Success of 2005 may be hard to recapture for Catamount football

After finishing last year 5-4 and getting Coach Kent Briggs his first winning season in Cullowhee, the Western Carolina football team may have a hard time repeating the success of last year. With five of the six leading tacklers on the team gone, the Catamount’s standout defense will be reloading. It’s not that WCU does not have talent; according to the Sports Network, WCU has three of the best players at their positions in I-AA, but WCU also lost a lot of the established talent from last year. The Sports Network is predicting a 34th place finish overall and a fourth place finish in the SoCon. The talent is there for those goals, but this year is where the rubber meets the road. The SoCon will see if Coach Briggs has sufficiently stocked the cupboard to overcome the losses on the defensive side of the ball. Those losses begin with James Conklin, Lamar Barnes, Rico Reese, Primus Glover, and Francis Brown. Those players were outstanding on defense last year for the Cats, and losing them and defensive coordinator Jeff Collins will definitely hurt the team. Those five players combined for 264 tackles, four and a half sacks, and six interceptions. Those numbers and the leadership of those five seniors will be hard to replace. Up front the focus this year will be on Felipe Foster. Foster is one of the best I-AA defensive linemen in the country, according to the Sports Network. With two sacks and a blocked kick last year, Foster will look for bigger and better things this year and help anchor a line that returns three of four starters. Randy Birch and Corey Ellison return, but the loss of Reese is huge. Reese was outstanding last year and always seemed to come away with great momentum changing plays like his interception and return for a touchdown of a screen pass in the 41-21 upset of Furman. At linebacker the rollover is significantly higher as no starters return. Travis Hill has been an outstanding sub over the last two seasons and should be outstanding as a starter, but the loss of Conklin, Barnes, and Andre Hemphill is a major blow to the defense. The secondary returns Bruce Lee, Carlton Bailey, and Mitchell Dukes. The losses are still big, though, because Glover and Brown will be gone. With only five starters returning on defense, expect a major defensive drop. Last year the defense carried the offense, so any drop in the defense could prove detrimental to Western’s chances of improving on last year’s success. With that said, the offense is the key to this season. With many skilled players returning, the offense might actually reach their potential this season, but with a huge rollover on the offensive line, it might fly low again. Quarterback Justin Clarke returns this year, but after struggling most of last year, that isn’t necessarily a great thing. Clarke has the talent to be successful in the SoCon, but it must first click mentally. With Bennett Swygert returning from injury and Michael McQueeney pressing, Clarke will find it hard to hold the starting job if he plays at last year’s level. At running back, the Cats lose hard-nosed Lamont Reid, but with dynamic Darius Fudge, the Cats shouldn’t lose a step. Fudge is a very shifty back and just needs a crack of daylight to be gone. Fullback and tight end, while unsettled positions, should not be problems as there is plenty of talent at both spots. Wide receiver is once again a strong point of the team as J.C. Brown and Michael Hines return. Combine the return of Calvin Guinyard and a healthy Eddie Cohen, and the corps of wideouts may be the strongest position on the team. The offensive line historically has been the downfall of Western football teams as talent and toughness have just been hard to find. After losing all-SoCon performer Kevin McAlmont, the line could be a focal point for criticism again this year. Not only is McAlmont gone, but so are Wendell Singletary, Linden Ryan, and Luis Herron. That leaves only Marcus Thomas as a returning starter which is both good and bad-bad because there is no continuity, but good because face it, the line was not good last year and has not been good the past couple of years. If the line can mold together and actually play solid, then the offense could take off. Even with Clarke struggling at quarterback, a good line would help take pressure off his performance and allow the offense to really open up. This is the best scenario for the upcoming season. If the offense can come together behind Clarke, and if a new line and the defense does not slip too much, then Western could definitely challenge as a dark horse for the SoCon title. More should be known in August when practices begin. That is when the replacements will be figured out and the season’s outcome really molded.