College Sports

After explosive 2018 season, Davidson Wildcats hope to continue football resurrection

Playing football at Davidson has its perks.

As practice for the Wildcats wrapped up one day earlier this week, coach Scott Abell said he was happy with how his team had looked.

“Not perfect,” he told the players, “but really good.”

Abell then told the team that a walk-through practice for later that day was canceled. The Wildcats would instead spend the afternoon swimming and tubing at Davidson’s Lake Campus, a recreation spot on the shores of nearby Lake Norman.

There is a refreshing vibe around the Wildcats program under Abell, who, in his first season at Davidson, guided the team to a 6-5 record in 2018. It was Davidson’s first winning season since 2007, and the Wildcats did it with one of the most devastating offenses in the country.

The Wildcats ranked first in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision in total offense (561.9 yards), rushing offense (442.9) and third-down conversion percentage (55.6%). The Wildcats’ improbable 91-61 victory against Division III Guilford set FCS single-game records for total yards (964) and rushing yards (685).

“When we first came in, a lot of players had never won a game against a Division I team since they’d been here,” said senior defensive tackle Bryce-Perry Martin. “For a lot of people, the goal was to win at least one game. We’re past that now. We’re building toward a better way.”

Every player who scored a touchdown in Abell’s “gun triple-option” offense returns, including junior quarterback Tyler Phelps, junior running back Wesley Dugger and senior slot William Wicks.

Phelps was recruited by former coach Paul Nichols’ staff to be a drop-back passer. But he has thrived in Abell’s system, which needs the quarterback to make instantaneous reads after the ball is snapped and often keep it himself.

“It’s fun,” Phelps said. “I was recruited to throw the ball. I never thought I’d have to run it like this.”

Phelps threw for 1,200 yards and ran for 685 last season. But he also has the luxury of getting the ball to players like Dugger (fourth on Davidson’s career rushing list with 2,372 yards and needing 794 more to take over the top spot) or Wicks (who averaged 122.8 all-purpose yards and scored 14 touchdowns last season).

The defense still needs work. Davidson allowed 40.8 points (including 61 to a D-III team) and 468 yards per game.

“From the offensive side, you can tell a difference in the defense, going against these guys every day,” Phelps said. “They’re totally taking pride in what they’re doing. They’re not letting guys push them around. They’re getting off blocks, getting excited.”

The Wildcats have been picked fifth in a preseason poll of the 10-team Pioneer League. There’s some momentum around campus and the town of Davidson for a football program that has long taken a back seat to the Wildcats’ more accomplished men’s basketball program.

Athletics director Chris Clunie said there are “exploratory” discussions about perhaps one day renovating 6,000-seat RIchardson Stadium and expanding the school’s athletic, strength and conditioning and wellness facilities. Davidson alum Stephen Smith (for whom the Wildcats’ football field is named) is giving away 2,500 tickets to the season opener Aug. 31 against Georgetown. There is also a celebration planned for the 50th anniversary of the Wildcats’ appearance in the 1969 Tangerine (now Citrus) Bowl, the first and only time they’ve played in a postseason game.

“It’s been really remarkable, the change in the culture in our program, not just on campus, but in the greater Davidson community,” Abell said. “It’s great to see them rally behind our football program, like they do with basketball, baseball and other sports. It’s a great feeling for me and the guys to feel that sense of pride, to see that people are truly interested in what we’re doing.”

That comes from what the WIldcats accomplished on the field last season and how they did it. They’re ready for more.

“It gave us a taste,” Phelps said. “It left us hungry.”

David Scott: @davidscott14