Over the next couple of weeks, the Catamount Sports Network and CatamountSports.com will feature positional previews of the 2016 Catamount football team. Each feature will contain the position write-ups from the 2016 Western Carolina media guide, and Catamount Sports Network All-Access video highlights and interviews with the position coach and student-athletes.
2016 Catamount Football Position Preview: the Defensive Line
An area that was among the units to have made the biggest improvements in 2015 looks to be one of the challenges for Western Carolina defensively entering the 2016 season -- along the defensive line.
Assistant Head Coach Mark Rhea, who has led WCU's defensive ends over the past couple of seasons, resumes control of the entire defensive line in 2016. Rhea, who is in his seventh season in Cullowhee, also serves as the program's recruiting coordinator.
The Catamounts lost six players off its defensive front including three to graduation in senior defensive ends Caleb Hawkins (177 career tackles, 26.5 career TFLs, 12.5 career sacks) and John McBeth (122 career tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks), as well as senior defensive tackle Helva Matungulu (53 career tackles, 7. TFLs, 3.0 sacks). Hawkins was an All-Southern Conference selection a year ago and Matungulu is battling for a roster spot with the NFL's New York Jets.
The Catamounts also lost the services of underclassman Derrick Davis who had 35 career tackles over his first two seasons. He is pursuing academic interests and post-graduation opportunities.
WCU returns two-year starters in defensive tackles Tyler Junius and Ezavian Dunn in the middle with multi-year role players such as Zachary Greene, Sheldon Kinard, Fred Mooring, and Avery Worsham being asked to take on bigger roles. Junius returns as WCU's leading tackler with 37 stops including 2.5 tackles for loss a season ago while Dunn brings back a team-best 3.5 tackles for loss among his 15 stops a year ago.
The Catamounts return two-year reserve defensive end Andrew Mayton from a knee injury that sidelined him in 2015 where he rejoins senior Daniel Nash and redshirt junior Tahjai Watt along the edge. Watt posted 31 stops in 2015 and was very impressive during 2016 spring drills, while Nash posted a career-best 23 tackles last fall.
Three redshirt freshmen in Jay Gibbs, Tra'von Ricketts, and Myreon Bennett look to add much needed depth along the defensive line with three-year offensive lineman Matt DeGraffinreed, who switched sides of the ball at the start of fall camp, to add numbers. The Catamounts also added Appalachian State transfer Tashion Singleton (Charlotte, N.C.), who played in 19 games at ASU, and freshmen Jake Helms (Mooresville, N.C.) and Holden Edwards (Mount Ulla, N.C.) -- each of which could see playing time among the four-man front package of the Catamount defense.
ADDITIONAL DEFENSIVE LINE NOTES:
Half of WCU's tackles for loss in 2015 -- 30 of 60 -- came from its defensive line ... the Catamounts will have to replace 17 TFLs from a season ago.
WCU Football 2016 Position-by-Position Preview (tentative schedule):
Offensive Line - WATCH
Defensive Line - ABOVE
Tight Ends - Aug. 12
Linebackers - Aug. 15
Wide Receivers - Aug. 18
Special Teams - Aug. 19
Running Backs - Aug. 22
Defensive Backs - Aug. 23
Quarterbacks - Aug. 24