JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the fourth in an 11-part series breaking down each of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2016 season. This feature breaks down the Eagles' SAC home opener against the Mars Hill Lions.
Mars Hill was an enigma wrapped in a riddle with a couple reverses and halfback passes thrown in for good measure last year. Tim Clifton's, now in his 23rd year with the program, club struggled at the outset of 2015 before finding its footing to rally and finish tied for second in the standings with Carson-Newman.
The Lions were able to accomplish what they did last year with a potent and balanced offense that grew stronger as the year went on. Mars Hill has the longest active win streak in the league at four games; in fact, the Lions are the only team in the conference who didn't end last season with a loss.
Mars Hill should be improved from last season with seven starters back on defense (albeit one lost to the Steelers in Johnny Maxey) and eight back on offense.
The Lions do lose all-world running back Shaq Davis and quarterback Matt Layman, but Tim Clifton still has plenty of offensive firepower on which to rely. Jamel Harbison is back for his final go around in the blue and yellow at running back. He carried the ball 758 yards on 175 carries for eight scores.
He'll take the ball from Austin Brown, a jitterbug of a quarterback who saw action against the Eagles last season, as well as six other games, after Layman went down with an injury.
Mars Hill's wide receivers are arguably the most talented position group in the league. The Lions return an All-American and the top receiver in the South Atlantic Conference in Keshaun Taylor. The junior amassed 1,183 yards on 79 catches to go with 10 touchdowns. He is far from Mars Hill's only threat. Gilbert Johnson is a 6-6, 200-pound target who snagged 42 passes for 826 yards and nine scores last year.
They ranked one and two in the league last year in terms of receiving touchdowns and one and three (forming a sandwich around Tusculum's Ken Funnye) for receiving yards per game. Taylor appears to be the next in a long line of exceptional Mars Hill wideouts, following Dimitri Holmes.
That offense moved quickly last year too. The Lions became the first program to ever run 100 plays against Carson-Newman.
Defensively, the Lions have some ground to gain for a unit that allowed 435.7 yards per game last season, second worst in the league in front of Brevard.
The Lions top returning tackler is Carl Mattox, whose 97 tackles registered as the top mark in the SAC last season.
The Better Know the Opponent series continues July 24 with Lenoir-Rhyne.