athens — The measuring stick is already in place for the Concord University football team. This weekend it will be entrenched at Mueller Field in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.
The Mountain Lions open their season today at noon on the road, playing a national semifinalist team from 2018, Notre Dame College.
The Falcons, 13-1 last season, are the unanimous choice to win the Mountain East Conference again. The Ohio school is ranked fourth in NCAA Division II in the AFCA preseason poll and 11th in the national rankings of D2Football.com.
“We will be challenged in every way there is,” Concord head coach Paul Price said to lead off a press conference earlier this week. The Mountain Lions are coming off three straight 2-9 seasons.
Price said, “I think, the good news for us is, we feel like we’re as good or better, in every position on the field, going into this season, as the previous two or three years before it. We’re very confident that we’re a better football team, and we’re out there to prove ourselves.”
“A lot of the old coaches say, if you’re going to play a powerhouse team, the best time is to play them early, because they are figuring things out, as well,” the CU coach said. “That’s just the way the dice rolled there. We’ve got a tough draw, coming out. But it’ll tell us, right away, where we are … a direct test.”
The Falcons return nine starters each on offense and defense. Running back Jaleel McLaughlin set a Division II record for a freshman by running for 2,421 yards last season. Fellow freshman quarterback Chris Brimm threw for 2,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Sha’haun Williams wrote his name in the conference record book with 20 sacks.
Head coach Mike Jacobs left no doubt about his team’s mindset for this year when he addressed the Mountain East preseason football media day last month.
“A lot people think, when you have a bit of success, you get to go on cruise control,” Jacobs said. “Not with this group. We instill, ‘I don’t care what we did last season, it’s about next season. Let’s step it up.’ “
Price said, “They are a very strong team. … It will be an ultimate challenge for us to go up there and compete favorably against them on their home field. But we are excited about doing it, without a doubt.”
Concord led NDC 22-17 halfway through last season’s meeting, but the Falcons scored 25 points after halftime to win 47-22. Price said, “I think we had a bead on their best plays, early. The running back did not really get geared up until the second half, and when he did, that was the difference; we couldn’t keep up with him.”
“We came out fast and sharp, and played hard. The second half, they pulled away. They, at that point, had more aces than we had in our hand – and they exploited it very well.”
“We’ve got to be able to finish games better,” Price said. “I told the team that it’s a play by play, series by series, quarter by quarter, half by half game.”
“We had the most physical (preseason) camp since I’ve been here, 11 years. The conditioning has been above and beyond anything we’ve done.
“We’ve done as much live work as the NCAA will allow you to do. We’ve gone out in pads continuously. There have been no just-helmeted practices, yet, except for the first couple, where you’re mandated by the NCAA to do it. So our guys are physically ready to go.”
The Mountain Lions’ offense is led by senior quarterback Kyle Akin, who accounted for 1,544 yards passing and 14 touchdowns last year. All the aerial scores were finished off by returning veterans Brandon Plyler and Tywan Pearce. Pearce is also a first-team all-conference kick return specialist.
The CU rushing attack will lean on 205-pound sophomore Josh Maxwell, who Price described as “a big, strong, fast back that can play any aspect of (the running back position).”
Among Price’s top priorities this offseason was beefing up a defense that allowed 43.4 points and 512 yards per game in 2018.
New faces surround senior co-captain Ryan Gatrell on the defensive line. The linebackers, Price said, “are faster than we’ve been in three or four years, just all-out speed, and that’s going to make a big difference, we think.” The secondary is experienced and deep.
“We feel really good that our defense is going to be vastly improved,” Price said. “We’re ready to turn loose the defense, and get back to playing great defense. We’re excited about it.”
Eight freshmen appear on Concord’s preseason two-deep roster, including Bluefield High grad Mason Walker. The 6-foot-7 former Beaver is scheduled to start at right tackle on Saturday.
“Our offensive line is going to have to perform,” Price said. “We’re starting some new players there, against a very formidable defensive line. We’ll deliver some blows, and we’ll probably take some. If we can land a few more punches than they land on us, we’ll be in that game the way we want to be.”
“Execution will be the key for us. If we’re able to function the way we need to, we’ll be in great shape.”
“Our guys are excited about traveling, and excited about playing as good a team as is on our schedule today,” the coach said. “We’ve got to go up and be ready for it.”