JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – No. 17 Carson-Newman (0-0) hasn't touched a football field for in game action in 279 days. The Eagles look to begin a stretch of 107 days where they play each weekend when they open Thursday night at 7 against Wayne State (0-0).
The GLIAC's Warriors are receiving votes in the first AFCA coaches' poll.
"They'll be a great challenge to us that's big and physical," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "It's always the Grand Valleys, the Saginaw Valleys, the Wayne States. That conference has a reputation for sending someone to play for the national championship. In the past, we haven't fared well against teams like that from that league. We've got our hands full."
Wayne State is two years removed from a trip to the Division II National Championship game and a runner-up finish to Pittsburg State. But much has changed for 10th-year Wayne State head man Paul Winters' Warriors.
Wayne State lost 21 seniors from that 2011 club and an additional 11 starters from last year's 5-5 team. That record should be taken with a grain of salt. The Warriors play an outrageously tough schedule as members of the GLIAC. They faced five teams last year that spent time ranked or receiving votes and went 2-3 against those teams.
Challenge number one on improving on that 5-5 mark is to find a signal caller to fill the shoes of 44-game starter and record-setting quarterback Mickey Mohner. Mohner owns the WSU records for completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, passing efficiency rating, average yards per pass attempt and total offense per play.
The Warriors have tabbed Carl Roscoe to fill Mohner's void. Roscoe finished the year 15-for-27 through the with a touchdown and 133 yards.
"We thought (Roscoe) was a pretty good player when he substituted for him was solid," Sparks said. "In some ways we thought he might have been better. If you have a four-year starter, you've probably got someone behind him who's developed pretty well."
While the Warriors' quarterbacking situation isn't set in stone, the rest of the skill positions are. Back are running backs Tony Davis and Desmond Martin, who combined for 1,336 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns in the Warriors pro-style offense. Davis enters the year with 3,190 yards rushing and 44 touchdowns, third and second, respectively, in the WSU record books.
The Warriors also return an All-GLIAC pick at receiver in Dominique Maybanks, who snatched 36 passes for 411 yards to lead the team last year. However, WSU only returns two starters on the line in junior Thom Box at center and Ben Walker at tackle.
While the Warriors did have experience last year, the offense struggled in spots, averaging 315 yards a game (129 out of 156 Division II teams nationally). Despite low yardage numbers, WSU took spectacular care of the ball. The Warriors only turned it over 10 times last year, tops in the nation.
While the offense had moments where it faltered, the defense was particularly sound.
Wayne State ranked ninth in the nation in passing defense, allowing 165 yards per game. However, it's unlikely that comes into play against Carson-Newman's veer-option, which led the nation last year in yards per game on the ground at 378.
The Warriors were not as sound against the run, giving up 210 yards per game. Yet, the Warriors D should be much improved. WSU returns five starters including All-GLIAC picks Ed Viverette (LB), Gerren DuHart (CB) and Andrew Matt (DE). Viverette led the Warriors with 100 stops last year. Also back is third-leading tackler Steve O'Shell and Nores Fradi, who made 8.5 sacks during that 2011 run to the title game, but had to sit out much of last year with injuries.
Part of Carson-Newman's challenge in preparing for 2013 has been doing so with a shortened camp. The Eagles only had a week of practice before classes started, in apposition to Wayne State who began school a week later but broke camp at the same time.
"We've taxed our system strongly within NCAA regulations to be prepared for this game because of the shortened camp," Sparks said. "We've had to be careful with what we ask them to do because of fatigue."
De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) will be C-N's opening day starter after seeing mop up duty spelling Brandon Haywood last year.
He'll work with a bevy of talented running backs in preseason All-American Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.), preseason All-SAC pick Tyron Douglas (Clover, S.C.) and Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.). Preseason All-American Alex Taylor (Bristol, Tenn.) and preseason first team All-SAC selection Robby Ignagni (Gallatin, Tenn.) bolster the offensive line.
"Everyone in the country is undefeated," Sparks said. "So it's always exciting to get ready for that first ball game. I hope we've got the personality to generate some heart power for the Lord."
Coverage for the contest is available on the Eagle Sports Network beginning at 6 p.m. with the Tailgate Show. It will mark the first high definition webstream in Carson-Newman athletics history. The stream is available at cneagles.com/live. Radio coverage is available on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville) and 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville).