Gardner-Webb hosts 25th-ranked North Carolina A&T in Saturday's season opener, with the Aggies making their first football trip to Boiling Springs. Kickoff is set for 6:00 pm in Ernest W. Spangler Stadium, and will air live on The Big South Network. Fabian Fuentes and Alex Guest will provide the video call. Game audio will also be broadcast via wgwg.org, with Brendan Boylan and Tyler Helms handling those duties.
Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T have never met before in the sport of football ... The Runnin' Bulldogs have not hosted a team from the MEAC since No. 8 Hampton came to town on October 8, 2005 ... The Pirates took a 52-21 win in that game ... The Runnin' Bulldogs are 10-4 against current members of the MEAC, with five of those wins coming in a 5-0 series edge over then I-AA independent Savannah State.
Quarterback Tyrell Maxwell (6-2, 231, Sr.) enters his final campaign with a locker full of well-deserved preseason accolades. The Orangeburg, S.C., native has emerged as a high-level signal caller with the ability to stretch the field with his arm and legs. The 2016 Big South Conference Offensive Player of the Year was named the Walter Payton Award Watch List by STATS earlier this preseason and was named to the College Football Performance Awards FCS Performer of the Year Trophy Watch List as well. Maxwell's 2016 campaign was electric, as he paced the Big South Conference in rushing yards and total offense – including a record pace of 118.2 yards per game on the ground in five league games. Maxwell passed for a career-high 1,657 yards and nine scores and rushed for a career-best 965 yards and eight touchdowns – narrowly missing a 1,000-yard rushing season. He was at his best in a win over No. 8 Charleston Southern, rushing for a season-best 165 yards and passing for 195 more. Maxwell ranks seventh in school history with 2,014 yards on the ground and 11th in school history with 2,731 passing yards.
A HALL OF FAME FAMILY CONNECTION
Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T enjoy a local family connection, with former Aggies' star Herbert Harbison (1983-1986) inducted into the school's athletics Hall of Fame in 2016. Two of his brothers, Charlie Harbison (1978-1982) and James Harbison (1990-1993) were standout defensive backs at Gardner-Webb – and both are members of Gardner-Webb's athletics Hall of Fame. Charlie was inducted at GWU in 2007 and James was inducted in 2009. All three brothers starred at nearby Crest (N.C.) High.
North Carolina A&T will be the first ranked team to open the season in Boiling Springs since 10th-ranked Wofford in 2012. The Aggies will be the 12th nationally-ranked opponent for GWU since Carroll McCray's arrival in 2013. Gardner-Webb picked up its fifth win under McCray over a nationally-ranked team on November 5, 2016, outlasting No. 8 Charleston Southern, 17-10, on the road. The win over the Buccaneers was Gardner-Webb's third on the road against a ranked squad, but first since September 21, 2013 at No. 8 Wofford. The Runnin' Bulldogs have beaten at least one ranked team – all in the top-15 – in three of the past four seasons. GWU had won only twice against ranked teams at the FCS level from 2000-2012.
THE HEAD COACHES
Gardner-Webb head coach Carroll McCray (Class of '83) returned to his alma mater in 2013 and has forged a 20-25 record so far in his time in Boiling Springs. Rod Broadway has enjoyed success at three different stops in his head coaching career, going 114-45 during 15 seasons combined at North Carolina Central, Grambling and North Carolina A&T. Broadway is 46-22 during his first six seasons with the Aggies.
THE LONG BALL
Gardner-Webb recorded 44 explosive plays last seasn, more than twice as many as the 2015 season. GWU had just 22 explosives in 11 games during the 2015 season. The Runnin' Bulldogs had only 10 rushing plays of 20 yards or more in 11 games in 2015 – and more than doubled that total with in 2016 (24). Of those explosive plays in 2015, none went longer than 50 yards. In 2016, GWU had six plays of 50+ yards to its credit.
ZONED FOR SUCCESS
Gardner-Webb was efficient offensively inside its opponents' 20-yard line – the red zone – in 2016. GWU scored 31 times in its 35 trips (89%), with 22 of those trips resulting in touchdowns (62.8%). Gardner-Webb started the season in style, scoring five times – with four touchdowns – in five trips to take a 31-6 win at CAA member Elon (9/3). GWU closed the season by going 6-for-6 with four touchdowns in a 34-33 overtime win vs. Monmouth (11/19).
TIGHT LOSSES AT HOME
Gardner-Webb went 3-3 in Ernest W. Spangler Stadium last season, but aquitted itself well in those three losses – losing by an average of just more than a touchdown per game (8.3 ppg). Those tight results came despite playing two ranked teams in those losses – a 31-24 loss to No. 15 Citadel (now ranked No. 5 and undefeated) and a 17-7 loss to No. 16 Coastal Carolina (FBS transition). GWU held a fourth-quarter lead over The Citadel and led 7-3 at the break against the high-powered Chanticleers. GWU dropped its home game to Kennesaw State by a 47-39 margin, cutting the deficit to one score with more than 12 minutes remaining in the game.
Gardner-Webb success running the football last season was paved by a strong offensive line, a unit that returns three starters for the 2017 season in All-America candidate Will Millikan (6-3, 311, Jr.) at left tackle, third-year starter Charlie Eudy (6-2, 291, R-Jr.) at right tackle and second-year starter Brayden Briggs (6-3, 303, R-So.) at right guard. The addition of Eastern Michigan transfer Brandon Leahey (6-3, 297, R-So.) at center bolstered the unit and another newcomer has been the talk of preseason camp with his quick emergence – similar to Millikan's prior to the 2015 season. Left guard Jack Nichols (6-3, 314, Fr.) will start the season opener, becoming the first true freshman to earn a season opening start on the offensive line since Millikan did so at South Alabama in 2015. Millikan went on to a successful freshman season, starting 10 games, and was an All-Big South choice as a sophomore. Nichols was a standout at national power Roswell (Ga.) High before signing with Gardner-Webb in February. As a starting unit, the Runnin' Bulldogs will average 6-2 3/4 and 303.2 pounds per man.
A VETERAN FRONT SEVEN
Gardner-Webb lost some star power from a solid front seven last season, with All-America linebacker Chad Geter and All-Big South running mate Aaron Cook graduating. The Runnin' Bulldogs have plenty of experienced muscle back, however, with all seven projected starters in the front seven entering at least their third season of college football. Three of those seven starters are seniors and two more are redshirt juniors. Five of the seven have starting experience, led by All-Big South defensive end P.J. Fuimaono (6-1, 294, Sr.), standout linebacker Kenyatta Dunbar (5-11, 214, Sr.) and another standout inside in Corey Horne (6-0, 221, Jr.). Horne is the team's top returning tackler from the 2016 season.
AGGIES STRONG IN THE TRENCHES
North Carolina A&T may have graduated fourth-round NFL draft pick and all-time great Tarik Cohen from the running back position, but the powerful offensive line that opened holes for the All-America standout returns much of its talent – anchored by another NFL prospect in left tackle Brandon Parker (6-7, 309, Sr.). Parker is a preseason FCS All-America choice from Kannapolis, N.C., and is joined up front by veterans Macquel Hardy (6-3, 295, Jr.), Joshua Mattocks (6-3, 331, R-Sr.), Darriel Mack (6-2, 293, R-Sr.), Micah Shaw (6-1, 290, Jr.), Daquan Black (6-0, 295, Sr. and Marcus Pettiford (6-3, 271, RSo.). The Aggies have nine upperclassmen – including five seniors – among their top-10 offensive linemen. That group allowed just 13 sacks in 355 pass attempts last season, an amazing number, and made sure Cohen did damage to the tune of 1,588 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. The Aggies averaged 35.2 points per game and 402.6 yards per game of total offense.
Gardner-Webb returns a pair of All-Big South candidates in kicker Paul Schumacher (5-10, 177, Sr.) and punter Andrew Komornik (6-5, 263, Gr.) to the roster in 2017. Schumacher earned second-team All-Big South Conference honors in 2016 after making 10-of-11 field goals, knocking down all 32 of his PAT kicks and booting a school-record 23 kickoffs for touchbacks. Komornik was strong as well during his junior campaign, leading the Big South Conference with 41.1 yards per kick.
A starting spot was available following spring practice at the running back position, and two returning backs have stepped into the fray heading into the season opener. Veterans Kerry Bernard (5-9, 189, Sr.) and Jayln Cagle (5-11, 202, So.) each have previous starting experience, with Cagle stepping in to start the final two games of the 2016 season – both important wins at No. 8 Charleston Southern and vs. Monmouth. Bernard, an Orlando, Fla., native, is healthy for the first time in two seasons and entered August camp in the best shape of his career. Both bring good speed, balance and overall ability to the backfield. They will be joined in a strong group of runners by Jonathan Blackmon (6-0, 192, Jr.), A.J. Moses (6-0, 220, Fr.) and Tysean Carter (5-8, 182, RFr.) in 2017.
Gardner-Webb is the lone squad in the Big South Conference with three non-conference FCS games on the schedule against three teams ranked in the preseason top-25 – #25 North Carolina A&T (9/2), #11 Wofford (9/23) and #24 North Carolina Central (10/14) – in addition to an FBS team coming off a bowl appearance (at Wyoming, 9/9). Gardner-Webb has played at least two ranked teams out of conference twice before since 2013 – including wins over #11 Richmond and #8 Wofford to start the 2013 season with a 4-1 mark. That 3-0 win over Wofford on September 21, 2013 in Spartanburg, S.C., is Gardner-Webb's last win over a ranked non-conference opponent – and just the second in school history on the road in such a game.
Defensive end Davis Neilands (6-3, 255, R-So.) – pronounced "DAH-vis" – enters his second season in the starting lineup poised for a move into the elite among Big South Conference defensive linemen. The Latvian-born pass rusher emerged late last season, making a splash in his first start at Liberty (10/29) and a strong effort in the win at No. 8 Charleston Southern (11/5). He recorded five hits (four solo) and 1.5 sacks in an overtime loss at Liberty, then came through with 11 stops and a half sack in Charleston, S.C. Neilands finished his inaugural campaign with the Runnin' Bulldogs with 42 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in 11 games played – with only spot duty until late October.
NEW FACES ON STAFF
Gardner-Webb welcomes two new assistant coaches to its staff in 2017, with Dennis Thomas taking over on the defensive line and Bennett Houston coaching the receivers. Thomas, who played on the defensive line at South Carolina himself, most recently coached at Tusculum (2016) and also served as an assistant coach at Western Carolina. Houston, a graduate of North Greenville, spent several seasons as an undergraduate coach with a strong Crusaders' program.
THE TIME HAS COME
Gardner-Webb will attempt to replace two stalwarts at outside linebacker in 2017, with Chad Geter and Aaron Cook both graduating after standout careers at the Spur and Bandit positions, respectively. Stepping into those roles are veteran performers, with Kirk Messick (6-2, 231, R-Jr.) taking over for Geter – and Donte' Gordon (6-0, 250, Sr.) stepping in for Cook. Both have gained valuable experience in reserve roles, with Messick also playing an integral role on special teams.
THE MAN FROM MEMPHIS
Veteran defensive back Thomas Adams (6-2, 206, R-Sr.) has emerged as a team leader heading into his final campaign and is an All-Big South candidate at free safety. The versatile Memphis, Tenn., native has also started games with success at corner and has the size and ability to make an impact at either position. Adams finished the 2016 season with 35 total tackles, four pass break ups and a tackle for loss in nine games played.
The Runnin' Bulldogs will employ a dangerous weapon in a wide range of areas in 2017, as Brody Rollins (5-11, 182, Jr.) uses his 4.5-second speed to impact games. The Knoxville, Tenn., speedster will line up at quarterback, running back and receiver during regular sets offensively – and will also serve as one of Gardner-Webb's primary kick returners. Rollins finished the 2016 season with 14 carries for 42 yards, completed one pass, caught a pass for seven yards and led Gardner-Webb with 22 kickoff returns for 454 yards (20.6 yards per attempt).
The Runnin' Bulldogs will travel west next week, taking on Mountain West contender Wyoming at 4:00 pm ET in Laramie. It will be just the fourth trip west of the Mississippi for Gardner-Webb since the move to Division I in 2000 – and first since a 2010 trip to Huntsville, Texas, to battle Sam Houston State. The game will be played at the highest elevation in college football – with War Memorial Stadium sitting 7,215 feet (1.36 miles) above sea level. †