In what promises to be a unique two months, the Tusculum University football team will open its 2021 spring campaign Saturday night as the Sons of Davy Crockett take on the Newberry Wolves in a non-conference affair. Kickoff is 6 p.m. from Setzler Field in Newberry, South Carolina.
The Pioneers are playing a five-game schedule over the next two months including a four-game South Atlantic Conference divisional slate. TU will be playing in the SAC's Mountain Division and will face Mars Hill, UVA Wise, Limestone and Carson-Newman. The SAC's Piedmont Division consists of Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne, Newberry, Wingate and SAC Schedule Alliance member Barton. The winner of each division will meet on April 17 for the SAC Spring Championship.
Coach Jerry Odom has led the Pioneers to four straight top-tier finishes in the conference standings, including the 2019 squad that tied for fourth place in the SAC.
During Odom's tenure at the helm of the TU program, the Pioneers have emerged as one of the top defensive units in the league. With the addition of new offensive coordinator Kade Bell and some key transfers, Tusculum is poised to be a challenge on both sides of the ball this spring.
The Pioneers posted a 5-6 record in 2019 including 4-4 in SAC play as the Pioneers finished the season winning four of its last five contests. Tusculum is slated to return 27 lettermen and eight starters from the 2019 squad.
Highlighting the newcomers on offense is Valdosta State transfer quarterback Rogan Wells. Wells, a 6-4, 230-pound graduate student from Fort Mill, South Carolina, went 28-3 under center for the Blazers and led VSU to a pair of Gulf South Conference titles and the 2018 NCAA II national championship. He was named the GSC Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 and 2018 and was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy on both occasions.
Wells is a dual-threat signal caller, amassing 9,026 total offensive yards including 1,932 rushing yards and 7,130 passing yards in his 34 career games. He has accounted for 94 career touchdowns including 69 passing and 25 rushing. He was named the Gulf South Conference Football Player of the Decade.
Returning at quarterback for the Pioneers is the sophomore duo of Bryce Moore and Joaquin Collazo. Moore, a 6-4, 225-pound native of Jefferson, Georgia playing in 10 games last year with seven starts as TU went 4-3 with him under center. He passed for 934 yards with seven touchdowns and also rushed for three scores. Collazo, a 6-3, 195-pounder from Melbourne, Florida, also played in 10 contests with four starts. He threw for 808 yards with eight touchdowns and also rushed for one TD.
Junior TJ Jones is slated to get the start at running back as he makes his Tusculum debut. The Georgia Military College transfer rushed for eight touchdowns with the Bulldogs last season. He rushed for 458 yards on 56 carries for an 8.2 yards per carry average.
Joining Jones in the backfield is junior running back Maurice Gomillion. The 5-9, 190-pounder has appeared in 17 career games for Tusculum where he has rushed for 520 yards on 116 carries (4.5 ypc) with a TD.
All-South Atlantic Conference wide receiver Tory Ponder is back for Tusculum. The 6-0, 190-pound junior led the Pioneers in 2019 with 35 receptions for 571 yards and six TDs. His receiving average and TD catch total were both sixth in the SAC while his 3.9 receptions per game average was third-best in the league. He is also expected to be TU's punt returner this spring.
Also earning the start at wide receiver are newcomers Derrick Wright and Raphael Williams. Wright, a 6-0, 195-pound junior comes to Tusculum after playing 20 games at NCAA Division II Florida Tech. he totaled 18 grabs for 216 yards and two touchdowns. He is also slated to be one of TU's kickoff return threats this spring as he averaged 24.43 yards per return on his 39 career kickoff returns for 953 yards with the Panthers.
Williams, a 5-10, 160-pound true freshman, earned All-State second team honors at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He tallied 31 catches for 800 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final prep season.
Also slated to see some playing time in the receiving corps is Valdosta State transfer Justice Parham, redshirt freshman Tyler Aijero and true freshman Jarvis Jones.
TU offensive veteran Ajay Belanger makes the move to tight end this spring after playing his first 21 games at wide receiver. Belanger has put on some size (6-3, 225) after posting 68 catches for 833 yards and six touchdowns in his first two TU campaigns. Sophomore Will Shellenbeck could also see playing time at tight end for the Black and Orange.
The Tusculum offensive line returns one starter in right tackle Christian Couture. The 6-5, 330 sophomore started in all 11 games in 2019, mostly at the tackle spot. Andrew Theobald adds height, size and talent at the other tackle position after two seasons at Garden City Junior College. His teams posted an 18-4 record and advanced to the 2018 NJCAA National Championship game.
Junior Mike Peppin is slated to be the starter at offensive guard for the Pioneers. The 6-3, 305-pounder saw action in eight games in 2019 including three starts. Senior Tremaine Chatman is expected to start at right guard for Tusculum after making four appearances including a 2019 showing against Newberry.
Junior Thomas Mahoney gets the start at center for Tusculum in the opener. The 6-1, 315-pound product played two seasons at Lacakawanna Junior College where he garnered All-Pennsylvania Conference honors and earned a start in the 2019 NJCAA National title game.
The Tusculum defense returns two talented starters at linebacker in All-SAC selections Ivan Hogans and Jackson Cauthen. Hogans has recorded at least two tackles in each of his 31 career games at Tusculum where he has totaled 230 career tackles (13th in school history) including 32 tackles for loss (10th in TU history). The two-time All-SAC standout posted 85 tackles in 2019 and was a consensus All-Region pick in 2018.
Cauthen, a 6-1, 225 senior led Tusculum in 2019 with 15 tackles for loss which are tied for the 10th-most in TU history. He finished with 75 stops as his 1.2 tackles per game average was fifth in the SAC. He earned CoSIDA Academic All-District first team honors and was named SAC Defensive Player of the Week when he returned an interception for a TD and made a key fourth down stop in a home win over UNC Pembroke.
Craig Watts is slated to start at the SAM linebacker, a position he shined at for Valdosta State during the Blazers 2018 national championship run. The 6-0, 195-pound junior recorded 70 tackles with one interception in his 14 outings with VSU. He also played 12 games at NCAA Division I South Florida.
Junior Xavier Clemmons will start at nose guard for the Tusculum defense. The 6-3, 265-pounder has played in 21 career games for Tusculum where he has 47 tackles including 27 in 2019 with seven tackles for loss, three sacks and two pass break-ups.
Starting at defensive end is redshirt freshman Kate Deshauters with 2018 SAC Defensive Freshman of the Year Nelson Louis also poised to contribute in the trenches for the TU defense.
Logan Cowart gets the start at defensive tackle, while Quincy University transfer Jacques Jean-Baptiste will look to contribute as well. Sophomore Joslyn Mira gets the start at the bandit position on the line with freshman Jordan Smith looking for playing time.
Montreal Henry and Jonovan Lowe are expected to be the starting cornerbacks for the Pioneers. Henry comes to Tusculum after playing one season at NCAA II West Georgia where he played in six games and three starts for the Wolves. Lowe played in all 11 games last year with starts against UNC Pembroke and Catawba. He made 23 tackles including 17 solo hits with three pass break-ups.
The starting rover back will be junior Raynell Killian. The Valdosta State transfer played two seasons with the Blazers where he appeared in 24 games with eight starts and ended his VSU stint with 52 tackles including 34 solo stops and five career pass break-ups. Getting the start at free safety is freshman Adrian Robinson.
Tusculum returns both its starting punter and kicker. Junior Andrew Cantrell has been TU's starting punter over the past two years where he is already in the school record book top-10 in career punts and punting yards. His 37.5 punting average is one of the best in school history.
Sophomore Eli Shepherd led Tusculum in scoring in 2019 with his 49 points which hare tied for 10th in school history. He went 25-of-27 in extra point tried and 8-of-10 in field goals.
The 23rd renewal of the Tusculum/Newberry football rivalry will be held Saturday. The series, which began in 1998, is all even at 11-11. Tusculum won six of the first seven meetings of the series, including five in a row from 2000-2004. Newberry answered with three consecutive wins from 2005-2007, before TU followed with back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009.
Since 2009, the Wolves have won eight of the last 10 meetings, including a 30-20 Newberry win in its last meeting in 2019. Ten of the 23 previous meetings have been decided by seven points or less and five by at least a field goal including a 16-14 Tusculum win over Newberry in 2014 at Pioneer Field. The Pioneers trailed 14-3 before rallying with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But there have been blowouts in the series as well with three decisions being by 30 or more. It has been a series where the visiting team has enjoyed success. In games played in Greeneville, Newberry is 6-5, while Tusculum owns a 6-5 advantage in the series in contests played at Setzler Field.
FOLLOW THE GAME
The "Voice of the Pioneers" Brian Stayton is in his 24th consecutive year broadcasting on the Pioneer Sports Network. Fans can listen to the game on WSMG Radio at 95.5 FM and 1450 AM. An on-line audio feed is available at https://jewel955.com/listenlive. Live video and live statistics for Saturday night's game are also available at www.TusculumPioneers.com.