UVa-Wise Football to take a new step for the program
When the Highland Cavaliers took the field Saturday for Media Day, coach Dane Damron, his staff and the student-athletes will embark on a new era at UVa-Wise. The Cavaliers will begin play in the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) after spending the last six seasons as members of the Mountain East Conference (MEC).
Fourth-year coach Damron's team overcame numerous injuries to play its best ball of the season down the stretch in 2018. UVa-Wise capped its MEC stay by knocking off perennial power Shepherd University in the season finale.
The Cavaliers are expected to rely heavily on its defense once again in 2019. A year ago, the unit finished top 25 nationally in six categories, including total defense where the team finished 19th by allowing 302.6 yards per game.
The strength of the unit came in its secondary where defensive back Marcus Tarrer earned first-team all-conference and third-team all-region acclaim after posting a team-leading 79 tackles last fall. Fellow defensive back Marquis Hamilton finished the season with a team-high 12 pass break ups while also tying for the team lead with three interceptions. Overall, opponents passed for just 168.1 yards per game in 2018 making the UVa-Wise pass defense number 18 in the country.
At linebacker, Buster Henderson returns after registering 10.5 tackles for loss as a junior last season. Henderson's 10.5 TFLs helped spur the Cavs to 9.9 stops behind the line of scrimmage per game. The number ranked third nationally and led the conference. Fellow linebackers Da'Jon Bellfield, Deandre Williams, Kreshawn Dikes and Veronta Jones are also experienced returners at the position.
Up front, senior Bryce Harty anchors the defensive line. A year ago, the Culpeper, Va. native made 7.5 of his 35 tackles behind the line of scrimmage while adding a trio of sacks and two forced fumbles. He'll be joined on the defensive front by Keishoen Jarrett, Michael Rowser, Chavon Fields, Joel Burges and Rondre Knowles-Tenner.
On offense, the team returns honorable mention all-conference left tackle Sage McBride along with four other starters on that side of the ball.
Quarterbacks Tanner Bernard and Garrett Cropp will join a cast of newcomers to determine playing time. Bernard completed 65.7 percent of his passes last fall while passing for 10 touchdowns. Cropp completed 3-of-4 passes before being injured and being lost for the season in the season opener. At receiver, Eli Marks, Matt Felton, Chris Pritchett and Jordan Jeter are returners at the position.
At running back, Terrance Lambert and Caleb Grant will battle for playing time. Lambert is a transfer from Troy University, he missed all of last season due to injury while Grant is a redshirt freshman from Woodbridge, Va
In the kicking game, senior Daryian Basco will compete with freshman Drew Vermillion for punting duties while competing with freshman Chase Droog for place kicking duties.
Picked ninth in the Preseason SAC Coaches' Poll, UVa-Wise will open the 2019 season at home on Sept. 7 against Chowan. Two weeks later, the school will play its first ever SAC game against Mars Hill at Smith Stadium.