Across the river in Radford, it’s a different tale of the tape this season. For the first time in a long time, Coach Matt Saunders is having to reload and look for some fresh faces to pick up the ball and run with it.
“We’ve got some skilled players, but we gotta fill a lot of holes,” he said during a preseason interview.
Saunders is 64-44 after finishing 9-4 this past season. The Bobcats lost in the second round of the 1A West playoffs to George Wythe, who they will face in the opening game this year.
Saunders played under legendary Coach Norm Lineburg and coached at Honaker before taking over the Bobcat program. He returns only four starters to an offense that put up 516 points last season, while only returning three on the defensive side of the ball.
That loss in the 1A West playoffs pointed out a kink in the Bobcat armor.
“It showed we needed to be in the weight room more, and the kids bought into that idea and I think we are much improved,” Saunders said.
But the team will have to fill some holes and have some youngsters grow up very quickly. Radford only has 10 seniors with nine freshmen and 15 sophomores on this year’s roster.
Radford will have to replace 70 percent of its offense from last year as both Quarterback Marcus Finley and Tailback Heth Grant have graduated. Thus, the Bobcats will have to reload and find a new way of life.
Last season, Finley and Grant combined for 41 touchdowns and over 3,300 yards of total offense. Finley was 109 for 190 in the passing game with 1,517. Grant rushed for 1,143 yards and also had 23 receptions for 379 yards. Finley also added 904 yards on the ground.
D.J. Baylor was the third leading rusher last season with 162 yards on 30 attempts and will step into the role as the full-time starter at quarterback. He did do some spot work at QB last season, completing 17 of 24 passes for 208 yards.
“D.J. has done well in the preseason, and I expect some good things from him,” Saunders said.
Baylor is also the team’s leading returning receiver with 32 for 386 yards, so he will have to find a target or two this season.
A young receiving corps led by Jesse Shelor (6-1, 180, Soph.) will have to step up.
Saunders said Markell Thompson (5-11, 205, Sr.) and Mitch White (5-6, 190, Sr.) will get most of the touches in the backfield this year.
Thompson had 19 carries for 199 yards last season, while White was 12 for 95 yards. Thompson did have five touchdowns on the plus three more threw the air.
“Trace Shepherd (5-9, 155, Soph.) will also run the ball some this season. We probably run the ball more than last year and look at the option,” he said.
Baylor should have some protection with 11 lineman over 200 pounds led by returning OL/DL Brett Armentrout (6’, 225, Sr.). The team does boast junior Nathan Cox who tips the scales at 295 pounds and 6-4. Six others are listed at over 245 pounds this season
Saunders describe this year’s team as being competitive with no real stars.
On the defensive side of the ball, Grant and Finley will be missed, but there is plenty returning along the second level of the team.
A big key on the defensive side of the ball could be the play of Linebacker Brett Armentrout. Saunders said he brings size and a lot of experience.
Armentrout finished last season with 101 total tackles las season including 62 solo.
Baylor will play corner and push a two-deep secondary with a 3-4 scheme. “That (three man front) suits us better with the personnel we do have,” the coach said.
The team also returns Charlie Lefew, a 5-10, 145 pound junior who had 25 tackles last season.
Radford did very well on the turnover margin last season, and Saunders hopes that can continue. The team recovered 20 fumbles and had 12 interceptions, while giveaways were down with only 11 fumbles and no interceptions for 21 on the plus side.
Last year’s defense had 129 tackles for loss and 49 quarterback pressures. Saunders believes this year’s defense will be just as quick and pressure the opponent’s quarterbacks a lot this season.
Last season was the Bobcats eighth straight appearance in post season play. They will open Aug. 26 against George Wythe who is ranked number one in several state preseason polls.
“They (GW) are going to be real good especially up front. We just got get better each week and play one game at a time, and our youngsters have to grow up quickly,” Saunders concluded.
All Radford Bobcat games will be broadcast on 101.7 FM.
— This article was originally published in the 2016 Football Preview.