WHO: Mars Hill at Western Carolina, Cullowhee, N.C. (E.J. Whitmire Stadium)
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 8:00 p.m.
OVERVIEW: Western Carolina will officially open the 2012 Southern Conference football season as the Catamounts host the Mars Hill Lions in a key non-conference game for both clubs entering the season.
For Western Carolina, it's the beginning of a new era. Mark Speir took over as head coach of the Catamounts' program, which has been mired in a slump since its last break-even season in 2005. In fact, the Catamounts have posted an 11-56 overall record and a paltry 3-43 Southern Conference mark since then.
Catamount fans hope the new coaching staff—former Appalachian State coaches—and players will be enough to see the return of a winning mentality in the Catamount Gap in the very near future.
Mars Hill comes into the contest looking to knock off its Western North Carolina mountain rival for the first time since the 1945 campaign, which saw the Lions pick up a 25-0 win in Cullowhee.
The Catamounts come into the matchup against the Lions having won 13-consecutive games dating back to that meeting in '45. It will mark the 20th meeting between the two, with WCU holding a 13-5-1 overall series edge.
Mars Hill enters the matchup coming off a solid 2011 campaign. Veteran head coach Tim Clifton's Lions produced an 8-3 overall mark, including a 6-1 mark in the South Atlantic Conference and a Division II playoff appearance. The Lions, who tied for the SAC title last season, bring a team of veterans to Cullowhee capable of pulling off the unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Western Carolina is coming off a 1-10 campaign with the Catamounts' only win being a 52-31 victory over these same Lions in the 2011 home opener at Whitmire Stadium. The Catamounts, of course, failed to win a Southern Conference contest in 2011.
Mars Hill was picked to finish second in the SAC by coaches and media at the preseason media day, while Speir's Catamounts were not surprisingly picked to finish last at the 2012 Southern Conference media last month.
Western Carolina is coming off a 2011 season that saw it perform inconsistently on the offensive side of the football.
Under the direction of Speir, the Catamounts will utilize a spread offense much akin to the one Speir and most of his offensive staff were familiar with during their days at Appalachian State.
The Catamounts welcome the return of eight starters from an offense that ranked ninth in the SoCon in scoring offense (22.0 PPG), eighth in rushing offense (115.9 YPG), third in passing offense (227.7 YPG) and seventh in total offense (343.6 YPG).
Set to step in and lead the new, the revamped WCU spread offense will feature true freshman Troy Mitchell, who has been impressive in the short time that he has been running the Catamount offense. He has already unseated Marshall transfer Eddie Sullivan for the starting job, although Sullivan could and likely will see action Thursday night.
Mitchell and Sullivan will have one of the top receiving corps to throw to in the Southern Conference this season, led by the return of last year's three top pass-catchers: Jacoby Mitchell (39 rec, 441 yds, 5 TDs, 11.3 YPR), Deja Alexander (35 rec, 459 yds, 1 TD, 13.1 YPR) and Gary Green (29 rec, 345 yds, 3 TDs, 11.9 YPR).
The leaders of the unit will be Alexander and Mitchell, who have the best opportunity to garner All-SoCon accolades for the Catamounts on the offensive side of the football. Alexander hauled in a season-high eight passes for 143 yards in a road loss to top-ranked Georgia Southern.
Mitchell has plenty of speed and will be the deep threat for the Catamounts.
The senior had one of his best performances against Mars Hill last season and the Lions saw first-hand the kind of speed that Mitchell possessed. He had three TD catches, including a career-long 75-yard scoring reception, and 103 total yards receiving on three catches in the 52-31 win. He had his top performance of the season against Wofford, hauling in seven passes for 144 yards in a home loss to the Terriers.
One area in which the Catamounts have struggled over the past few seasons has been the ground game, but there will be no shortage of talent in Speir's backfield. Returning veterans include Michael Johnson (88 rush att, 274 yds, 2 TDs, 3.1 YPC), Michael Vaughn (96 rush att, 317 yds, 2 TDs, 3.3 YPC) and Shaun Warren (91 rush att, 454 yds, 5 TDs, 5.0 YPC) all returning to the Catamount backfield.
Johnson, who was the SoCon Freshman of the Year in 2009, has battled injuries throughout his career, but will likely find himself getting the lion's share of the carries. Vaughn and Warren, however, should get their fair share of carries, as all three backs are talented.
Johnson enters this season having rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs in his career, and he hopes to become WCU's first 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Fudge in 2006.
The key to the effectiveness of this offense is the ability of the offensive line to be on the same page, and to dictate the rhythm and cadence of the game with its ability to tire defenses with its athleticism.
The offensive line hasn't been a strength for the Catamounts for several years. However, the good news is that WCU returns four players with starting experience along its front. As well, Teddy Rhoney, who went down with a knee injury last season, should return right guard.
The key to the offensive front might be center Quevalas Murray and left tackle Wes Cook, who started 11 and 10 games, respectively. That duo, along with Rhoney, will be counted on for experience in 2012.
Mars Hill enters the season opener against the Catamounts returning six starters from an offense that ranked tops in the SAC in total offense (450.9 YPG), second in scoring offense (31.2 PPG), third in pass offense (211.9 YPG) and fourth in rushing offense (257.9 YPG).
Clifton's offense will be led once again by University of Georgia head coach Mark Richt's son, Jon Richt (157-of-290 passing, 1,899 yds, 18 TDs, 9 INTs, ). Richt turned in an outstanding 2011 season, which saw him garner First-Team All-SAC honors last season.
Richt had his top performance of the 2011 season in a 42-35 win over Wingate, as he finished the contest by completing 28-of-38 passes for 339 yds and four TDs, without throwing a pick. Against the Catamounts last fall, Richt connected on 11-of-33 passes for 105 yards in the 21-point loss.
Richt will have solid weapons at his disposal this fall at the skill positions, led by the return of his top two receiving threats. Leading the returnees will be All-SAC performer Dimitri Holmes (65 rec, 861 yds, 9 TDs, 13.2 YPR ), who was simply sensational in his freshman campaign.
Holmes has the kind of speed that allows him to get behind opposing defenses with ease at times, and great hands. He had his best performance of the season against Brevard in a 30-14 win, hauling in 11 passes for 148 yards and a TD. Against the Catamounts in 2011, he led the Lions in receiving with four catches for 54 yards.
Richt's other weapon at wide receiver heading into the opener against Western Carolina will be Josh Young (47 rec, 653 yds, 5 TDs, 13.9 YPR), who was the Lions' second-leading pass-catcher last season. Young is another sure-handed weapon in the passing attack for the Lions.
The ground attack for the Mars Hill will no longer be led by Jonas Randolph, last season's Harlon Hill Trophy winner, given to the top performer in Division II. Randolph rushed for an astounding 2,170 yards last season.
Set to take over the rushing responsibilities for the Lions is Shakiel Davis (44 rush att, 374 yds, 2 TDs, 8.5 YPC), who is set to take the responsibilities as the feature running back for the Lions.
The Lions will be good up front once again, returning Neal Dwyer to anchor the unit at right guard, as he enters the campaign as the veteran leader of the unit.
One area of concern when Speir took over in Cullowhee was the defense, with the Catamounts coming off one of the worst seasons defensively in program history.
Last fall, WCU ranked 119th out of 120 FCS teams in total defense (509.6 YPG), 120th in scoring defense (45.6 PPG), 120th in rushing defense (334.1 YPG) and 15th against the pass (175.5 YPG).
Six starters return on the defensive side of the football. Thus, the Catamounts, who will utilize a 4-2-5 defense this season, might find their strength in the defensive line.
Anchoring WCU's cast of four down linemen heading into the Thursday night opener will be junior defensive end Brian Johnson (29 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks), who could compete for postseason All-SoCon accolades. Johnson has good speed and power on the outside at the rush end.
The Catamounts also have one of the outstanding linebackers in the Southern Conference, returning Rock Williams (115 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR), who finished third in the SoCon in total tackles last fall.
Williams, a player who will compete for All-America honors, will team with another veteran in junior Courtland Carson (62 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 FRs). Carson—one of the better athletes on the defensive side—will start at the weakside LB on Thursday night.
The secondary is talented and it is the unit that carried the WCU defense last season. The Catamounts finished the season ranked No. 15 nationally in pass defense.
The leaders of the WCU defensive backfield will be spur safety Ace Clark (90 tackles, 1 FR), who will look to help a relatively young unit pick up where it left off last year. Keep an eye on true freshman Jaleel Lorquet at boundary CB, as he is one of the players touted to be a future star in the SoCon.
Mars Hill brings back nine starters on the defensive side of the football from a unit that completed the 2011 season ranking sixth in the SAC in total defense (390.8 YPG), sixth in scoring defense (31.5 PPG), third in pass defense (176.1 YPG) and seventh in rush defense (209.8 YPG).
Although the numbers weren't all that impressive on the defensive side of the football for the Lions, they did manage to top the league's season ledger in sacks, taking down opposing QBs on 25 occasions last season.
The Lions do, however, return some well-decorated performers on the defensive side of the football, including preseason All-America selections Troy Harris (87 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 9 sacks) at one defensive end and middle linebacker Rudy Cabral (106 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks), who led the team in tackles last fall.
In last year's matchup against WCU, the Lions allowed several big plays to what was an explosive WCU offense, and yielded 663 yards to WCU last fall. Those 663 yards by the WCU offense were easily the most on the 2011 campaign, and also the most in the history of the WCU football program.
There will no doubt be some nerves for Speir and the nine true freshmen expected to log action on Thursday night. But in the end, the Catamounts will settle down and utilize their superior speed at the skill positions to get the win going away.