JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the ninth in an 11-part series chronicling each of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2013 season. Today's feature breaks down what has been touted as one of five Division II games to watch by the Sporting News in its preseason publication. It's Carson-Newman's battle with Lenoir-Rhyne - the only two teams from the SAC to make the NCAA Playoffs last year and to be featured among preseason rankings this year.
If preseason prognostications hold serve, this year's matchup should match the quality of last year's 38-35 Carson-Newman playoff victory. The contest will feature the top two rushing offenses in the nation from a year ago. The Eagles averaged a shade over 378 yards a game, while the Bears put up 376 yards a contest.
The Bears – much like the Eagles – return nearly everyone from that rushing attack. Jarrod Spears – the league's third leading rusher with 994 yards from last year – was a preseason first team All-SAC selection, while fullback Isaiah Whitaker and wing back Graham Duncan both made the preseason second team.
Together, they combined for 2,480 yards on the ground and 18 touchdowns. However, the Bears must find a replacement for quarterback Reuben Haynes. Teverrius Jones does have starting experience at the position, filling in for Haynes last year when he went down with an early season concussion.
However, Jones wasn't always sound running L-R's Bear Bone option attack. Troubles with the pitch led to five lost fumbles in the Bears' week three 47-23 loss to Carson-Newman. To be fair, that was Jones' first starting experience, he was far better in spot duty for the remainder of the season.
The offensive line undergoes a similar transition to what Carson-Newman is dealing with. The Bears lose Kaleb Myrick, the SAC's Jacobs Blocking Award winner and All-American, but return four starters across the line. Much like, Carson-Newman lost Jacobs Blocking Award winner Kevin Day and consensus All-American, but returns a starter at every other spot on the line.
The Bears do have to find a replacement for wide receiver Artis Gilmore, who had a catch for 19 yards in the playoff meeting between the two teams last year; however, Greyson Wells returns and should be able to fill the role with aplomb. He had four grabs for more than 100 yards in the first meeting last year.
Much like the Eagles, you know what to expect out of the Bears' offense and that's a dearth of an aerial assault. The Bears ran the ball 90 percent of the time last year.
Defensively, the Bears bring a boatload of talent back. L-R has three all-region performers back, including preseason All-American linebacker Tanner Botts. Safeties Myer Nolan and Michael Green were both all-region picks last year and made the league's preseason all-conference first team. Botts was the defense's leader with 113 stops. He ranked 34th in the nation with 5.07 solo stops a game.
Nolan and Green were both ballhawks, combining for 10 picks.
Together, they created a cacophony defensively, forcing a whopping 39 turnovers, fifth in the nation. The Bears intercepted 20 passes to go along with 19 fumbles recovered.
While the Bears to bring tons of talent back, that's not to say they didn't suffer heavy losses either. One-time SAC defensive player of the year Demetrius Green (no relation to Michael) exits the program after an otherworldly four-year career. He was second on the team with 106 tackles last season.
Also gone is Brandon Martin, an all-SAC choice at defensive tackle and the Bears' leader with 4.5 sacks.
Still, this is very much the same multiple defense look that was top 30 in the nation in rushing yards allowed, turnover margin, passes intercepted, fumbles forced and recovered, and red zone defense.
Carson-Newman had dominated the series under head coach Ken Sparks, winning 31 straight games against the Bears until 2010 when L-R worked out three decades of frustration with a 52-14 win and followed that with a 20-7 win in 2011. The Eagles countered L-R's first back-to-back wins in the series since 1977-78 by beating the SAC champs twice and knocking the Bears out of the NCAA playoffs.
The next installment of the Better Know an Opponent series features Newberry and will be available Monday morning.