JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the fifth in an 11-part series chronicling each of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2013 season. Today's feature opens the month of October with Mars Hill. The Eagles visit the Lions Oct. 5.
Mars Hill brings just about everybody back from 2012's team that finished in a tie for second in the SAC standings with a 5-2 mark. Preseason All-American defensive end Troy Harris is back, as is 100-tackle performer Jasper Mason at linebacker. All told, 22 starters return from last year's club against seven graduating seniors.
While Mars Hill returns loads of experience, it does lose Jon Richt at quarterback. The veteran signal caller threw for 2,936 yards last year – 293 yards per game – and had 25 touchdowns. In fact, MHC does not return a quarterback who has attempted a pass as back up Jon Hoilman also exits the program.
Whoever fills Richt's shoes will have plenty of established players around him. Junior running back Shaikel Davis could follow up a solid sophomore campaign to push him closer to Jonas Randolph levels among the annals of great Lion tailbacks. He was second in the SAC in rushing (surpassed by the Eagles' Brandon Baker in the final weeks of the season) with 1,227 yards and five touchdowns.
Davis was a first team All-SAC selection last year, as was wide receiver Dimitri Holmes. The junior wide receiver was 15th in the nation in receiving with 71 catches for 997 yards. He and running mate Deunta Jennings each had 115 yards against C-N in their meeting last year. The duo combined for 14 touchdowns through the air last year.
The offensive line returns loads of experience too, with first team All-SAC performer Nick Allison leading the way.
Mars Hill was a bit Jekyll and Hyde when it came to defense last year. On one hand, there's the pass defense, which returns largely intact minus strong safety Michael Robinson, that was fifth in the nation in yards allowed at 158 yards a contest. But on the other hand there's the run defense that gave up 200 yards a game and ranked 138th out of 156 teams in Division II
Although to be fair, the Mars Hill d did have the Herculean task of facing the nation's number one and two rushing offenses in C-N and Lenoir-Rhyne in two of the final three weeks of the regular season. Those teams combined to rush for more than 800 yards on the Lions. Factor out those games and Mars Hill allows an average of 150 yards per game.
Regardless, the defense should be improved with the top three tacklers – the aforementioned Mason and Harris, plus Sammy Siasia – back. Mason and Harris were both thorns in the Eagles' wings in last year's games. Mason made an otherworldly 19 stops, while Harris accounted for 11. The Lions led the league in sacks last year with 25, a total that was 33rd nationally.
Carson-Newman leads the all-time series with the Lions 39-10, but the Eagles must win at the Ammons Family Athletic Center where Mars Hill was a perfect 4-0 last year and where the Lions spoiled Ken Sparks' first crack at 300 wins in 2011 with a 23-20 win over the Eagles. Carson-Newman is 4-2 on the road versus the Lions since 2001; three of those games were decided by a touchdown or less.
The next installment of the Better Know an Opponent series features Shorter and will be available Monday morning.