They’re too young at too many positions.
Graduation took far too heavy a toll in May.
In the season opener with Huntingdon College five weeks ago, the Maryville College football team lost its starting quarterback to a concussion, the injury not only ending the season for sophomore Derek Hunt but finishing his playing career as well.
The Scots have swept each of those obstacles aside to enter homecoming weekend in a three-way tie atop the USA South Athletic Conference standings, with games with co-frontrunners North Carolina Wesleyan College and Christopher Newport University looming the next three weeks.
To bring his alma mater to such a point has been Tony Ierulli’s sole focus during his six-year tenure as coach. The Scots just haven’t reached that point yet, he said.
Maryville is hosting Averett University for homecoming on Saturday at Honaker Field. The Cougars have always given the Scots fits, and Ierulli said earlier this week he expects no different in the latest edition of the thrill-a-minute series.
“We’ve always matched up well with Averett,” he said. “It’s always a good football game. It’s probably not going to be settled until the last few minutes of the game.”
Kickoff is 2 p.m.
WBCR radio, AM 1470, will have the broadcast.
“This team’s been extremely focused in not looking too far ahead of things,” Ierulli said.
That talk of a conference championship and its automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs is even a topic of conversation for these Scots is a quite a story. Maryville suffered substantial losses due to graduation in the spring, bidding farewell to 25 seniors.
Seven of those seniors played critical roles along the offensive line a year ago, a season that saw current senior Rommel Hightower eclipse the school’s all-time rushing record. Receiving sensation Wesley Idlette enjoyed a bang up year a season ago with Hunt afforded time to throw behind that line.
On the defensive side, five down linemen also said their goodbyes in May. Last year, they enabled linebacker Kyle Chewning to hunt down enough opposing ball carriers to be named All-South and USA South Defensive Player of the Year.
“More than anything, we graduated their leadership,” Ierulli said. “Basically, the foundation of our team was no longer with us.”
Idlette, Chewning and Hightower, each in his own right, have ably filled the void this season, with the double-coverage-busting Idlette the gemstone of the three.
“Our trademark has been we’ve had a good defense over the years,” Ierulli said. “The difference (this season) is having a player like Wesley Idlette at wide receiver.”
A product of The Baylor School in Chattanooga, the 6-foot, 175-pound All-USA South Idlette was a real find for the Maryville coaching staff a year ago. Possessing exceptional speed and athleticism, Idlette burst onto the scene with 47 catches for 778 yards and four touchdowns in 2008.
This fall, with defenses geared to stop him, the pace is just quick, with the Maryville jet hauling in 34 passes for 580 yards and four scores at the halfway point.
It’s all geared toward one thing, Idlette said, something a fifth-place ranking in the preseason USA South coaches’ poll only enhanced.
“Our main goal right now is to win the conference,” he said. “The biggest thing is to show them we can play. We practice as hard as anybody, and we always play better with a chip on our shoulder.”
An even better sophomore campaign for Idlette looked doubtful when Hunt suffered his fifth concussion dating back to Maryville High in the opener. Junior Tim Conner took the reins at quarterback with the loss of Hunt and the Scots air game continued with no let up. Senior Sam McCord and sophomore Ryan Roach have developed as legitimate deterrents to opposing defenses focusing too much of their attention on Idlette.
“They’re double covering (Idlette) all the time,” Ierulli said. “We knew he was a threat catching the ball. What we didn’t know is how good he’d be in helping us develop our second and third receivers. To make Wesley more dangerous, we needed to develop another go-to receiver on the other side.”
It’s the run game where the loss of all those linemen has been hardest felt.
In Hightower and junior Darrell Tate, Maryville has a pair of twin, powerful backs, both with game-breaking speed. Getting them untracked hasn’t been easy, though, with Hightower reaching the halfway point with 364 yards and no touchdowns on 90 carries, Tate 175 yards and a single score.
Senior Nick Moore has just over 100 yards rushing on the year.
“We’ve got to be balanced,” Ierulli said. “We can’t be a team that’s going to throw it 70 percent of the time, and we can’t be a team that runs that much, either.”
One thing that hasn’t changed from a year ago, even with so many new faces in front of him, has been Chewning’s play in the middle of the Maryville defense.
“He’s very focused,” Ierulli said. “When he goes to practice, it’s very business like.”
From an uncanny knack of making the first tackle on defense - Chewning’s done it in each of Maryville’s last two home games - to leading the Scots in stops the last two years, the Maryville captain’s motor never stops running once he hits the playing field, Ierulli said.
“He’s had a great career,” he said. “He plays hard. He plays physical. He’s really stepped up to being a captain.”
As the defensive front retooled this season, the Scots got stronger in the secondary as compensation. Junior Bud Christy has collected five interceptions to date to rank third in the category nationally. Christy and sophomore Caleb Clement rank second and third, respectively, behind Chewning in tackles.
Helping Chewning shore up the defensive interior is sophomore linebacker Tanner Caylor, who ranks fourth.
Maryville is at Wesleyan a week from Saturday, with a difficult test with Greensboro (N.C.) College serving as a prelude to the trip to Christopher Newport on Nov. 7, a game that, by that point, could very well prove one of the biggest Maryville has ever played.
“Like I’ve always said, I didn’t come here to run an average program,” Ierulli said. “That (a conference title) has always been our goal. Now, we’re thinking it, but we can’t do that unless we can get past a good Averett team.