The Lenoir-Rhyne Bears fell one win short of the Division II national football championship last fall.
And there’s nothing that senior linebacker Tanner Botts would rather do to complete a memorable four-year run at the South Atlantic Conference school than to reach the top in 2014.
“I had never been a part of anything like that,” said Botts, a defensive standout on a 13-2 team which lost only its season opener to Concord (W.Va.) and the national championship game to Northwest Missouri State.
“We knew we had a good team, but we didn’t know how good for a while. We’d like to take that step further – just win every game and see where it takes us.”
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There have been a few changes in the aftermath of that magical season, including a new coach. Mike Houston left to take the top job at The Citadel. He’s replaced by Ian Shields, a former Oregon State quarterback who spent the previous five seasons as an associate head coach at the U.S. Military Academy.
The Bears also have a new defensive coordinator and several other new assistants.
“This is a unique situation here, and there’s an expectation of success which was one of the things that appealed to me when I applied for the job,” Shields said. “It’s a group that’s used to winning.”
It helps that the Bears have a good number of veteran starters like Botts, who has been a part of one of the best runs in Lenoir-Rhyne football history. They’ve won at least a share of the SAC regular-season championship for the past three years and have made two straight playoff appearances.
“We’re just a group that’s well-prepared and always ready for anything,” Botts said. “We’re hard workers and we memorize every play in the book. We’re not the biggest players around, but we’re aggressive and we get to the ball.”
That has been their defensive trademark, and it’s an attitude that you’ll find among a lot of good Division II programs, Botts said.
“People think that just because we’re Division II we don’t have the athletes,” he said.
“I think we have players that could play at the Division I level, but they just got overlooked.”
Botts received recruiting attention only from the Bears and Valdosta State, another Division II program in his native Georgia. At Lenoir-Rhyne he also plays on the lacrosse team along with his twin, Tyler.
“It’s been a great opportunity,” Botts said.
He will anchor the defense along with preseason All-American senior lineman Blake Baker, but the Bears must replace defensive back Michael Green, the SAC Player of the Year.
“We feel pretty good about the defensive front,” Shields said. “That’s going to be a pretty physical group.”
Lenoir-Rhyne’s offense will stay with the triple-option attack, led by senior quarterback Miles Freeman and senior Joe Ray, a preseason All-American lineman whe os “the best player on our team,” Shield said.
The Bears will open their season Sept. 6 at home against Point (Ga.).
Lenoir-Rhyne was one of three SAC teams in the Division II playoffs last season, joined by Carson-Newman and Newberry.
“Getting 50 percent of the field in our region was a great achievement,” SAC Commissioner Patrick Britz said at the conference’s digital Media Day last week. “I hated that we were all seeded on the same side of the bracket.”