Grayson Willingham

Lenoir-Rhyne quarterback Grayson Willingham (16) attempts a quick pass over the middle in this file photo.

The Lenoir-Rhyne and St. Augustine’s football teams experienced very different 2018 seasons. The Bears finished 12-2 and reached the national quarterfinals, while the Falcons won just two games and ended the season on a four-game losing streak.

Nevertheless, these two squads have never played one another, so L-R will have to learn a new opponent when it hosts the Falcons on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Moretz Stadium.

“They’ll be athletic,” L-R second-year head coach Drew Cronic said of St. Augustine’s during the Bears’ weekly Facebook Live show on Tuesday evening. “Watching them on film, I see them as a program that has improved steadily over the last few years.”

One of the Falcons’ top players is senior running back Jeremiah Miller, who has led them in rushing yards each of the past two seasons. One of 14 returning starters, he finished with 198 carries for 665 yards and three touchdowns last fall.

St. Augustine’s also has some talent on defense, including sophomore linebacker Joseph Harris. The Falcons’ leading tackler with 58 a year ago, he earned All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association First Team and All-CIAA Rookie Team accolades.

“I’m sure that they’ve talked about playing L-R, who is a top-10 program right now in the preseason, and all that,” said Cronic of the Falcons. “I’m sure they’ll be excited to play us and try to start their year off the right way. So whatever they’ve got, we’ll get it all.”

L-R hasn’t won a season opener since 2015 and will be looking to change that after a remarkable 2018 campaign and a solid offseason.

“I just like our kids. … They’ve rebuilt a culture,” said Cronic. “I think we gave them a good blueprint, but they did it. They trusted us and they jumped on it and they worked hard. They’ve learned to care about each other and be invested in each other.”

The Bears won’t be able to sneak up on the Falcons, though, as they enter the 2019 season ranked eighth in the NCAA Division II preseason poll and as the favorites to win a second straight South Atlantic Conference title.

“The thing we’ve talked about a lot, we’ve harped on, is this is a new season,” said Cronic. “… Last year maybe we snuck up on some people, but that won’t happen anymore, so we’ve got to play really consistent football every Saturday.

“We’ll get everybody’s best shot,” he added. “But that’s a good thing. We want to be the standard and we want to consistently be able to compete for conference championships, and I think our guys are ready to do that.”

Two of the key returners for L-R are senior safety Kyle Dugger and junior offensive lineman Jason Poe, who were recently named Preseason First Team All-Americans by D2Football.com. Others back for the Bears include redshirt junior Grayson Willingham at quarterback, senior linebackers Clayton Horn and Sherrod Williams, junior defensive tackles Dan Louba and Amari Houston, senior defensive end Jaquan Artis, junior safety Eric Jackson and senior safety Landon Scott.

The Bears’ biggest strength will likely be their defense, but the offense should also improve behind the likes of Willingham and what Cronic called a “running back by committee.”

“We’ve got a lot of guys we can hand the ball to, so I feel like you can’t really focus in on one guy,” said Cronic. “… A lot of different guys are gonna touch the ball and we’re gonna play with tempo and try to confuse you a little bit with some formations and make you play every inch of the field and see if you can handle all that.”

Saturday marks the first of six regular-season home games for the Bears during the historic 100th season of Lenoir-Rhyne football. A fireworks display will take place approximately five minutes after the conclusion of the contest.

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Josh McKinney is the sports editor for the Hickory Daily Record. 

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