NEWBERRY, S.C. - Spring football practice begins tomorrow on the campus of Newberry College, and following the first winning season at Newberry since 1998, the optimism and excitement is high among both players and coaches. Wednesday and Saturday practices will be open to the public, while other weekday practices will be closed. Wednesday’s session will begin at 3 p.m.
Indians head coach Zak Willis spoke to the importance of building on last year’s 5-4 record and third place finish in the South Atlantic Conference.
“This should be a most interesting spring practice,” Willis said earlier today. “We’re certainly excited about the coming season, and we’re anxious to see what the kids can do in the spring. In only three years, we’ve turned a one-win program into a winning program, and now we can’t accept anything less than great efforts from the players. The kids need to expect to play well and succeed.”
Starting on offense, quarterback Josh Stepp will not see action in the spring. Stepp will sit out spring drills while recovering from minor elective surgery to remove scar tissue from his throwing elbow. That could prove to benefit the three other quarterbacks in Newberry’s system: Jare Gault, Brent Copeland, and Citadel transfer Justin Knox.
Gault was the backup quarterback last season and should begin the spring session getting the most repetitions. The freshman played against Virginia Union and Mars Hill last season. Copeland used a redshirt season to adjust to the Indians’ offense and should be ready for competition.
Knox started five games for the Bulldogs in 2005 and saw action in six, completing 54 of 97 attempts for 364 yards and two touchdowns. Gaining experience against Division I teams such as Florida State and Ole Miss, and I-AA powers Furman and Georgia Southern, should prepare him for South Atlantic Conference competition quite well.
Considering the similarity between Knox’s background and former Newberry quarterback/receiver Mazzie Drummond as former Citadel quarterbacks, Willis noted that the comparison goes little farther than that.
“They are totally different styles of quarterbacks,” Willis stated. “Justin is a dropback passer, while Mazzie was more of a scrambler. Both are good athletes, and Justin is too good to sit on the bench. If it doesn’t look like he’ll challenge at quarterback, he will be on the field as a receiver or defensive back—we’ll use him somewhere.”
The Newberry coaching staff will audition a group of players for both of the spots opened up through the graduation of Zack Farr and Chase Bentley. Matt Baxley, Rob Brannan, Derrick Hines and Dustyn McElroy have each logged time at center throughout their careers, and all can vie for the starting job. The right guard position is open as well, although Brandon Jefferies would be the frontrunner. Trey Wells, Jonathan Dailey, and Brannan will compete for time on the line there.
While three starting receivers return from last year’s mix, several up-and-comers will challenge for Drummond’s slot receiver spot. Corey Seawell, Chuck Huger, and Eric Goode were named among others as young men who can step into the spot.
Both starting runningbacks, Deshon Rodell and Alex Haynes, will be back to compete for the top slot. Fullback Titus Davis was lost to graduation, and the position is wide open as there is no heir apparent at the “big back” position. Willis mentioned Hamilton Sims as a player who would compete with the backs for carries, or move to the slot receiver position.
The defensive line should be the “best and deepest” in Willis’ three years here. Only two from last season are gone, and with the current crop plus 2004 All-SAC first teamer Tony Ransom returning to the squad, this group will be something to watch. According to Willis, the D-line will be “four-deep, and they can all compete.”
While Terrance Leverett’s graduation left some big shoes to fill at middle linebacker, both Mike Grase and Will Newell have developed rapidly and figure to be the two inside backers going into 2006. Add to this pair returners like Brandon Clontz and Chris Reed, and former Pikeville College All-American Antonio Williams, and suddenly the linebacking corps looks as strong as ever. Eight outside linebackers with varying degrees of experience and playing time will create some interesting competition for the starting jobs.
In the secondary, youth will be served as Derrell Mills and Jeremy Bunch may come out of the spring as favorites at free safety. Clifford Crockett, Therin Puckett, Andre Moyd, and transfer J.R. Richard will push the returning cornerbacks for playing time—and for starting positions. “We’ll find out who the best is and who will have what it takes starting tomorrow,” Willis said.
On special teams, placekicker/punter Ryan Lukshis will start the spring with both jobs, but Matt Eckenroth is expected to challenge and possibly overtake Lukshis for punting duties. Brian Sanchez, who handled extra point duties in 2004, will push for the kicker spot after rehabbing an injured leg muscle.