The Scott Abell era begins for Davidson on Saturday, when the Wildcats open their football season against Brevard at Richardson Stadium.
The new coach hopes to fix a Wildcats program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007 and has a 16-game losing streak in the Pioneer League, a no-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision conference. The Wildcats are coming off a second consecutive 2-9 season, which cost former coach Paul Nichols his job.
Here are 10 storylines to follow for Davidson this season:
1. New coach, new system
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Abell had a 39-24 record in six seasons as head coach at Division III Washington & Lee (Lexington, Va.), winning three Old Dominion Athletic Conference titles. He’s shaking things up at Davidson, bringing in a “gun spread” option offense, in which the option is run by the quarterback primarily out of a shotgun formation.
2. Ideal fit?
The gun spread allowed Abell’s Washington & Lee teams to lead Division III in rushing three times. The Wildcats appear to have just the running back to fit into Abell’s system in sophomore Wesley Dugger, who rushed for 1,131 yards and eight touchdowns last season. It’s worth noting that Dugger, a preseason all-Pioneer pick from Henrico, Va., chose Davidson over Washington & Lee, among others, when picking a college, so he’s got some history with Abell.
3. Running the show
Sophomore Tyler Phelps, who split time at quarterback last season, has the job to himself now. Abell said Phelps has quickly grasped the fundamentals of the gun spread. “He wasn’t recruited for this offense,” Abell said. “But he’s committed to it and really understands it.”
4. Spreading it around
Davidson had two of the Pioneer League’s more dynamic receivers last season in William Wicks and Satchel Moore. Wicks caught 51 passes for 704 yards and five touchdowns. But Abell will need to replace Moore (40 catches, 436 yards, one TD), who is out for the season with a hip injury. Wicks will play in more of a slot-hybrid position this season with junior Connor Richey and sophomore Collin Hairr among those splitting time out wide.
5. Defensive playmakers
Junior defensive tackle Bryce Perry-Martin had five sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss last season, and junior linebacker George Hatalowich led the team with 73 tackles. They’re as good as it gets in the PFL. But Davidson allowed 34.2 points and 453.5 points per game last season, so there’s plenty of work to do on defense.
6. New names on defense
Abell loves two freshmen defenders – safety Dreylan Hines and tackle Jordan Reed (the team’s biggest defensive lineman at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds). Reed has two uncles who played in the NFL – Minnesota Vikings receiver Jake Reed and Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Dale Carter.
7. Returning success
Davidson’s 21.0-yard kickoff-return average ranked second in the PFL last season. That was thanks mostly to Wicks (21.1). But Abell said three freshmen will instead compete for the Wildcats’ kick return duties – Eli Turner, Jalen Staples and Kendahl Ross. Turner is also expected to back up Dugger at running back.
8. Replacing the kicker
Senior Michael Matthews takes over for Trevor Smith, whose 36 career field goals are a school record. Smith also kicked 12 field goals in 2017, a single-season school mark.
9. About that schedule
Davidson’s nonconference schedule includes two games against Division III foes (Brevard and Guilford, Sept. 15) and Division II’s Chowan (Sept. 8). Abell said he’d like to beef up the nonconference schedule in the future, but said opening with three home night games against in-state teams will be good for Wildcats fans who might want to see some success before the PFL portion of the season kicks in Sept. 22 at Dayton. Remember: Davidson’s two victories in 2017 came against Brevard and Guilford.
10. Familiar face
Wildcats safeties coach Mark Hogan has two unique distinctions: He scored the first touchdown in Charlotte history on a pass interception in the 49ers’ first-ever game in 2013. Before transferring to Charlotte, Hogan played on Georgia State’s first team in 2010 after being former Panthers coach Bill Curry’s first recruit. Before coming to Davidson, Hogan was a graduate assistant at Texas State and Charlotte, then defensive coordinator at Ardrey Kell High last season.