JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the third part in an 11-part series breaking down all of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2018 season. This feature has the low down on week three foe and defending SAC Champion Wingate.
Wingate is coming off a historic 2017 season, finishing 9-2 overall with a 6-1 record in league play. The Bulldogs got off to their best start in program history, winning their first nine games of the year.
Wingate was ranked as high as 12th in the AFCA top 25, the highest ranking in program history. However, the Bulldogs stumbled in November last year, dropping a regular season finale at Tusculum 25-17 that cost the Bulldogs the top seed in Super Region II. Then Wingate got blanked by eventual national runner-up West Florida 31-0 in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Bulldogs still have a good chunk of returners back from last year's team and have been ranked 24th in College Football Yearbook's preseason poll.
Wingate also has a little bit of history on its side when it comes to Mossy Creek on Sept. 15. The Eagles have lost six straight games to defending South Atlantic Conference champs (Lenoir-Rhyne twice in 2013, L-R again in 2014 and 2015, Catawba in 2016 and Newberry in 2017).
The Eagles are pushing to set a Burke-Tarr Stadium attendance record that Saturday in what will be the Eagles' first Saturday-night home game since 2003 when the Eagles thumped Guilford 41-0 on Sept. 6.
Gone are the Bulldogs top two options at running back, their starting quarterback and two starting offensive lineman.
However, the cupboard is far from bare for the Bulldogs, especially at running back.
Dom McNeill will try to fill the shoes of Blake Hayes and Lawrence Pittman, but he's already proved to be a thorn in the Eagles' side.
As a freshman, he caught a 33-yard wheel route to seal a win for the Bulldogs at Burke-Tarr Stadium in 2016.
"Dom McNeill comes back after missing most of last year with injury," Wingate head coach Joe Reich said. "He is very dynamic. After a great freshman season a couple years ago, looking forward to seeing him healthy this year. Ronnie Procopio comes out of the spring as the backup. And we're bringing in plenty of young talent there as well."
While there are question marks in the backfield, the Bulldogs are loaded at wide receiver in a group headlined by preseason All-SAC wideout BJ Muckelvene.
Muckelvene was one of the SAC's most dynamic players in 2017, earning All-America honors as a result.
He led the SAC in punt returns (23.7 yards per return) and punt return touchdowns (three, including one against Carson-Newman). Muckelvene also had 14 kick-off returns for 287 yards. Muckelvene caught 23 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing 16 times for 232 yards and one score.
"Our WR group is deep and talented with the obvious guy being BJ Muckelvene as the most recognizable guy," Reich said. "But then we have Bryan Mitchell, JT Stokes, Malik Bledsoe, Adam Riley and some very talented freshmen coming in as well. We will certainly be relying on that group as we break in a bunch of new faces at other spots. Last year we ran the ball 65 percent of the time, I imagine we will be a little more balanced this year."
Stokes earned a preseason All-SAC nod from the league. He finished second on the team with 24 catches, while also finishing second on the squad with 316 receiving yards. Stokes also had seven rushes for 59 yards and a touchdown. He had a season-long 67-yard reception in the Newberry win while notching back-to-back four-reception games against Limestone and Tusculum.
Who gets those players the football is marginally up for debate, but Reich does have a front runner after what happened in the spring.
"Shaw Crocker came out of the spring as the number one guy," Reich said. "He's made great strides running the offense. We're able to open up a little more of the playbook to him because of his talents. Jake Satterfield came out of spring as a close second. Jake has a great arm and tremendous talent. Either one of those guys can play for us. They have a great command of the playbook despite being younger and they've shown to have great leadership capability."
Defensively, the Bulldogs strength is in their secondary where All-SAC performer Kam Johnson doesn't register as the first guy that Reich mentions when asked about the unit.
"Very deep at safety with Joe Kelly coming back as a senior captain," Reich said. "Cam Mattison comes back off an injury. Davion Washington, Kam Johnson and others come back, so very talented there. At corner, Matt White returns at one corner spot and we have some other guys with experience. We also have a few really good freshmen coming in that we'll rely on to play some minutes."
Johnson ranked fourth on the team with 47 tackles in 2017, earning second team All-SAC honors. He collected 5.0 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Johnson added four passes defended, two break-ups and a pair of interceptions. He had seven tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception in the Mars Hill win, while collecting a tackle for loss and interception in the following game against Newberry.
All-SAC performer Cardell Rawlings returns to anchor the defensive line. He ranked second on the squad with 8.0 tackles for loss with a team-best 4.5 sacks on the year. Rawlings ranked in the top 10 in the league in both categories while also piling up a team-best 13 quarterback hurries to go along with two forced fumbles.
However, the Bulldogs will have to replace linebacker Zack Singleton and his 77 tackles and nine stops behind the line. Although, Robbie Wallace does return after registering 104 stops last year.
The All-SAC first teamer led the conference with 9.5 tackles per game and was the only player in the league with over 100 tackles. Wallace added 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks with four QB hurries and two forced fumbles. He also had seven passes defended, six breakups and an interception. Wallace collected double-digit tackles in seven of 11 contests, highlighted by a 15-tackle effort in the UNC Pembroke victory including a pair of tackles for loss.
The Better Know The Opponent series continues Saturday with a look a glimpse at Newberry.