I know my title refers to Reinhardt football, but I want to devote the first couple of paragraphs to Georgia State women’s basketball. It won’t take long.
The Panthers lost their only game of the week, a 73-42 thrashing at Georgia Tech. The big stat was the rebounds. The Jackets held a 62-33 edge and two players recorded double-doubles. Kennesha Nichols led Georgia State in scoring with 9, while Tiffany Holston grabbed 8 boards. GSU held an 8-7 lead, but Georgia Tech went on a 21-7 run and was never threatened. Ironically, Nichols also led the way the last time Georgia State played a Power 5 team, Penn State over Thanksgiving. That was a 62-49 loss.
Georgia State has one more Power 5 game left, Thursday at Alabama. It’s an early start, 12:30 ET. Alabama is undefeated at 7-0, surviving a scare against Kansas. The Jayhawks took the Tide to overtime before falling. Alabama is undersized, with only 1 player above six feet, freshman Ashley Knight. But they are athletic and quick, and score in transition off steals generated by ball hawking guards. Two other things to keep in mind. Georgia State has alternated wins and losses all season. The lever moves to the win column. The Panthers held a first quarter lead last year in Tuscaloosa. They won’t be intimidated.
On to Reinhardt. The Eagles march to the NAIA Championship ended a game short, a 42-24 defeat from St. Francis (IN). This school ended the Eagles run last year, so an early lesson is to make sure you stay on the opposite side of the bracket. But Reinhardt’s success can not be overlooked. The program has a 34-11 record in its’ fourth year of existence, and second year head coach Drew Cronic has a mark of 22-3. He picked up his second AFCA NAIA Region 1 Coach of the Year award.
Reinhardt ends 2016 with a 13-1 record and having scored 102 touchdowns, including 71 rushing. That’s over 7 a game and 5 rushing scores a game. The offensive output waned in the latter part, due to the grueling pace and the better competition, but this might never be matched. Coach Cronic now has to worry about graduation. His skill positions will be hit hard. Of those 71 rushing scores, only 24 return, and 10 receiving scores are back from 25 over the season. Mainstays of Saturday afternoons in Waleska, like LJ Stegall, Deonte Dennis, Tyler Bradley, Aaron Kennedy, Carl Edouard, and Caleb Faulkner are all gone.
The biggest hole is quarterback. Ryan Thompson threw for 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns, and he will be replaced by either Jay Ashley or Dylan Wiggins. They both played well in mop-up duty. Ashley has two scores. During spring practice, they will need to get acquainted with a first string offense that also will have new faces. Isaiah Blake will be the B back in the Wing-T, while Montralius Mosely looks to be the A. Sonny Harris tore an ACL last season, so his comeback will be monitored.
The leading returning wideout is Qua Stocks, who had 152 yards and 2 touchdowns. Andy Whisenant and Gordon Dudley will spell him. Tight end looks set with freshman Quant Williams. A concern coming into last season, the offensive line returns intact. The only senior will be center Xavier Carter.
On defense, leading tacklers Tyler Martin and Javier Dyer will graduate. Tevin McCoy, should be back to anchor the right end. He missed two years but came back strong, recording 71 tackles and 12.5 sacks. Jonquise Graves did well as the extra lineman in the 4-2-5 scheme that DC Tommy Scott went to in the middle of the year. Kareem Warren looks to inherit Lenard Robinson’s NT spot, and it looks to be Alex Gardner over at left end in place of Dyer.
The 4-2-5 was predicated by a shallow Martin-led linebacking corps. Jonathan Mathis had 48 tackles on the other end. The rising sophomore will need to be the leader in a talented but green group that includes Aaron Anderson and Dawson Mitchell. The corners and safeties will be hurt by the departure of Juice Arnold, Cam Gibson, and DJ Brown. It will be up to rising senior Marcus Miller to handle things from his rover position. But watch out for Taylor Hawkins. He had 3 picks last season as the Eagles had 18 as a staff.
For special teams, Harrison Jones looked like to the reliable kicker that Reinhardt has spent four years looking for. But he went down with an injury in the semis against Montana Tech. A full recovery should solve the one weakness of Reinhardt’s attack.
The Mid-South Conference will have a new look in 2017. The league will absorb Florida’s Sun Conference for a three-division, 20-team colossus. All three division champions will get NAIA playoff berths (if they are in the Top-20 of the of the final coaches’ poll). None of Reinhardt’s current rivals will migrate to the new division. So, no Lindsey Wilson. In fact, they only other team in the new Appalachian Division that had a winning record is Pikeville. The Bears went 6-5, but beat Georgetown in the last week, keeping the Tigers out of the tourney. Other teams are Union (5-6 last year), Univ. of the Cumberlands (4-6), Bluefield (1-10), and Point (3-6 in the Sun). The other team is St. Andrews, which will debut their program in 2017.
The new divisions are Appalachian, Bluegrass, and Sun. (That third division should be named Coast, so they could have an A,B,C framework – but no one asked me). In the Bluegrass, Georgetown and Lindsey Wilson look to be top teams, while Bethel could surprise the two. The Sun only has 6 teams, but will pick up a seventh when Keiser starts play in 2018. For now, it looks like Southeastern and Faulkner should fight for the title. Conference schedules will be released in a few months.
Reinhardt’s 2017 prospects look very bright. The road to the playoffs should only have a minor bump, but weaving their way in the postseason will be a challenge. The defense should be a strong suit. The Eagle D shut out 6th ranked Montana Tech in the second round. Technically, it was the second shutout in team history, but the first was against Cincinnati Christian in that program’s second game of existence, so maybe that should be discounted. The defense will have to perform at a similar level until the offense gets things figured out.
I’ll be back next week with a recap of Georgia State and Alabama, and anything else that strikes my fancy.