NEWBERRY, S.C. - Hurricane Charley gave Newberry football a break on Sunday, Newberry College's annual football media day. Media and players were kept relatively cool by the cloud cover, and mostly dry as dark clouds did nothing more than drizzle intermittently.
While the 2004 Tribe was being photographed outside, head coach Zak Willis and local media sat down inside the Presidential Dining Room for a press conference where Willis handled questions about transfers, in-state players, and even last season's loss to Presbyterian in the Bronze Derby game.
On this season's overview: "We will be better than last year. It's a cliche, but it's true that we have 'nowhere to go but up'. One thing about Division II football is that you can get better at this level quickly. The kids' attitudes are great, and we're deeper, and what's better is that our best players are the youngest players. We've created our pre-conference schedule with games that we believe we can win, and winning those games will build confidence going into the [South Atlantic Conference schedule]."
On who will lead the offense at quarterback: "Josh Stepp, transfer from Furman, has been very impressive and has won the starting job. He's won the players over; the kids believe in him as a leader. When you think about some of the all-time great quarterbacks, they weren't always the greatest athletes as much as they could lead their team to victory on the field. Josh is very talented, but his greatest ability is to lead other people.
"Behind Josh, I'd have to say that John Snell from Hilton Head High School would be the backup if we had to play today. He's a true freshman so we're a little thin at quarterback if, God forbid, anything were to happen to Josh."
On East Tennessee State pickups: "We've got a couple of guys, one on offense, one on defense who should help us right away. Damien Simmons is a defensive back, a junior, and he's a starter. Stanton Yarborough is a wide receiver, and he would be second on the depth chart. In our offense, that second receiver is going to get a good bit of time because of the way we want to rotate guys."
On who will be kicking for Newberry: "Well, you know we lost Brian [Moseley]. Steven Stellfox from Chapin has transferred over from USC. He got to kickoff in the game against Virginia, but he wasn't asked to report to Carolina's camp. He wanted to be somewhere where he could play, and after we talked to the coaching staff over there, we felt like he would fit here. He has great kickoffs; in practice he can land them consistently inside the five [yard line].
"David Picone has really improved over the summer too. Ryan Lukskis from Dutch Fork is a freshman. He's a good placekicker and he can also back up Jeff [Williams] as punter."
On who will be in Newberry's backfield: "Gerard Jackson will really open up the running game for us. We like to zone block, and when you do that, you've got to have a back that won't go down with an arm tackle. If you can break a couple of arm tackles, you'll be really successful running the ball. We didn't have that last year, but we have that in Gerard.
"Two more guys who have really shown us something in camp are Alex Haynes and T.J. Smith. Alex is a freshman from Summerville and he played when they had that long winning streak. [Summerville head coach] John McKissick said that Alex was the hardest working player he had ever coached, so that's saying something coming from him. T.J. Smith was a late qualifier but got in. He's from East Lincoln High in Lincolnton and scored 42 touchdowns as a senior. We think we'll be good for a long time at running back."
On how the 2003 season ended vs. Presbyterian: Press: Was that game a motivating factor going into this season? Willis: "Sure it was. I don't think I've ever been as disappointed, or maybe ashamed, at the end of a ball game as I was that day. It literally took me a month to get over it. The kids recovered faster than I did, I believe; they're resilient.
"Our scheme was new last year, and frankly I think we caught several teams off guard because they didn't know how to defend what we were doing. Really, we played over our heads for nine games last year but had some success because we surprised people. Tommy Spangler deserves credit; I think he's the best coach in the league although he doesn't have the best athletes. He figured out how to stop us, pull guys off and blitz Mazi and double-cover our receivers.
"What was the biggest factor in me coming to grips with the loss was realizing that their fifth-year seniors beat our freshman. Some of our best players were freshmen and redshirt freshmen, and we were playing guys with three, four years of experience. Seniors will beat freshmen anyday. Take a team of [South] Carolina's freshmen, put them in a Division II schedule, and they'll only go 5-5. There's something to be said for experience."
On heavy in-state recruiting: After going through the roster highlighting some Columbia-area residents, Willis expanded the topic to cover the entire Palmetto State. "When I was up in Kentucky [at Pikeville College] and was interviewed for the position here, people said I shouldn't come to Newberry. People told me I was coming to a graveyard. President Zais is a tremendous leader who really backs the athletic program here and is committed to doing things the right way. Andy Carter is probably the most dynamic athletic director in the state. He's not only committed to the kids athletically and academically, but he's a committed Christian too. He's a man you can trust.
"I told people that I wanted to come home, that I wanted to come back to South Carolina. I recruited South Carolina kids up at Pikeville and I've always said that you can win with kids from South Carolina. I made up my mind I was going to prove it or get fired trying."