SoCon Preview: Western Carolina

SoCon Preview: Western Carolina

July 27th, 2017 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

Western Carolina's Detrez Newsome tries to evade Tennessee's Darrin Kirkland Jr. during a 2015 game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. After going 7-4 that season, the Catamounts struggled in 2016.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Western Carolina running back Detrez Newsome had plenty of reasons to complain in 2016.

The Catamounts' defense ranked 121st out of 122 Football Championship Subdivision teams in total defense. The team's quarterback, redshirt freshman Tyrie Adams, was forced to remain in the pocket — despite the Catamounts preferring a quarterback-run option offense — because he was the only quarterback on the roster.

Combined with the fact that Adams was inexperienced and, not surprisingly, made some mistakes, that led to the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Newsome seeing a lot of loaded boxes.

But not once did the 2016 Southern Conference preseason offensive player of the year complain. It's not his nature.

He just played.

WESTERN CAROLINA

› 2016 record: 2-9, 2-6 in SoCon

› Season opener: Sept. 2 at Hawaii

› Date against UTC: Sept. 30 in Chattanooga

› Preseason ranking (coaches/media): 6/7

› Coming Friday: Wofford

Mocs, SoCon preview stories

Newsome still finished with 1,031 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns, and his 2,343 all-purpose yards were enough to earn him first-team FCS All-American honors from both the American Football Coaches Association and The Associated Press, and a second-team nod by STATS (FCS media).

When asked about the defense's struggles last week at the Southern Conference's media day, he instead chose to talk about what the entire team could do to improve.

"If we have an explosive play here and there that leads to a touchdown, I think that will fire those guys up when they come out on the field," Newsome said. "Maybe not just a touchdown, but any sort of explosive play on offense or special teams that could fire those other guys up."

After two seasons of flirting with the playoffs, the Catamounts struggled to a 2-9 record in 2016. It blindsided a lot of players because a year earlier thought they had a legitimate gripe regarding their absence from the postseason after going 7-4, with the losses to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and The Citadel — the SoCon's co-champions — and Southeastern Conference members Tennessee and Texas A&M.

"It was frustrating, because no one really expected it to go the way it went," Newsome said of last year. "We came out with the mindset that we'd make the playoffs, then boom, adversity hit. There's nothing we can do now but continue to fight and fight back, hold our own and continue to do what we can."

Western Carolina coach Mark Speir called last season's defensive struggles "self-inflicted." The Catamounts ranked last in the country in third-down conversion defense, allowing opponents to pick up a first down 54 percent of the time, and were next to last in yards per game. Speir made a change during the season, bringing in John Wiley — who coached with Speir at Appalachian State — to be the new defensive coordinator.

That and the progression of Adams — who passed for 2,568 yards and 15 touchdowns and was the SoCon freshman of the year — has the Catamounts excited for this season.

Newsome only adds to that, with Speir admitting, "We need to get him the ball more."

"It's going to take Tyrie having a big year to open up Detrez more, because if Tyrie doesn't prove he can run the ball, they can really key on Detrez," Speir said. "I think they complement each other, and I'm excited to see him in action.

"We just have to defensively get them (opposing offenses) off the field so we can get those two on the field."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.