A year ago, even those within the program thought the Eagles might go through their inaugural season without winning a game. But after a 6-4 finish, with a 4-1 record against Mid-South West Division opponents, the bar for the upcoming season is a lot higher.
Mid-South coaches voted Reinhardt as the preseason favorite to win its division.
“People tell you that you can’t be afraid, but I have found fear to be a very motivating factor for me,” Reinhardt coach Danny Cronic said. “But the psychology also goes the other way. They were thinking that we were going to play a bunch of freshmen and be easy, but that wasn’t the case.”
Cronic said it’s easier for a team to play as the underdog than with a target on its back.
“That’s the biggest difference right there,” he said.
There have been a few coaching changes.
Drew Cronic was promoted to assistant head coach, while retaining his role as offensive coordinator. Adam Carter was added to the staff as the defensive coordinator, while Tommy Scott is now the linebackers coach.
Returning to the coaching staff are Will Heath (receivers), Larry Prather (running backs), Quentin Moses (defensive line), Tom Tarquinio and Alex Derenthal (strength and conditioning).
Because Reinhardt is only in its second season, the majority of its players are returning. None graduated, though some left following injuries, academic issues or the financial cost of attending a private university limited by how much aid it can provide.
Among the notable departures were Travis Nunley, Shane McClesky, Jontrea Gunn and all-conference lineman Tevin McCoy.
Danny Cronic said he doesn’t dwell on the players who have left.
“To be honest with you, once I get them off the board, I kind of wipe them out of my mind,” he said.
There’s just one senior, linebacker Jarred Johnson, on the roster, but there’s about a dozen juniors, most of whom transferred to Reinhardt from other colleges prior to last season.
Seven players who went to high school in Cherokee County are on the roster. Among them are Dylan Haynes (Cherokee), Vashaun Washington (Etowah), Jake Ingram (Woodstock), Chas Piece (Woodstock), Logan Ridings (Creekview), Logan Witherow (Cherokee), Ryan Hopper (Etowah) and Thomas Reese (Etowah).
Many of the key players from 2013 have returned.
L.J. Stegall, who wowed fans with multiple touchdowns per game, is back as a sophomore. Also returning are the quarterbacks, Haynes, Ryan Thompson and Johnathon Chamblee. Freshman quarterback Ricky James is also in the program, but he is ineligible this season.
With the change in defensive coordinators, the Eagles will operate out of a different scheme. Instead of playing with four linemen, they will go with three this season, which Cronic said is a better fit for the team.
“It means you have to find one less lineman,” he said. “And playing that defensive line is tough. You’ve got guys hitting you from every which direction. Defensive end isn’t bad, but it’s physical in there.”
Among the freshmen expected to make an impact are a pair of right tackles — Will Sizemore and Tyler Sheperd — and guard Xavier Carter. Jacob Jamerson and Evan Ubakanma should also be key, as will kicker Ryan Hopper.
Sharrod Pittman has moved into center, where he is expected to start. Other offensive linemen include Brandon Keith and all-conference honoree Clay Swint. Blayton Bethune will return to punt, with Hopper attempting field goals.
Leading tackler Jarred Johnson will be back at linebacker, Phillip LeConte and Javier Dyer will play defensive end and Leonard Robinson will suit up at nose tackle.
One thing is certain, however. Reinhardt will be exciting to watch.
“I would have come to see our game as much I would go see an SEC or ACC game,” Cronic said. “They have the bigger, stronger, faster athletes, but the excitement was here.”