Yesterday we glanced at the offense and coaching for the FCS Gardner-Webb Bulldogs, and today the attention turns to the defensive side of the ball as well as special teams. Each of these units will be looking to bounce back from the loss of a big-time player and to a large extent the season hinges on whether or not the Bulldogs can put up a defense similar to the 2013 season, with the added bonus of avoiding the handful of games where they were simply outmanned by opposing offenses.
The defense's first tall task of the season will be to overcome the loss of Shaquille Riddick, a defensive end who was an FCS All-American last year. Following the season Riddick announced that he would be transferring to complete his final year and after a series of visits decided to make the move to West Virginia. It remains to be seen how Riddick, an aggressive end who has a pretty good shot at getting drafted, will adjust to the fast-paced FBS level, but it is almost certain that the Bulldogs will feel the loss. Riddick played in 11 games last season, racking up 8.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, and 17 quarterback hurries. Additionally he is rated a top 15 defensive end for the 2015 draft and will be expected to contribute right away for the Mountaineers.
While the loss of Riddick on the outside will be a big gap for Gardner-Webb, they will be able to take some consolation in their 3-4 defense (after a switch from the 4-3 last season when Carroll McCray came in) which will be rooted by 2014 Athlon FCS Preseason All-American O.J. Le'iatua Mau at the nose tackle position. At 6'2", 310 lbs, Mau is a beast to handle for opposing offensive linemen and he was named to the Big South Conference team last season, as well as snagging a couple of All-American accolades. Mau had 54 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks in a very productive sophomore season.
With Mau and Riddick on the defensive line together last year, the Bulldogs ranked first in the Big South in rushing defense (122.5 ypg), pass defense (174.2 ypg), pass efficiency defense (114.0 rating), opponent first downs (185), opponent third down conversion rate (32.2%), sacks (27), and opponent fourth down conversion rate (25%). The defense finished the year ranked 5th in total defense in the FCS, allowing just under 300 yards per game.
Behind Mau on the defensive line, linebackers Tanner Burch (inside) and Chad Geter (outside) have earned pre-season honors as well, both being named to the FCS Linebacker Watch List to start the season. Burch, a rising senior, has recorded over 100 tackles in two consecutive seasons and dominated in big-time games, recording a total of 33 tackles in three wins over ranked opponents last season. Geter, a junior, had 82 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles over the course of the season. A converted safety, Geter still weighs in at 6'2", 235 lbs, and will be able to use the skills he acquired while playing in the secondary to not only rush the quarterback, but drop into coverage to potentially disguise some schemes for the 3-4 defense.
The Bulldogs' special teams unit will need to find a replacement for senior kicker Justin Day, who was an integral part of back-to-back wins over ranked opponents Richmond and Wofford as he recorded all fifteen of their combined points in the two matchups. Gardner-Webb only has one listed kicker/punter currently on the roster, Dustin Holder, and he only attempted one punt last year which rolled a feeble 19 yards. McCray will most likely be relying upon freshman signee Paul Schumacher out of Florida who is ranked as the 62nd best punter in the class of 2014 and won the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in Palm Beach County.
If Schumacher is unable to play for some reason, or the Bulldogs are not happy with his progress, they might be in a considerable amount of trouble in the special teams area. The loss of Day is likely one of their bigger losses overall, in addition to the Riddick transfer, as the Bulldogs return 16 starters from a team which went 7-5 and at one point was ranked 15th in the nation for FCS schools.
As far as FCS teams go, Gardner-Webb appears to be one of the better ones not only in the area, but perhaps in the country. I don't think it would be overly optimistic for Bulldog fans to see another seven-win season, and perhaps even eight or nine wins if the chips fall correctly. The bad news for Gardner-Webb, and good news for Wake Forest, is that the Bulldogs still don't have much of a shot against an ACC squad, even one projected to be as young and inexperienced across the board as the Demon Deacons.
Gardner-Webb took a pretty good team last year into Marshall, who knocked Maryland off in a bowl game last year thus ending the Terrapins run in the ACC, and were absolutely annihilated by a score of 55-0. The Bulldogs might score a little bit more than I give them credit for, but they had the 5th best defense in the FCS last year and gave up 55 points to a high-powered Marshall team who did ultimately finish in the top 15 in the FBS in total offense. The defense will not be as good as it was last year and in only their second game of the year, I believe that Gardner-Webb will still be trying to find ways to overcome the loss of Riddick.
Wake will be used to the 3-4 defense and will simply overmatch and overpower the opposing Bulldogs, who will likely not be ashamed at all by the end result at BB&T Field.
My way too early prediction for this one:
Check back next week for a preview of the Utah State Aggies, marking Wake Forest's first ever football game in the state of Utah.