and exhibit his strength there.
The outside linebacker position should be as solid as the inside. Stephen Henry is an every-down guy who plays with reckless abandon. His combination of strength and speed helped account for his 37 tackles, five for loss, and two sacks in 2003.
Senior Charlie Miller was on his way to a solid 2003 campaign before going down to injury last season during the Tusculum game. He hopes to be back at full strength and should contend for the other starting job. Quinton McClain stepped up as a full-time starter and recorded 41 tackles, sixth on the squad, and was a part of five tackles for loss. McClain would have to be considered the favorite for the starting nod coming out of the spring, but Miller and Charlton Grant, a sophomore who moved from safety to linebacker in the spring, will challenge hard in fall reps.
After graduating every starter in the defensive backfield, this is Newberry’s question mark that the coaching staff hopes will become an exclamation point by season’s end. Todd Geter, one of the better cornerbacks in school history and two-time All-SAC cornerback, left some large shoes to fill. Safety Ray Cooper, Newberry’s third leading tackler in 2003, and right corner Jimmy Overstreet, a runningback-turned-defender, tied for second in pass breakups with five but are since departed.
Deonte Hundley is the most experienced Indian DB returning. Playing through injuries much of last season, coaches are expecting a true breakout year from the 6’0”, 180-pound junior. He led all Indians in pass breakups (six), made 21 tackles and picked one pass. Hundley comes out of the spring as Newberry’s #1 cover man.
Octavius Whiteside finished fourth among tacklers as a linebacker last season, and was voted preseason All-SAC on those merits. However, the junior will move to free safety to utilize his speed and open-field tackling ability. Whiteside brings defensive leadership to the field, and will also shine on special teams.
The man who could very well take Whiteside’s safety spot is Nick Habersham. Little used outside of special teams during five games last season, the 5’11” sophomore has come into his own during spring practice and appears ready to introduce himself to opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
A welcome surprise in the spring was Damien Simmons. A native of Charleston, Simmons transferred from East Tennessee State after its program was pulled in 2003. He is projected to start at corner opposite Hundley. One of the highest prospects at cornerback is Jonathan Lyles, a transfer from Appalachian State. Coaches are high on Lyles and feel that he could be an all-conference selection by season’s end.
Juniors Chad Grant and Donavin Fludd recorded 28 and 24 tackles, respectively, last season in spot duty, but both will challenge for more playing time this year. Fludd intercepted two passes last year, good for team best, while Grant picked off one pass and broke up another.
Other Indians who will contend for action are: Brian Rose, who had the best spring in terms of reaching potential; Anathan Gibson, who moved from corner to safety and is coming off injured reserve; and Cliff Crockett and Therin Puckett, both redshirt freshmen who looked good in the spring.
Second-team All-SAC punter Jeff Williams had the third-best season in Newberry history, averaging 41.9 yards per punt with a long boot of 73 yards, but 2003 was an “off-year” for Williams, according to the coaching staff. As a sophomore at Pikeville College, he led the NAIA ranks with a 44.2 yards per punt which earned him a spot on the NAIA All-American first team. With a successful senior season, Jeff Williams’ punts could float on Sunday afternoons as a professional in 2005.
Credit part of Williams’ high punting average to his special teams coverage. Jason Prior, a 6’0”, 180-pound junior, is the fastest man on defense, and he may catch as many of Williams’ punts as the opposition. Linebacker/safety Charlton Grant will line up on the other side of Prior and pressure the punt/kick return squad.
Handling Newberry’s return duties will likely be receivers Antwan Surratt, Michael Williams, and Zimmerman. Of the group, only Zimmerman returned kicks last year, netting 95 return yards, with the top two specialists from last year not playing in 2004. Charles Brandon and transfer Stanton Yarborough could get looks as the return man as well.
The Indians’ kicking job is wide open. Brian Moseley, who came on strong in the last half of 2003, is lost to graduation after missing two kicks all year. Moseley beat out Justin Freeman, who knocked down three field goal attempts and five extra point tries. Freeman can regain the kicking job with some consistency, but will be challenged by junior David Picone and newcomers Ryan Lukskis and Brian Sanchez.
Aside from the perennially-tough South Atlantic Conference opponents, the Indians will face challenges from a Division I opponent, local Division II neighbor North Greenville College, WVIAC-member Concord College, and a first-ever meeting with Webber International University in Orlando.
Carson-Newman College, Tusculum College, and Catawba College tied for the conference crown with 6-1 league records last season. All three opponents were nationally ranked at the time of their contests with Newberry, and the collective trio outscored the Indians 104-46. Willis knows that these teams will not lie down when his improved squad faces them this season, but he expects more competitive contests. Newberry hosts two of those teams this season, with the Carson-Newman game being held in Jefferson City. The Eagles have historically been the toughest opponent, and recent history is no different: C-N advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II playoffs last year, falling to North Alabama in the quarterfinals.
Webber, a NAIA institution, finished its initial season 3-7 and lost to Presbyterian, the only common opponent of the Warriors and Indians, by a count of 57-10 in the third week of the season. The Indians fared only slightly better against the Blue Hose, scoring 14 points before giving up 42 unanswered.
Coastal Carolina, also playing its sophomore season of football, takes the northwest train to Newberry. In last year’s classic, the Chanticleers marched the length of the field and scored on their final drive to upend the Indians. One source quoted Willis as saying Coastal scheduled the Indians as “sacrificial lambs” to christen its new stadium. The Tribe was anything but sacrificial, and this year’s version could see the Chanticleers as the victims.
Perhaps North Greenville was taking a page from Coastal’s playbook in scheduling Newberry to attempt to christen a new stadium. The Crusaders will play their home opener against the Indians in Younts Stadium on September 11 in an attempt to get their first-ever win over the Scarlet and Gray. Adding to the intrigue is NGC-turned-Newberry-turned-NGC head coach Mike Taylor on the home sideline for North Greenville. North Greenville’s winningest football coach with a 32-3 record, Taylor managed only a 43-66 record in Newberry and was replaced by Zak Willis, the man he will face in Tigerville in September.
Concord College could be a non-conference challenge in ‘04. Coming off a three-win season themselves, the Mountain Lions will be hungry for a win in the early going. Newberry has handled Concord with relative ease historically, going 5-1 all-time, but comparing teams from 30 years ago does little to predict an outcome this season. Lenoir-Rhyne was the only common opponent in 2004; Newberry edged the Bears 10-7, while Concord was edged 27-21.
The remaining four conference opponents should battle closely with the Indians. Mars Hill was an overtime winner over the Tribe, and Presbyterian took advantage of four Indian turnovers to turn a close contest into a rout. Newberry squeaked by Wingate, 32-31, as the clock expired, and recaptured the Bishops Trophy from Lenoir-Rhyne with a 10-7 home win. The league coaches picked this group plus Newberry to finish fourth through eighth in the preseason poll, but Newberry’s staff expects the Indians to sit among the top half of the league at season’s end.