| FTBL Pre-Season Team Capsules; Western Carolina

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Western Carolina University


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Nickname: Catamounts
2006 Record: 2-9 (0-7 in the Southern Confernce)
Head Coach: Kent Briggs (5th year at WCU 21-33)



Overview

With eight starters returning on offense and nine on defense, Western Carolina is poised to improve upon an injury plagued 2006 campaign. After opening the season with two wins, including an impressive victory over nationally ranked Eastern Kentucky, significant injuries and a difficult second half schedule hampered the Catamounts from returning to the winning side of the ledger. Disappointing back-to-back overtime losses to Chattanooga and The Citadel were followed by losses to ranked Wofford, Liberty University and #1 ranked Appalachian State. An injury-depleted squad closed out the season with a demoralizing 62-0 drubbing at the hands of Florida.


The Series and the Southern Conference

There’s not much of a series. The Catamounts and the Crimson Tide have met just once, a 52-0 Alabama victory in 2004 that is best known for the season-ending knee injury to Brodie Croyle. Both teams share the common distinction of Southern Conference membership. Alabama made its mark in the 1920’s and 30’s before the formation of the SEC, while WCU joined in 1976 after a successful run in NAIA competition. The Catamounts won the Southern Conference championship in 1983, advancing to the 1-AA championship game that year.


Offense

The Catamounts lose just three starters and return 19 of 22 from their ’06 depth chart. However, those losses included starting quarterback Bennett Swygert and 1,000 yard rusher Darius Fudge. Fudge accounted for almost 90 percent of total rushing yards in 2006. Swygert split time with Spring starter Todd Spitzer. Spitzer appeared in nine games last year, starting two, and was 64 out of 127 for 670 yards, three TDs, and just a single interception.

Competition to replace Fudge as the primary rusher is between Senior Mike Malone (162 yards in 2006) and Sophomore Willie Harper (37 yards). Malone and Harper enter the Fall as co-starters at running back, and Coach Briggs may platoon them rather than having a feature back.

Todd Spitzer’s passing efforts will be aided by the return of the top two receivers, Senior WR Michael Hines (60 receptions for 461 yards, 5 TDs) and Senior Slot Receiver Eddie Cohen (33 for 505, 2 TDs)

With the loss of just one offensive lineman, the line should be solid. Although 1-AA teams are typically at a size disadvantage against SEC opponents, WCU’s interior line averages about 280, with the outlier being 265 pound center Wiggins. With the exception of its left tackle, this unit returns intact, and allowed a reasonable 16 sacks last season.

Offensively, the Catamounts have a very experienced squad. Quarterback Spitzer has enough experience to be game tested, and he is supported by an experienced and productive receiving corp. If a suitable replacement for RB Fudge emerges, the running game may provide enough balance for Spitzer to really produce in the passing game. Look for WCU to improve significantly over its 2006 average of just 14.5 points per game.


Defense

Returning experience abounds on the defensive side of the ball. The Catamounts return nine starters and 19 of 21 from last season’s depth chart. The two departing starters were in key positions. The leading tackler, Mike linebacker Shelton Gaffney, departs. Also, don’t look for The Dragon to enter a game this year, as MVP CB Bruce Lee has exhausted his eligibility. Retuning linebackers Kadeem Morgan and Mordy Ornguze were two and three in total tackles in ’06, with 68 and 61 tackles, respectively. Morgan and Ornguze also combined for 13 tackles for loss last year. Their run-stopping efforts will be aided by returning defensive linemen John Martin (6-2, 315) and Darren Curtis, who together combined for 15 tackles for loss.

Finding a pass rush will be key if the defense is to improve on last year’s allowance of 28.7 points per game. With just four sacks last year, suggesting limited QB pressure, the secondary was still respectable with 14 interceptions.


Special Teams

Junior Jonathon Parsons returns for kicking duties after a respectable 2006, going 6 for 10 in field goals and 17 for 17 in PATs. After sharing kickoff duties, he will be the primary kicker this season. KO returns will be handled again this year by RB Malone and Harper. Both had respectable averages of about 22 and 20 yards, respectively, and Malone proved dangerous with an 83 yard return for a TD.

A key in special teams is whether punter Stephen Brown can improve on his 31.6 yard average in his eight attempts in 2006. Primary ’06 punter Tim Mayse averaged 41.6 yards last year. With an average of just four yards and a long of just 12 by primary return man Brown, punt returns need to be more productive. A punt returner was not named in the Spring.


Outlook

If the Catamounts can avoid injuries during difficult early games at Alabama in week one and Georgia in week three, they should improve significantly over 2006. Look for WCU to be the most improved team in the Southern Conference in 2007. Season Prediction: 7-4. Game Prediction: Bama 48, WCU 10.

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