VIDEO: Mike Clowney Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – This is the sixth part in an eight-part series chronicling each of Carson-Newman football's positions for 2018. This breakdown highlights the Eagles' running backs with assistance from associate head coach Mike Clowney.
On paper, one might look at the fact that Carson-Newman loses more than half of its rushing yards plus a 1,000-yard, All-SAC rusher in Jared Dillingham and think that this is a rebuilding year for the Eagles' backfield.
That is likely far from being the case. The Eagles get 2017 game-one starters and preseason All-SAC selections Antonio Wimbush (Kingsland, Ga.) and Marcus Williams (Apopka, Fla.) back from season-ending ACL tears.
"It's been a little frustrating for Marcus," Clowney said with a chuckle. "He's in the same category with Antonio. He's doing the same stuff as him, but he's a little further behind, not that Marcus has done anything wrong, but Antonio is just a freak. Marcus looks really good though. We've got to tweak a few things with stance and step to get him fully back to normal, but he's close."
Wimbush earned first team All-SAC honors from the SAC. Rushed for 149 yards in two games in an injury-shortened junior campaign. He took a medical redshirt. He rushed for 118 yards on 15 carries in the opener against Pikeville for his fifth straight 100-yard rushing performance. He also scored three touchdowns against the Bears. He went down with his season-ending injury the next week against Saint Augustine's.
As a sophomore in 2016, Wimbush piled up 941 yards rushing and nine touchdowns to lead the Eagles' veer-option attack. The sophomore tallied four 100-yard rushing performances on the year, including a career best 148 yards in the opener against Humboldt State. Wimbush closed the season with three straight 100-yard games against Limestone (10/29), North Greenville (11/5) and Tusculum (11/12).
"To watch him coming off of that knee has been phenomenal," Clowney said. "He's Antonio Wimbush. That's how we think of it. He comes in, works and does everything the right way. He has done everything in rehab he can possibly do to get to this point. He may look better than he did when he got hurt."
"It speaks to his heart. He wants to do everything he can to honor God in everything he does. He really struggled with the injury because he wanted to play and be involved. Instead of pouting about it, he figured out a way to make it work."
Meanwhile, Williams appeared in three games with three starts at running back for the Eagles before going down with a knee injury. He rushed 26 times for 127 yards and two scores. He had 10 carries for 44 yards against Saint Augustine's and 10 carries for 46 yards against Wingate in week three before going down for the year with his injury. Williams' two touchdowns came in week one against Pikeville.
When Wimbush and Williams went down, it was Demitri Saulsberry (St. Mary's, Ga.) who helped fill the void. The senior could again factor prominently into the rushing attack.
The man affectionately known as Steak Sauce finished the year fourth on the team in rushing with 294 yards on 56 carries. He found the end zone twice. Saulsberry's coming out party came against Catawba in week five when he tallied a career-high 86 yards on 17 carries. He also found the end zone onf a career-lone 39-yard run. Saulsberry scored his other touchdown the week prior against Newberry. He averaged 29.4 yards per game on the ground.
Clowney said he expects sophomores Drake McCown (Dalton, Ga.) and Sherron Jackson (Miami, Fla.) to make an addition push for playing time.
"Drake and Sherron we really felt like were on the edge last year," Clowney said. "They were guys that we wanted to get more reps last year, and it never really worked out. That was frustrating for them, but they handled it well. They've competed through spring and the summer to get themselves off the fringe and into the lineup.
Jackson carried the ball eight times for 37 yards. Seven of those carries and 36 of those yards came in the regular season finale against UNC Pembroke. McCown carried the ball five times for 13 yards as a reserve running back.
The room is stocked with youthful talent as well. Troy Dendy (Laurens, S.C.), Toot Johnson (Rincon, Ga.), Hunter Davenport (Elizabethton, Tenn.), Malcolm Hogue (Oakman, Ala.), Michael Paul (Bonifay, Fla.) and Bryan Payne (Memphis, Tenn.) could all make a push for playing time in their first seasons on campus.
"The two that are a little further along are Troy Dendy and Toot Johnson," Clowney said. "They both have good size and explosive speed. Those will give them a chance. For being young, they don't show that they will crumble under pressure. They respond well to running with the first group when they do, they just go and respond to the situation."
Johnson makes his way to Mossy Creek after playing for Buddy Holder at Effingham County High School. He rushed for 2,165 yards for the Rebels and scored 28 touchdowns. Johnson was named the MVP in the Blitz Border Bowl Game and won WJCL's Big 22 Award. He earned first team all-region honors two straight years. A two-sport athlete, Johnson also ran track in high school. He is Effingham County's record-holder for the 100 and 200 meters.
Dendy was a 1,000-yard rusher at Laurens where he also played basketball and ran track. He earned all-conference and all-region honors.
Carson-Newman football position previews continue Wednesday with the linebackers.