Lenoir-Rhyne football coach Ian Shields isn’t ready to take all the credit for the Bears’ hot start to the 2014 season.
In fact, Shields gives that to two of his predecessors.
“Fred Goldsmith was really the architect of getting Lenoir-Rhyne football stable and putting his imprint on all of this,” said Shields, who took over the Bears’ program in January after five years as Army’s offensive coordinator.
“Then Mike Houston, his assistant, took over for Fred and ran with it, and did a great job. Those guys brought a winning tradition back to Lenoir-Rhyne. I just inherited a quality program with quality young men in it.”
Still, Shields is making his mark with the Bears, who enter Saturday’s South Atlantic Conference game against Newberry riding a 6-0 start (3-0 conference).
That’s the best start for a Lenoir-Rhyne team since 1962, when the Bears advanced to the NAIA national championship game for the third time in four years.
Lenoir-Rhyne is also ranked fifth in the latest NCAA Division II coaches’ poll, its best ranking since ending last season No. 2 after losing the D-II national championship game to Northwest Missouri State.
“There’s a great foundation for success here,” Shields said.
Of course, it helped that Shields’ transition period with his players was very short.
A lot of that was because of his background with Army, which ran an upgraded version of the “flexbone” triple-option offense.
Under Shields’ direction, Army had one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, leading all NCAA Division I schools in rushing yards in 2011 (346.9 yards per game) and 2012 (a school-record 369.8 ypg), and finishing third in 2013 (309.8 ypg).
What the Black Knights were doing in D-I, Lenoir-Rhyne was doing just as well among D-II schools. Under Houston – now coaching at The Citadel – the Bears were third in rushing in 2011 (287.1 ypg), second in 2012 (376.0 ypg), and led the nation in 2013 (370.9 ypg).
“There was a fit here for my style,” Shields said. “Lenoir-Rhyne was running a very similar offense, so that part was easy. There was hardly any honeymoon period to that part of it.
“We just added our own flair to it to make things a little different, but the pieces were certainly in place.”
One of the things that Shields changed in Lenoir-Rhyne’s offensive playbook was adding a few more passing plays.
Last season, the Bears threw for 876 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 games, split among four different players. This season, through six games, Lenoir-Rhyne has thrown for 543 yards and five touchdown.
“He added another dynamic with that,” said senior quarterback Miles Freeman, who has 511 of those passing yards. “He pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was just running the ball. But he helped me get better at passing the ball.
“We’re doing quite a few things different. It’s just going to put more pressure on (opponents’) defensive coordinators.”
However, according to Freeman, his teammates aren’t thinking about playing in another national championship game just yet, not with the toughest part of Lenoir-Rhyne’s SAC schedule coming up.
After playing Newberry, a D-II playoff team last year, the Bears have home games against conference foes Mars Hill and Catawba, and road games against SAC frontrunner Carson-Newman and non-conference opponent Alderson-Broaddus.
“Our focus is on this week,” Freeman said. “We understand that if we slip up thinking about the future and don’t take care of things now, then (the national championship game) won’t even be a question.”