Hilltoppers ready to kick off season Saturday at Catawba

There’s always a touch of uncertainty for any football coach as he prepares for the season opener and West Liberty head coach Roger Waialae was no exception this week as his Hilltoppers put the finishing touches on preparations for Saturday afternoon’s road test at Catawba (N.C.).

Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at venerable Shuford Stadium in Salisbury, N.C.

“We really don’t know what to expect from Catawba,” Waialae said. “They have a new head coach and new coordinators. They lost some pretty good kids but they have some good ones coming back plus they brought in some (NCAA) Division I transfers.

“We won’t know exactly what they’re going to do until Saturday so we’re going to have to be very solid in the things we’re doing and be ready to adjust on the fly.”

One thing Waialae doesn’t expect is a replay of last year’s season opener, the first-ever meeting between the two teams. Handicapped by inexperienced personnel at key positions along with an injury-riddled offensive line, West Liberty tied a school record with 8 turnovers and Catawba tied a school record with 11 quarterback sacks in coasting to a 24-3 win.

“With all the mistakes we made,” Waialae said, “I wasn’t amazed that we lost, I was amazed that we were still in the game midway through the second half. I think we’re heading into this season with a much better idea of what we have in terms of personnel and how they shape what we want to do.”

After an up-and-down season of on the job training as a true freshman, Dylan Lagarde returns at quarterback for the Black and Gold. While it was painful at times, Waialae said the experience Lagarde gained last fall should begin paying dividends this year.

There’s plenty of depth at running back with returning senior starter Kenjay Trueblood being pushed hard by true freshman Shavonta Craft and versatile senior Dominic Cooper. Junior letterman Ben Rogers leads a completely revamped receiving corps. Rogers can play any of the four wideout positions and will certainly fill one of them. Sophomore letterman Daree Goodwin and junior Dylan Potts, a transfer from Akron, also figure strongly into the picture along with a number of junior-college transfers. Look for H-Backs Lukas Turley, R.J. Thomas and Robert Jones to play a more prominent role this fall.

Most of the attention naturally falls on the skill positions but Waialae improved play from the offensive line is a must. There’s optimism here, as well, with four starters – seniors Sawyer Russell and Zack Turley, junior Eric Amidei and sophomore John McCullough – returning.

“The offensive line really started to click during the last two or three practices,” Waialae said, “and our running backs have been one of the better groups all along. We’re still seeing some inconsistency from the quarterbacks and receivers but they’ve also shown the ability to make plays against a very experienced secondary. We’ll probably be more run-oriented than we’ve been in the past but we’re still going to take some shots down the field.”

West Liberty rebounded from last year’s disappointing opener to put together a 6-5 season, the seventh winning season in Waialae’s eight years at the helm. Much of the credit for that rebound went to a play-making defensive unit that ranked among the nation’s leaders in turnovers forced and tackles-for-loss while ranking No. 1 nationally with six interception returns for touchdowns.

There’s plenty of talent and experience returning on that side of the ball. Senior DT Nate Maleski, senior CB Justin Black, senior WS Marquis Bradley and senior FS Jovontae Johnson all earned All-WVIAC laurels a year ago while junior LB Alec Wood redshirted last year after earning All-WVIAC honors in each of his first two campaigns.

“We’ve moved some people around so we’re probably not as big as we’ve been,” Waialae said, “but we’re as fast or faster at every position. The game is speeding up on the field and you have to adapt to that. You have to have guys on the field who can make plays.”

Catawba certainly won’t be lacking in that area as strong-armed senior QB Danny O’Brien, who opened the 2012 season as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, will be starting for the Indians on Saturday. O’Brien was the 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year at Maryland but transferred to Wisconsin when the Terps replaced head coach Ralph Friedgen with Randy Edsall. O’Brien left Wisconsin after losing the battle for the starting job in spring drills earlier this year. Also new to the Catawba lineup is senior WR Quan Rucker, who spent the past four years at Wake Forest.

“They obviously have some very talented kids,” Waialae said, “but that doesn’t change anything for us. In order for us to come out of there with a win, we’ll have to strike a good balance between the run and pass on offense and take better care of the football. On defense, we want to make them one-dimensional and take advantage of opportunities to make plays when they present themselves.”