By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Not every college football team began the season last weekend. Concord is one of those.
The Mountain Lions will kick it off on Saturday by traveling to Hickory, N.C. to face Lenoir-Rhyne in the season opener for both teams.
Concord is looking for its fourth season-opening win in the last five years. That includes a 24-21 decision over the Bears last season.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
One season after capturing the West Virginia Conference championship, the Mountain Lions were hampered by injuries in key positions last year, but still won five of their last six games to earn a second place finish in the WVIAC and a 7-4 record.
That wasn’t good enough for Garin Justice, who is entering his third season with the Mountain Lions.
“We just have to raise the bar on our expectations,” said Justice, in an interview early in fall camp. “We can’t settle for the status quo; we can’t settle for the seven wins a season. We can’t settle for just being good.
“We’ve got to set the bar high for the next class, and hopefully the next year they set the bar higher. We keep improving every year, and now we look up and we’re going to achieve great things.”
Concord’s opponent has become a familiar one. These clubs have met every year since 2008, with the Mountain Lions winning three of the last four by a combined margin of 13 points.
Lenoir-Rhyne started 1-2 last season, but won eight in a row and didn’t lose again until the opening round of the Division II playoffs to finish at 9-3.
The Bears, who return 13 starters, including seven on offense, hold a 7-4 advantage in the series, with one of those setbacks coming by forfeit to the Mountain Lions in 2001.
Concord, which will open its inaugural Mountain East Conference slate by hosting West Virginia State on Sept. 14, returns the majority of a defense that was ranked among the best in America last season, led by All-America candidates Jake Lilly at linebacker, and defensive backs Riyahd Richardson and Davon Marion.
Offensively, the Mountain Lions had plenty of competition as the season opener approached, including at quarterback where Brian Novak and Albert Rose were competing for the spot. Rose saw some playing time last year.
Justice said it “is still a two-way battle. If I had to say who has a slight edge, Brian Novak has a slight edge right now, but Albert has done a nice job ... of coming back and practicing the right way,” he said. “Both of those guys are very capable of winning ballgames.”
Calvinaugh Jones had a stellar freshman campaign, rushing for 749 yards and three touchdowns last year for Concord, while Sam Wright, a product of Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Va., is also competing for carries. Ben Nester of PikeView is also in the rotation.
“Calvinaugh did a nice job last year. Sam Wright could have easily been that guy,” Justice said. “Sam and Calvinaugh, we kind of see them as 1A and 1B. Those guys will both get a ton of carries for us.
“Those two are our main tailbacks. You have Ben Nester, who’ll run some at tailback in short-yardage situations. Ethan Richardson from Marion, Va., has done a nice job.”
Concord did lose leading receivers Ansel Ponder and Randall Hawkins. Ryan Stewart, who had 10 touchdowns on 2011, does return after missing last year with a broken collar bone. Derrick Williams had 19 receptions in 2012.
“Really our wideout room is very similar to the whole offense. ... There’s still a lot of tread on the tires, so to say, with a lot of those guys,” Justice said. “We always want to run the football. I’d like to be 50-50, the best that we can. I’d like to be 50-50 and to be able to do what the defense allows us to do.”
There are plenty of options on the offensive line, where as many as eight candidates have starting experience. Tyler Billings leads the unit after earning All-WVIAC second team honors as a left tackle last season.
Among those expected to compete for positions are guards Cody Parker — a product of James Monroe — and Josh Cottle, along with Coleman Osborne or Tyler Kerr battling for the slot at right tackle.
Justice is, however, pleased with the depth and experience on the line. There is also an ongoing competition at fullback and tight end.
“We’re finally physically becoming a college football offensive line as far as the way we look. Hopefully we act and block like that,” he said. “It’s not a position that many guys can step in the door and play, because it’s such a physical position and such a technical position.
“We do have some sophomores, 20 or 21 instead of 18 or 19. We’re finally starting to mature, we’re finally growing up as an offensive line. We’re finally starting to grow up as an offense.”
While Concord was a playoff squad in 2011, the Bears got to that point last season, and enter this game ranked 23th in the initial AFCA Division II football poll of the season.
Only Shepherd, which is the favorite in the Mountain East Conference, is ranked in the poll. The Rams sit at 25th.
Getting Concord onto that list is just the start of what Justice seems to yearn to get done.
“My vision for the program is that we’ll win it all. Now, I don’t know when that timetable is going to be. It could be this year. I don’t know,” Justice said. “But my vision’s always got to be set the highest, because I’m the head coach. And I have to expect it. If I don’t expect it, then how could I ever expect my players to expect it?”
“That’s the mindset. ... Hopefully, this is the best year we’ve ever had.”
—Tom Bone contributed
to this report.