Todd Knight knew enough about the Newberry football team after this season’s opening loss to Florida Tech at home.
The Wolves had scored three touchdowns in the second quarter of that Sept. 3 game for a 21-21 tie at halftime. The Panthers won 42-28, but what the Wolves’ coach saw was a great season in the making.
“When you start off losing at home in front of everybody, it can get you down pretty quick,” said Knight, in his eighth year at Newberry. “But I pulled them together after that game and told them that I felt like we had a good shot at winning every game on our schedule if we protect the football. If we don’t turn it over, we can beat anybody.”
That’s just what Newberry (10-1) did. The Wolves lost nine fumbles and had 14 interceptions, but those turnovers didn’t hurt them. Newberry scored 26 rushing touchdowns and 29 passing touchdowns, to opponents’ 25 total passing and rushing scores.
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What Knight saw – and what he said his players believed after that fateful season opener – led to the Wolves posting a 7-0 South Atlantic Conference record that was good enough for its first outright conference championship in 10 years.
On Saturday, they take a No.2 seeding into their third NCAA Division II playoff appearance in four years, hosting No.7 Tuskegee Saturday at Setztler Field.
Leading Newberry is the team’s dual-threat quarterback Raleigh Yeldell. The 6-foot, 175-pound senior has a 158.5 efficiency rating, completing 260 of 370 passes for 27 touchdowns and 3,087 yards, with 11 picks. He also has 331 yards and six scores on 144 carries.
Yeldell, who was not made available for interviews this week, helped transform the season and earned the SAC Player of the Year honor.
“He pretty much rewrote the record books around here,” Knight said. :He’s a real dual-threat guy. Up until this year ,he hasn’t thrown it much, but I think he’s matured and has worked to get a command of the passing game.”
Yeldell’s receivers reaped the benefits. Markell Castle has 64 catches for 863 yards and six TDs, while Braxton Ivery has 54 catches for 605 and four TDs. Cole Watson (49 catches for 660), and tight end Baptiste Staggers (24 catches for 260) also have benefited. Tailback Romelo Doctor had 28 catches for 209 yards, in addition to his 631 yards and 10 scores on 144 carries.
Fifteen Newberry players were selected to the all-SAC first and second teams. Yeldell, Castle, Watson, and Staggers made the All SAC first-team offense, along with linemen Bobby McNeil and Tyler Stasky. Linemen Jimmy Holmes and Jamarcus Henderson, and linebacker Joe Blue had first-team defensive honors.
However, their opponent, the Golden Tigers (8-2), impress Knight, who was named the SAC Coach of the Year.
“They’re a really good team, a very fast, physical football team,” Knight said. “They’ve got a big 6-6 kid at quarterback (Kevin Lacey), some big offensive linemen who protect him, and he moves around a lot. They’ve got a 6-4 tight end (Leo Gilbert) and a 6-4 wide receiver (Javarrius Cheatham), and a linebacker (Quavon Taylor) as good as you’ll find.”
Knight added the seedings mean little after kickoff. Last season, Tuskegee had a low seeding, but beat SAC champ Catawba and reached the quarterfinals.
“I don’t want anybody to think that because they’re ranked seventh, they’re not as good as anybody else,” Knight said. “They’re a scary team. They’re a good football team, but at the end of the day, we are too.”
Who: No. 2 seed Newberry vs. No. 7 seed Tuskegee
When: 1 p.m., Saturday
Where: Setztler Field, Newberry