What a difference a year makes.
After a three-win season in 2017, the Lenoir-Rhyne football team won 12 games a year ago to complete the biggest turnaround in all of Division II. The Bears finished 7-0 in South Atlantic Conference play and won two playoff games on their way to a No. 8 national ranking at season’s end.
At the helm of the Bears in 2018 was first-year head coach Drew Cronic, who was joined Monday afternoon by assistant coaches Bob Bodine, David Cole and Joel Taylor as they discussed the upcoming season during a press conference at L-R’s Neill McGeachy Sports Performance Center. After being selected by the College Football America Yearbook as the preseason No. 3 team, the Bears face much higher expectations than they did last season.
“Obviously a lot of things went right, probably snuck up on people a little,” said Cronic of last season. “I don’t think very many people were expecting us to have that good of a football team last year, so our challenge now is to continue to grow more in the right direction. We’ve had a great offseason, we’ve pushed the kids harder, but we’re not gonna sneak up on anybody.
“I think our kids understand that and I think they’re hungry to continue to prove things, to continue to prove that they belong, that they deserve getting the recognition and success that they’ve had,” he added. “… We’re a team now that is in a completely different position than we were a year ago, and we have to see if we can handle that.”
L-R had many question marks entering the 2018 season, but the quarterback position was not one of them. As a redshirt sophomore a year ago, Matthews native Grayson Willingham set the school record for touchdown passes in a season with 26 while finishing second in the SAC in passing yards (2,281) and passing efficiency (147.2).
“He really understood the offense going into last year, but nowhere near like he does this year,” said Bodine, L-R’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. “… And what that does for him is it allows him to feel like he can tell anybody on any part of the offense when they need to do something different or pick it up or change their work level.
“Everybody knows the dedication that he’s put in and it makes it to where they feel comfortable accepting his criticism, which I think is important,” he continued. “That quarterback position is so big; you’ve got to have the trust of everyone else. … So I think that his comfort level with his position and just everybody else knowing that this guy can do some special things if we can do our part around him.”
Other key returners for the Bears include offensive linemen Ronnie Clifton and Jason Poe. Clifton is back for his senior season, while Poe is a junior who was recently named to the CFAY’s Preseason Starting Lineup, the organization’s version of an All-American team.
“He’s undersized a little bit, but he makes up for it with great physical strength and explosiveness,” said Bodine of Poe. “He understands what we’re doing, he’s really dedicated to being a good football player. I wish I could say it was coaching, but we just kind of put him in a position and he does everything else.”
Senior safety Kyle Duggar was also named to the CFAY’s Preseason Starting Lineup after finishing second in the nation in punt return yardage (534) and third in punt returns for touchdowns (2). Defensively, he had 76 tackles (50 solo), three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
“To have him back there leading our secondary is tremendous,” said Cole, L-R’s associate head coach, special teams coordinator and secondary coach. “He’s a smart kid, probably one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around in 13 seasons of coaching football.
“As far as returns, he’s unbelievable,” he added. “You see a guy that big, you really don’t think of him as the typical punt returner. … But goodness gracious, he’s just a big ol’ truck back there with a V-8 hemi engine and he gets those shoulders north and south and he can really change a game for you.”
Returning to the Bears this year is Joel Taylor, who served as the team’s outside linebackers coach in 2009. Hired as L-R’s defensive coordinator/linebackers coach in January, he is looking forward to working with the likes of Duggar, senior linebackers Sherrod Williams and Clayton Horn and junior defensive tackle Dan Louba, among others.
“Those guys are really good players,” said Taylor. “It makes us really, really good coaches, I can tell you that right now. I’m excited about it.
“I always thought Hickory was a great town, I enjoyed Hickory when I was here in ’09 and that hasn’t changed,” he continued. “I enjoy myself here, I enjoy the people, I enjoy the administration, I enjoy the support staff and I enjoy the coaches. It’s been very, very welcoming. It’s been an easy transition, so I’m just excited about the outlook of Lenoir-Rhyne football.”
All told, L-R has 17 starters back from a year ago, continuity that should help the Bears in 2019. However, Cronic believes some newcomers will step up as well, just as they did last season.
“Having guys that play and play at a high level and play in big games, figure out a way to win big games, that’s something you can’t just give a freshman when he walks in,” said Cronic. “That takes time and it takes experience.
“But I do think that we’ve been able to have a great signing class and bring in some players,” he added. “I think our depth, especially defensively, is gonna be much improved. … I’m excited about watching us play defense this fall and I’m excited about watching how we grow.”
Adding to the Bears’ excitement is the fact that this will be the 100th season of L-R football.
“It’s really a neat deal,” said Cronic. “The first time I was a head coach I was the head coach at Reinhardt University (Georgia), we started football from scratch. There were no alumni, so it was different. This is a really unique place; our alumni are really passionate about their program.
“When you work for such good people and alumni and all that and they’re so good to you and want to help you be successful, you want to give them something that they can be proud of,” he continued. “… We’re really blessed and I think it’s great to be able to celebrate 100 years of football. I’m really proud of that and proud to be the head coach here while that’s going on.”
L-R begins its 100th season with a home game against Saint Augustine’s University on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m.