JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the fourth in an 11-part series chronicling each of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2013 season. Today's feature closes out the month of September with Catawba. The Indians come to Jeff City Sept. 28.
Catawba returns a hearty chunk – 14 starters – from last year's 4-7 club. However, for the first time in more than a decade, Chip Hester won't be roaming the Indians' sideline. The 11-year head coach resigned following the season to accept another position with the institution as director of athletic development.
In his place is Curtis Walker, the former defensive coordinator for Western Carolina and Coastal Carolina. Walker graduated from Catawba in 1992 as a three time All-American linebacker. He was inducted into the SAC Hall of Fame in 2007.
Walker will utilize the same schemes as Hester, opting to go with a pro-I set on offense and 4-3 alignment on defense.
Catawba has solid components in place on offense, led by quarterback B.J. Sherrill. As a redshirt freshman, Sherrill completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,986 yards. His top target all-SAC candidate Nate Charest also returns after a 52-catch, 588-yard, five-touchdown season. The Indians' rushing game represents the lone unknown quantity on offense; Sherrill is the leading returning rusher with 110 yards to his name in his opening season in Salisbury.
One could argue that Catawba had a quarterback who was entrenched in the form of Sherrill. Enter Danny O'Brien.
The 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year, O'Brien transfers to Catawba following stops at Maryland and, most recently, Wisconsin.
O'Brien, who passed for 4,086 yards and 29 touchdowns in 22 games for the Terps, immediately became Wisconsin's opening-week starter but was quickly relegated into backup duties thanks to turnover issues. He played seven games, starting three and passing for 523 yards and three touchdowns for the Badgers.
Regardless of who Walker goes with in his first year as head coach, Catawba has a pair of solid options at QB.
Defensively, the Indians return numbers – five starters to be exact – but the quality of player lost will be tough to recover from. Opposing SAC offenses will no longer have to deal with All-American linebacker and SAC co-defensive player of the year Cory Johnson, nor All-American defensive back and current Buffalo Bill Jumal Rolle.
That's not to say the cupboard is bare. All-SAC cornerback and sensational return specialist L.J. McCray is back for his senior season after picking off a pair of passes and making 79 stops in 2012. The Indians' also return 6-3, 222-pound junior linebacker Jason Taylor, who had 83 stops last season.
The Indians had a bend-don't-break style last year. Catawba ranked in the bottom 50 nationally in yards allowed, but in the top 60 in terms of scoring defense. Improvement for the unit could come in getting opponents off the field. The Indians allowed a 46 percent third down conversion rate by opposing offenses, good for 144th out of 156 Division II teams.
Catawba can continue to hang its hat on its return game. The aforementioned McCray averaged a whopping 29.2 yards a return last year – eighth in the nation. He was one of two players to bring a kick back 60 yards on Carson-Newman's stingy S.W.A.G. kick return group (the other was Glenville State's D'Andre Johnson). On top of McCray's return game deftness, Charest will return punts for the Indians. He was the only player last year to gain more than 20 yards on a punt return against the Eagles.
Carson-Newman has won five straight against Catawba after losing back-to-back in 2006 and 2007 (with a 55-49 loss to the Indians arguably derailing the Eagles playoff chances that year). Carson-Newman is averaging 40.2 points per game over that streak and has just one game (2008) where its offense has been held under 40.
The next installment of the Better Know an Opponent series features Mars Hill and will be available Friday morning.