UVa-Wise picked ninth in Preseason SAC poll

Published: Jul. 31, 2019 at 2:51 PM EDT
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UVa-Wise has been picked ninth in the 2019 SAC Football Preseason Coaches' Poll. The Cavaliers are entering their first season in the league after spending the previous six seasons in the Mountain East Conference.

Fourth-year Head Coach Dane Damron's team returns six starters on the defensive side of the ball following a 2018 campaign that saw the unit finish 19th nationally in total defense (302.6 yards per game).

The unit will be anchored by redshirt junior Marcus Tarrer who earned first-team all-conference and third-team all-region acclaim after leading UVa-Wise with 78 tackles last fall.

Lenoir-Rhyne was voted as the conference favorite in the poll; the Bears collected five first-place votes and 68 points in the poll.

The Bears took home their eight SAC Football Championship in program history in 2018, finishing the season with a record of 12-2 overall and 7-0 in conference. In addition to winning the SAC title, the Bears advanced to the third round of the NCAA Division II playoffs last season. Led by SAC and AFCA Coach of the Year, Drew Cronic, the Bears finished the season ranked No. 8 in the nation in the final AFCA Division II Coaches Poll and are a preseason No. 3 pick according to the 2019 College Football America Yearbook.

The Bears had one of the most potent offenses in all of Division II, as they ranked ninth in the nation in scoring (41.0 points per game) and tenth in the nation in rushing offense (268.1 yards per game). Quarterback Grayson Willingham returns to lead the offense after his record-breaking season in which he completed 26 touchdown passes, shattering the previous record of 18. Lenoir-Rhyne ranked fifth in the nation in first downs (316) and third in passing yards per completion (17.36).

The defensive side of the ball is equally as impressive, with the Bears finishing 2018 ranked second in DII in fumbles recovered (17) and interceptions (21). The 38 total takeaways also ranked second and the 46 total sacks placed the Bears fifth. The Lenoir-Rhyne defense didn't allow a single player to rush for 100 yards. Starting defenders Jaquan Artis and Sherrod Williams are among the top defensive returners. The duo combined for 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles and three interceptions in 2018.

At No. 2 in the poll was Wingate. The Bulldogs are coming off their second straight NCAA DII playoff appearance in 2018, finishing the season with a record of 9-4 overall and 5-2 in conference. Wingate closed out the 2018 season with a No. 24 ranking in the AFCA Division II Coaches Poll. The Bulldogs got it done on both sides of the ball in 2018, with the offense ranking second in the league in points per game (32.5) while the defense was second in the league in points allowed per game (20.1) and total yards allowed per game (311.5). Reigning SAC Offensive Freshman of the Year, Nijere Peoples will look to lead the Bulldog offensive in the backfield, while All-SAC and All-Region cornerback Davion Washington will lead the defense. Wingate will open the 2019 season as the No. 15 team in the nation according to the College Football America Yearbook.

Carson-Newman checks in at No. 3 in the 2019 preseason poll. The Eagles finished in a tie for third with Tusculum a year ago, closing out the season with a 7-4 record overall and a 4-3 mark in the SAC. Head coach Mike Turner and his staff will look to build on their 2018 campaign where the Eagles finished the season ranked third in the SAC in offense, scoring 32.4 points per game and rushing for a league leading 347.4 yards per game. That offense will be led by the 2018 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year, All-American, All-Region and All-SAC selection Antonio Wimbush and his conference leading 1,206 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

The Tusculum Pioneers came in at No. 4 in the preseason poll as they finished the 2018 season tied for third at 5-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play. Led by fourth-year head coach Jerry Odom, the Pioneers will return 17 players from last year's squad, including eight on the defensive side of the ball. The Pioneer defense, ranked second in the SAC last season allowing just 219 total points and 312.9 yards per game of offense, is led by SAC Defensive Freshman of the Year Nelson Louis. The defensive lineman totaled 53 tackles last season, including 11 for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble and a pass break-up.

Newberry landed at No. 5 in the preseason poll. The Wolves went 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the SAC during the 2018 season. Another top defensive team in the SAC, Newberry led the league allowing just 285 yards of offense per game and only 17.3 points per game. Six defensive starters return for the Wolves in 2019, including All-SAC defensive back David Vereen, who had 31 tackles, two interceptions and 13 pass break-ups a year ago.

At No. 6 in the poll was Catawba. The Catawba Indians finished the 2018 campaign with a 4-7 record, going 2-5 in the SAC. Returning to lead Catawba are 14 starters, including All-SAC selections Jeremiah Ferguson (LB), Cris Page (DB) and Will Sweeper (WR).

Coming in at No. 7 in the poll was Mars Hill. The Lions closed out the 2018 season with a record of 4-6 overall, going 3-4 in conference. They are led by returning consensus All-American Craig Rucker. The wide receiver finished the season ranked first in the conference in touchdowns (16), receiving yards (1,234), all-purpose yards (1,549), receiving yards per game (123.4) and receptions (82). He was also ranked in the top five in NCAA Division II in receiving yards per game (No. 1), receiving yards (No. 4), receptions per game (No. 5) and receiving touchdowns (No. 5).

Rounding out the poll at No. 8 was associate member Limestone and The University of Virginia's College at Wise (UVa-Wise) at No. 9.

The 2019 South Atlantic Conference football season gets underway on Thursday, Sept. 5 with Carson-Newman, Newberry, Tusculum and Wingate all in action. UVa-Wise begins the season Sept. 7 at home against Chowan University.