When you look at the Newberry College football roster, it has "repeat" written all over it. Even the coach admits it.
"The average person looks at the fact we lost (quarterback) Josh Stepp and (wide receiver) Tyrone Zimmerman," said Zak Willis, the coach of the defending South Atlantic Conference champion Indians. "They're kind of focused on that, and I'm not going to argue with them because I like to stay out of the limelight this time of year, anyway.
"But I think it's going to be hard not to be on people's radar screen. I do think we have a good chance to repeat."
That is the opinion of his peers ...... sort of. In the annual poll among the SAC coaches, Newberry and Carson-Newman split the vote. The Indians held a 4-3 edge in first-place votes, but behind the Eagles by a 44-43 margin.
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Newberry finished last season with an 11-2 record after a secondround loss in the Division II playoffs, its most productive season ever. But even with the championship in his pocket, Willis said the split vote is hardly a snub.
"If you compared it to the SEC of the '70s, Carson-Newman's Alabama and Ken Sparks is Bear Bryant, because he's the all-time winningest coach in Division II history," Willis said. "They are the team to beat year in and year out, and they should be."
Maybe not this year. The Indians have nine starters back each on both sides of the ball, and that includes consensus All-American offensive lineman Heath Benedict (6-foot-5 1/2, 330-pound senior) and 11 others who made the preseason all-conference list. One preseason publication picked Newberry as high as No. 13 nationally.
Eight Indians made the first team (four offense, four defense), and their 12 overall was more than either Catawba (11) or Carson-Newman (10).
Alex Haynes, the SAC's only 1,000-yard rusher last year, will lead the offensive effort. The SAC's most prolific tackler last year, linebacker Will Newell, and preseason all-conference picks Jonathan Breaux, Mike Grase and Derrell Mills, head the defense.
The quarterback job will be filled by one of two transfers, either Eric McCollom (Iowa) or Brandon Gantt (Middle Tennessee State), or maybe both.
Neither is the complete package that Stepp was, Willis says, but the two together give him something that he didn't have with Stepp: depth.
"This time around, we can be a little more aggressive with the quarterback running the ball on designed plays and in between the tackles," Willis said. "The thing we've got to find out is which one of these young men can do that -- if not both of them."
Reach McLaurin at (803) 240-3514.
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Coaches Preseason Poll 1. Carson-Newman (3) 2. Newberry (4) 3. Wingate 4. Catawba 5. Tusculum 6. Mars Hill 7. Lenoir-Rhyne First-place votes in parenthesis
First Team OFFENSE QB-Brad Roach, Catawba WR-Brent Johnson, Catawba WR-Jamichael Caldwell, Tusculum WR-Gary Tatum, Wingate RB-Jamelle Cuthbertson, Catawba RB-Alex Haynes, Newberry RB-Patrick King, Tusculum TE-Chris Conklin, Wingate OL-Greg Jones, Lenoir-Rhyne OL-Heath Benedict, Newberry OL-Marchant Faustin, Newberry OL-Manuel Dickson, Tusculum OL-Greg Keziah, Wingate PK-Ryan Lukshis, Newberry RS-Octavius Love, Tusculum DEFENSE DL-Ron Ellington, Catawba DL-Jonathan Breaux, Newberry DL-Adrian Samples, Tusculum DL-Kenwin Cummings, Wingate LB-Nathaniel Smith, Mars Hill LB-Will Newell, Newberry LB-Eric Rice, Carson-Newman
44 43 30 29 27 15 8 LB-Mike Grase, Newberry DB-Octavius Love, Tusculum DB-Derrell Mills, Newberry DB-Denares Waites, Carson-Newman DB-Rashawn Champion, Mars Hill P-John Gregory, Tusculum LS-Robby Kelly, Tusculum
Second Team OFFENSE QB-Alex Rouse, Carson-Newman WR-Reggie Hubbard, Carson-Newman WR-Demario Zachery, Mars Hill WR-Corey Seawell, Newberry RB-Buck Wakefield, Carson-Newman RB-Kory Fisher, Catawba RB-George Washington, Mars Hill TE-Shane Timmons, Catawba OL-Ross Shaffer, Carson-Newman OL-Jeff Weaver, Carson-Newman OL-Josh Sims, Mars Hill OL-Matt Lawrie, Tusculum OL-Daniel Yow, Catawba PK-J Gill, Catawba RS-Buck Wakefield, Carson-Newman DEFENSE DL-Anthony Toribio, Carson-Newman DL-James House, Catawba DL-Charles Chavous, Mars Hill DL-Devin Robinson, Newberry LB-Brian Brown, Carson-Newman LB-Joe Brown, Catawba LB-Stan Galbraith, Mars Hill LB-Bobby Floyd, Wingate DB-Thomas Presley, Catawba DB-Chima Okoro, Lenoir-Rhyne DB-Temarcus Thompson, Newberry DB-Tagon Richard, Tusculum P-Ryan Lukshis, Newberry LS-Andy McCall, Mars Hill