WALESKA - In his first two seasons as Reinhardt's football coach, James Miller set a high bar for success.
Miller amassed a 21-3 record, two Mid-South Conference championships, an American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year honor and an appearance in the 2017 NAIA national championship game.
Even with such immediate success, the vibe around the team prior to its season opener Saturday against Webber International exuded a blue-collar approach.
“We’re always just going to worry about us,” Miller said. “I’ve talked to kids a lot this fall camp about controlling what we can control. I think, if we do that, we’ll always have a chance to be successful.”
Reinhardt returns a number of key players, but it will also have to replace key position groups, including the interior of the offensive line and entire starting secondary.
Even with attrition in the defensive backfield, Miller said the defense will bring back more experience than the offense.
“Defensively, we have a lot of guys who have played football for us,” Miller said. “Offensively, we have a lot of unproven guys. We have some really seasoned guys at certain spots, but we also have a lot of guys who have yet to start in college. It’s different when you’re a backup.”
Reinhardt averaged 40 points per game last season, while allowing only 17 per game. The rushing game was the best in the NAIA, as the Eagles averaged 339 yards per game on the ground. Ten different players had more than 100 rushing yards on the season, and five different players scored at least five rushing touchdowns.
Miller said the running back group is still deep and should be led by senior Montralious Mosely, junior Trevae Cain and redshirt junior M’Calun Lanier. Sophomore Bryce Burgess and junior Otis Odum also should find carries as well.
“I feel good about our running backs,” Miller said. “We’re always going to give them a lot of carries.”
Senior left tackle Tre Coney, a second-team All-American last season, will anchor the offensive line, and second-year starting quarterback Billy Hall returns to run the offense for his junior season. Hall finished third on the team in rushing yards last season with 526 yards, while also passing for 932 yards and seven touchdowns.
At wide receiver, Miller said true freshman Navarre Solomon has shown promise this fall camp and will likely start against Webber International.
“Navarre has really stepped up for us as a freshman,” Miller said. “He’s done a good job so far, and he’s a big body for us on the outside.”
Defensively, the Eagles will hope for a repeat of last season’s success when they finished fourth in the NAIA in scoring defense.
Leading the way should be junior defensive end J.T. Graydon, a first-team All-American selection. The Eagles were fourth in the NAIA last season in sacks with 44, and Graydon led the way with 14½.
Along with Graydon, defensive tackle Teon Burroughs and middle linebacker Dawson Mitchell should lead the defensive front seven, although Mitchell will not play this week due to an undisclosed injury. Miller said he expects Mitchell to be back within a week or two, and added he has been pleasantly surprised by the team’s defensive backs.
“I’ll be honest with you. The DBs have been a big surprise for us this fall camp. They’ve really played well,” Miller said. “I think we hit on some good young corners, and we’re probably the biggest and most athletic we’ve ever been on the back end at safety. I feel better about it than I did a couple weeks ago.”
Despite starting true freshmen at quarterback and running back last season, Webber International finished with a 7-3 record. The Warriors will have to replace their top four tacklers from last season, but Miller expects the team to remain well-coached on that side of the ball.
On paper, Reinhardt brings back much more experience than Webber International and the Eagles should be able to use Saturday to find out exactly where they are heading into the 2019 season.
“It’ll be good to see where we’re at as a football team,” Miller said. “We’re honing in on what we want to do and what we think will work best against those guys. It’ll come down to who executes and who takes care of the football. We’ve been harping on those two things all fall camp, and we’ve still got work to do in both of those areas.”