Despite the addition of 70 incoming freshmen, little has changed. The team, entering its second season, was composed almost entirely of true and redshirt freshman in 2013, and linebacker Jared Johnson will be the program’s first and only senior in 2014.
Coach Danny Cronic said there are a few freshmen who will be able to compete for playing time this fall, but in most cases, the upperclassmen are simply in better physical shape and have an advantage when it comes to knowing Reinhardt’s system.
“There is no question that the returning guys work harder than the guys that are coming in,” Cronic said.
A few faces from 2013 will be missing, including offensive line coach Reggie Perkins and defensive coordinator Steve Wilson. James Miller, who played at Virginia Tech and has held several coaching positions, including his more recent post at Clark Atlanta, is stepping in for Perkins, while Adam Carter replaced Wilson in January and was with the team through spring workouts.
Several players, including kicker Andrew Wilder, tight end Bolden Davis and cornerback Travis Nunley left the team, with at least two of the departures related to injuries.
Returning quarterbacks Ryan Thompson and Johnathon Chamblee are atop the depth chart at that position, while former Cherokee High School standout Dylan Haynes, who earned one start last season when both Thompson and Chamblee were injured, could also see time. Braden Nolan, a former Etowah standout who began his college career at Carson Newman, has to pass a few summer school classes to maintain his eligibility in the fall.
Nolan isn’t the only player in class this summer. Cronic said defensive end Tevin McCoy and running backs P.J. Green and Deonte Dennis are also taking classes, as are some incoming freshmen.
Cronic said one of the key differences between football on the NCAA Division I and NAIA levels is that players don’t stay on campus for the summer at the lower levels of play.
“The thing that makes us different from the University of Georgia, for example, is they keep them in summer school,” Cronic said. “They work them out. We had five or six (players) up here this morning, but that’s it. There are another 140 out there that we are communicating with, but not seeing.
“If they aren’t fit when they come back in, we are going to struggle. You can’t get in shape in a little while. It’s a building process.”
With players such as Carl Edouard, Jeremy Morris and Justin Robinson battling injuries, others might earn a second chance to play. Brandon Cheatham, who struggled with his recovery from a torn rotator cuff in high school, could step in for Robinson, who served as Reinhardt’s long snapper last season, but tore his ACL during the spring and will miss the 2014 season.
Reinhardt is also short on punters, with Blayton Bethune the only one on the roster.
James Richardson, an incoming freshman running back from Brunswick, could see some time at running back after posting a 10.84-second time in the 100-meter dash at Georgia’s track and field state championships last month. Incoming freshman tight end Nate Holton may also contribute
Returning players who will resume their key roles this season include L.J. Stegall, who led Reinhardt with 17 touchdowns in 2013. Also back are leading receiver Aaron Kennedy, George Hiteshew, Sharrod Pittman, Sam Jones, A.J. Thomas, Chas Pierce, Adrian Hays, Jaylen Dodd, Adrian Hays and Clay Swint.
Joining the program this year will be a handful of Cherokee County products. Creekview’s Hunter Wingfield (quarterback) and Logan Ridings (linebacker), Sequoyah’s Jake Garner (running back) and Cherokee’s Logan Witherow (lineman) will arrive on campus Aug. 2 with the other incoming freshman. Returning players will arrive a day later.
Many of the incoming players will be part of Reinhardt’s scout team as they train to be bigger and stronger.
Cronic said the importance of scout teams at the college level is much greater than it is in high school. Many of the players who won’t suit up on Saturdays will have key roles in preparing the starters for their opponents.
“Sometimes, in our recruiting, we see someone who would be a good scout team player,” Cronic said. “If he progresses and proves himself, then we will raid that scout team for a guy to start, or at least play in the game, but they have to be good.”
One area of need for Reinhardt is at defensive end. Cronic said a few freshmen could get playing time there because of the lack of depth. McCoy, one of the players taking summer classes, leads the depth chart at this time, but that would change if he doesn’t pass his classes.
“I think Javier Dyer and Phillip Leconte can hold us down right there, and we are going to a three-man front, so that meant we took two defensive tackles and combined them into one position, so we have depth there,” Cronic said. “But defensive end, we are still a little concerned about.”
Because the defense is shifting from two linebackers to three, Cronic said he tried to bring in some extra players at that position. Montre Merritt, Brandon Houston and Dustin Jackson are three players who could see time as freshman.
Nick Lawson, Sharrod Mitchell, Sawyer Woodworth and Rashawn McMath could see increased time on the offensive line.
“The depth is not what we would like to have upfront,” Cronic said. “At the college level, everybody is better and more mature, so injuries that prevent a guy from playing at his best are more devastating. We have got to have the depth.”
Still, Cronic said his players, as a whole, are in better shape now than they were a year ago.
“They have more depth and more understanding,” he said.