There is a new dynasty forming in western Carolina. No, it’s not the Panthers, it’s the Bears, of Lenoir-Rhyne University. LR has won the last four South Atlantic Conference Championships dating back to 2011 and has been to the NCAA Division II playoffs the last three years including an appearance in the 2013 National Championship game. The Bears would ultimately fall just short.
So how was this dynasty formed? How did a program with no winning seasons for 22 years end up with a 40-9 mark over the last four years? The answer could be from all the great talent heading to Hickory from Georgia. This fall the Bears will look to capture their fifth straight SAC title behind the tune of 30 players on the roster from the state of Georgia.
The turnaround started in 2010 under the direction of quarterback Major Herron, a Camden County product. Herron led the Bears to a 7-4 record, their first winning season since 1988, and finished his career fifth in all-time offense. The following year the Bears captured their first of four consecutive SAC titles.
In 2013 the Bears had a magical run to the NCAA Division II National Championship game behind three different starting quarterbacks throughout the year, including Teverrius Jones (Washington-Wilkes HS). Along the way they also set the all-time record for most rushing yards in a season for any division finishing the season with 5,563 yards and a 13-2 record. The backbone of the team was the Georgia-led defense.
Linebackers Tyler and Tanner Botts (Peachtree Ridge) were a cog up the middle starting at middle linebacker for 4 years. Tanner, a two time All-American, would finish his career with 385 tackles and was named the South Atlantic Conference and Super Region II Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. Seniors on that team Myer Nolan (Benjamin E. Mayes) and Michael Green (Camden County) locked down the secondary at safety. Both players were first team all-SAC and Green was named the 2013 SAC Defensive Player of the Year. Green also finished his career as the all-time leader in punt return yards. Adding to the Georgia led secondary was cornerback Joe Anderson (Parkview) a three-year starter who finished his career with 166 tackles and four interceptions. Anderson and Tanner Botts, 2014 seniors, have returned to the Lenoir-Rhyne football program as coaches for the 2015 season.
The 2015 Bears look to continue to be led by players from the state of Georgia after finishing last seaon unblemished in the regular season at 11-0. 5 of the 11 players from Lenoir-Rhyne named to the preseason All-conference list are from Georgia including 4 first teamers. Senior offensive lineman Dale Howard (Appling County) and Joe Ray (Druid Hills) were named to the first team. Ray, an All-American, has won the Jacobs Blocking trophy, awarded to the best lineman in the conference, the last two seasons. They along with Jacob Slagle (Northgate) will lead the powerful triple-option attack that averaged 416.2 rushing yards per game in 2014. Senior first teamer Michael Patrick (Frederick Douglas HS) is the team’s top returning rusher after finishing last season with 788 yards and nine touchdowns. He along with junior James Phillips (Carrollton Central HS) will spear head the rushing attack out of the backfield. They will need to fill the vacancy left by running back Chris Robinson (Newnan HS) who was the Bears first 1,000 yard rusher in 10 years finishing the season with 1,418 yards. The receiving corps will be led by junior Vic Brannan (McEachern) who was a second team All-conference preseason pick. Brannan finished 2014 with three touchdowns.
Defensively preseason first teamer Chris Green (Westover HS) returns at defensive tackle after a season where he finished with eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He will be joined on the defensive line by senior defensive end Placid Ajoku (Hillgrove). Ajoku was second on the Bears in sacks in 2014. Redshirt freshman Kyle Dugger (Whitewater HS) is expected to start at cornerback for the Bears and junior CJ Cody (McEachern) will contribute to the secondary after having one interception last year.
Georgia has been known to be a top three state in the country for its high school football talent and the coaching staff in Hickory, under the direction of second-year coach Ian Shields, has noticed. It has paid major dividends for the Bears as they attempt to “get one for the thumb” by winning their fifth straight South Atlantic Conference championship in 2015.
The Bears kick off the season at West Chester on September 3 at 6pm on ESPN3. Lenoir-Rhyne has been ranked in multiple polls as a Top 10 team in 2015.