By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The names of the current seniors on the Concord University defense have echoed around Callaghan Stadium for four or five years now.
Saturday, they will be heard in one more contest, as the regular season closes with a de-facto conference championship game against the Shepherd Rams.
Safety Riyahd Richardson has started since he was a freshman and has conference honors to show for his ability. Linebacker Jake Lilly advanced from special-teams play as a freshman to become the last defensive player of the year in the West Virginia Conference, last fall.
Cornerback Davon Marion returned from serious surgery on a vertebra in his neck to bolster his reputation as a big-play threat.
Fellow defensive back Josh Clark got noticed for his consistent focused and disciplined practice, year after year, to earn his starting role this year — and a national player of the week honor. Nick Spradlin has contributed on special teams as well and in relief roles as a linebacker. Ditto for defensive back-special teams captain Russell Bailey.
Together, they have helped Concord become the No. 2 defense in all of NCAA Division I in preventing opponents’ scoring and first downs.
Concord head coach Garin Justice said the contributions of this year’s seniors “means a ton” to the team’s success.
“You’re looking at a bunch of guys that, basically, came into a program that wasn’t an established football program,” the coach said. “The guys that came in five years ago were signed on a hope from an 0-11 football team with a new staff. The guys next year were 6-5.”
“Those guys came into a program where there wasn’t a lot of hope, but they believed in a vision — a vision we had as coaches. They bought into that vision and made it come true.”
“They turned a bad program into one of the better programs in Division II, and that’s going to be their legacy.”
Richardson said it’s been “a very long ride. ... It’s been fun, though, my four years. I love my teammates. We all grew together, me and my teammates — me, Jake Lilly, Josh Clark, Russell Bailey and Davon Marion.”
Lilly, a Bluefield High graduate, said, “Growing up with them, it’s been an honor, because they’re the top athletes in their area high schools, especially Davon, here in the state.
“Becoming a family — I mean, I know I didn’t stay here on campus and stuff, I’m not around them like they are — but when we’re here, we’re still family, no matter what happens, good or bad, win or lose, we’re still together.”
Marion, an alumnus of Mount Hope High, said, “The guys I came in with, even though there’s just six of us now, we all had one goal in mind, that was to eventually become champions — which we did.”
It didn’t stop with the 2011 trophy, though. He said, “After we won a championship, we all decided to keep that mentality, to keep Concord at that high of a level — and just keep playing, and hopefully keep winning championships.”
Marion said about the Concord defense, “The talent level we have is great, real high, very high. We all knew, by the time we were seniors, we would have something special, and we looked forward to that, all the four or five years that we’ve been here. Now that we’re finally getting noticed for all our hard work, it makes us feel good. And we take pride in our work.”
Richardson said that over the years, he’s been made aware of the hard-nosed play of Concord’s defenses of the past.
“They’ve always been tenacious,” he said. “My cornerback coach, Coach (Tracy) Gravely, he’s always tellin’ me about, back in his time, he was an animal. I look up to him a lot.”
At the start of the 2010 season, Lilly was privately chafing to get more playing time, but he sees that experience differently.
“They were just wanting to develop me, get me some playing time on special teams,” he said. This week he called it “no big deal.” In fact, he sees the same scenario playing out with a freshman who he said will probably be his replacement next year, Dennis Ikic.
Affirming his respect for the decisions of CU’s defensive coordinator, Lilly said, “Coach (Paul) Price knows what he’s doing.”
Offensive coordinators for opposing teams who know what they are doing have been avoiding the side of the field owned by Lilly, who led the conference in tackles for two straight years, and Richardson, whose 56 defended passes is already a school record.
Lilly said about this year’s campaign, “When they do run my side, it’s more of a power (formation), they got a tight end, double fullback, pulling guard. I’m talking, like, all of the blockers are coming, and I have to blow that UP. So, really, it (isn’t) all about the tackles, it’s just mainly just getting three-and-outs and just winning that game, doing the best we can.”
“I can tell a difference in this year’s play schemes. My guy, this year, has been thrown to three times. One he caught, one knocked down, and one interception. So I (haven’t) had the opportunity to get picks or knockdowns, ’cause ... they’re passing to the strong side, mainly, because Riyahd and (I) are on the same side of the field.”
“They run a lot, strong (side). Only thing I can do is just pursue to the ball, hustle hard, and make the plays when I get the opportunity to make ’em.”
Marion’s decision to put on a helmet again came from love of the sport, he said.
“It wasn’t really difficult,” he said about his decision following surgery. “I was young at the time, I was a little bit scared, coming back from an injury. I didn’t know what, really, to expect.”
“But I love the game so much, and I had all the support of the coaches and my family and all the players here, so it was real easy for me to get back into the game.”
Marion said that in his last game in Athens on Saturday, “I’m going to play with a lot of emotion, a lot of heart. Win, lose or draw, I’m always going to love and respect Concord and its program and its football team. It just means a lot.
“And hopefully, this Saturday ends with us winning a championship.”
Richardson said, “I don’t want to think of it as the last go-around. I’m trying to continue to play football. Just trying to get this win, so we can make the playoffs (and) get a conference ring.”
Lilly said, “I just think it’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to come down to the wire. ... I’m looking forward to it.”
Justice predicted, “You’re going to look later on and see (out of this senior group), they’re going to be in the hall of fame, because of all the things they’ve done for this school.”
“As a coach, player, regardless of anything in life, you want to leave something better than what you found it. These seniors can definitely say they’re going to leave Concord in better condition as a football program than what they found it.”
—Contact Tom Bone