JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. - This is the third in an 11-part series breaking down each of Carson-Newman football's opponents for the 2016 season. This feature breaks down the Eagles' conference opener on the road at the defending South Atlantic Conference champions – the Catawba College Catawba Indians.
To say that Catawba is loaded defensively would be an understatement. Now in head coach Curtis Walker's third season as head coach, the Indians have quickly molded themselves into an image of their leader from his days as an All-American linebacker for the program in the 1980s.
The Indians won a SAC title in 2015 on the back of their defense. Catawba led the league in scoring defense, giving up but 15.2 points per game a year ago. They kept Carson-Newman's high octane offense to just seven points in the program's third win at Burke-Tarr Stadium since 1980.
That defense should be just as good if not better than last year's unit. AP Little All-America linebacker Kyle Kitchens leads nine returning starters.
Kitchens was the bailiwick for a unit that produced a league-high 29 sacks last season. The junior (yes he has two seasons left) accounted for 13 of those sacks, leading to his All-America honors in spite of being the team's fifth leading tackler last season. Oh, and Kitchens only had 23 tackles for loss, eighth nationally.
The Indians only lost Jonathan Jean, a capable, but not spectacular defensive end, and Mark McDaniel, a defensive back who picked off three passes last season.
So that means the Indians return their top six tacklers including all-league candidates Jamal Lackey (81 tackles with 12.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage), Michael Peppers (75 stops), Trey Evans (71 tackles) and CJ Barksdale (70 tackles).
The Indians also bring back their leader in interceptions and passes defensed, Case Woodard, a Carson-Newman transfer.
While the Indians' defense is overflowing with talent and skill, the offense looks for improvement. Five starters return from a unit that averaged 21.2 points per game a year ago. That's second from the bottom in the score-happy SAC.
The good news for the Indians is that a capable signal-caller in Mike Sheehan is back under center. He completed 60 percent of his passes last season in what was a run-centric offense last year. On top off that, he's more than capable to beat teams with his legs, accounting for 694 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.
The downside for Sheehan is that most of the key pieces around him are gone. The Indians lose their leading rusher in Cary Littlejohn and top two receivers in Gary Williams and Carlos Tarrats. Plus three of his best blockers, Tim Pangburn, Lewis McCormick and Tim Buck all graduate from the line.
The Better Know the Opponent series continues July 22 with Mars Hill.