Western Carolina has been a historically tough place to win for football. The program owns an overall win percentage just north of .400 and has only had four winning seasons in the last 20 years. Three of those winning seasons (2014, 2015, 2017) belong to current Head Coach Mark Speir.
Speir, a Clemson grad, has spent all but six years of his 29 year coaching career up in the mountains, either at Western Carolina (where he started his coaching career and is now in his eighth season as head coach) or WCU’s arch-rival Appalachian State. He was an assistant coach at App during the Mountaineers’ run of three straight FCS national titles from 2005-2007.
Last year was a tough go of it for the Catamounts. After starting off 3-0, the team went on to lose their last eight games. Amid that season-to-forget was a spectacular individual effort by rSR QB Tyrie Adams. Although the team as a whole struggled, Adams completed 62.7% of his passes for 2,417 yards and 16 TDs, with just 6 INTs, and he also ran for 1,006 yards and 10 more TDs while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
And that’s where the 2019 team begins, firmly centered around Adams’ abilities at the most key position on the field. The Preseason Southern Conference Offensive Player-of-the-Year is already Western Carolina’s all-time leader in Total Offense, Passing Yards, and Passing Touchdowns, while also sitting just outside the top 10 in program history in Rushing Yards. In the Catamounts’ season-opening loss to Mercer, Adams completed 25-of-38 passes for 318 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and ran 17 times for 34 yards and another TD.
Fortunately for Adams and the Catamounts, the top two running backs from 2018 both return in SR Connell Young and rJR Donnavan Spencer, while the team also welcomes talented true freshman running back Syheam McQueen into the mix. McQueen, who had offers from NC State, UNC-CH, and South Carolina, rushed 11 times for 67 yards in the opener, while Young accounted for 863 yards and 5 TDs a year ago.
Unfortunately for Adams, the running backs, and the Catamounts offense in general, the team loses four of five starting offensive lineman from a year ago, and five total O-linemen who had over 30 career starts.
The receiving corps returns two of its top three receivers from a year ago in rSR Nate Mullen (55 rec, 600 yds, 2 TD) and rJR Daquan Patten (39 rec, 567 yds, 5 TD), as well as their starting Tight End, JR Owen Cosenke (23 rec, 261 yds, 8 TD). In the opener, rSO former QB D.J. Thorpe exploded for 6 receptions and 130 yards - he only had 55 career receiving yards heading into that game.
On the defensive side of the ball, things are more bleak. The defensive line must replace two of it’s top three lineman, but does return SO DT Adam Henderson (7 tackles, 0.5 TFL in the opener; 28 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks last year). Outside of Henderson, it’s a mix of youth and inexperience along the D-line.
At the linebacker level, Western returns two-of-three starting LBs from a year ago in rJR Michael Murphy (1 tackle, 1.0 TFL in the opener; 92 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT last year) and JR Ty Harris (4 tackles, 0.5 TFL in opener; 87 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT last year)). Murphy is undersized for a LB (6’2, 200 lbs) and plays more of a hybrid Bandit linebacker, similar to what ECU utilized last weekend. New starter JR Trevor Childers had a big game against Mercer last week, tallying 10 tackles, including 2.0 for loss.
In the secondary, the Catamounts welcome back rSR JerMichael White after he missed all but three games a year ago due to injury. He made two interceptions and defended three more passes in those three games last year, and had 67 tackles in 2017. SR John Brannon III returns after registering 22 tackles, 2.0 TFL, and 2 INT a year ago in a mostly back-up role. He picked off a pass in the opener against Mercer.
Junior Will Horton returns to handle kickoff and place-kicking duties after connecting on 17-of-22 field goal attempts last year. The Catamounts are breaking in a new punter.
Western certainly lost a lot of production from a year ago, but Speir has proven that he can win in Cullowhee - and you can do a lot worse than the skill that is on the Catamounts roster. While asking that roster to take down a foe like NC State is quite a big ask (oh, hey, they also have Alabama on the docket for November), it wouldn’t be surprising to see this team rise up to make some noise in the Southern Conference and flirt with another winning season.