How times have changed for Lenoir-Rhyne football.
For 15 seasons, from 1995 through 2009, the Bears didn’t produce a winning record, and only once in that span did they even reach .500.
But now Lenoir-Rhyne is coming off four straight winning seasons, including three straight South Atlantic Conference titles, and the 2013 campaign produced a 13-2 record and a run to the NCAA Division II title game, where they fell 43-28 to Northwest Missouri State.
With seven starters returning on both offense and defense, Lenoir-Rhyne is ranked sixth in the preseason national poll as they prepare for their season opener Sept. 6 against Point University of Georgia.
There are holes to fill however, starting on the sideline. The architect of Lenoir-Rhyne’s resurgence, Mike Houston, left to become the head coach at the Citadel. Replacing him is Ian Shields, who spent the previous five seasons as associate head coach at Army.
Shields was also offensive coordinator at Army and runs the same style of offense that the Bears ran under Houston, a triple-option style that averaged 370 yards per game last season in Hickory.
Three of the returning starters will be in the backfield, where the top three rushers, senior backs Isaiah Whitaker and Jarrod Spears, plus senior quarterback Miles Freeman, combined for 2,972 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns.
Shields says he hopes to be more efficient in the passing game, and the Bears’ top two receivers from 2013, Greyson Wells and Greg Baker, both return.
Up front, three starters will have to be replaced, but two return, including junior offensive tackle Joe Ray, who was named a preseason first-team All-American. Ray says there are many similarities between Houston and Shields, and not just in style of play.
“He challenges us every day, and that is what makes us better as well as closer as a team,” Ray said. “Team chemistry and cohesiveness is big with Coach Shields and why he was a good fit for us.”
On defense, the Bears have two preseason All-Americans, including a first-team selection in senior linebacker Tanner Botts, who led the Bears in tackles in 2013 and heads a linebacking corps with three starters back.
The other All-American was a second-team pick, senior defensive tackle Blake Baker. Recruited to Lenoir-Rhyne as a walk-on from Alexander Central High School, Baker set a school record in sacks with 14.5 and led the team in tackles for loss with 22.
In the defensive backfield, the Bears will have to replace SAC Player of the Year and All-American Michael Green, but senior O’Neil Blake was second on the team in interceptions and led the squad in pass break-ups.
Expectations are high in Hickory, but when speaking to players and coaches, nobody is looking too far ahead.
“It starts in game one, no further,” Botts said. “We feel like we can be very successful, but if we don’t focus each practice and each game, that won’t happen. We know what it takes to get to the title game, but we can’t do that if we don’t work on getting better each day.”