West Liberty set to open at Concord

WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – West Liberty University head football coach Roger Waialae says his Hilltoppers need to expect the unexpected on Saturday when they open the 2016 season on the road at Concord. Kickoff is set for noon at Callaghan Stadium in Athens, W.Va.

This is the second consecutive year that WLU and the Mountain Lions have met in the season opener but much has changed since West Liberty upset then-No. 9-ranked Concord, 29-28, a year ago.

The Mountain Lions have a new head coach as veteran defensive coordinator Paul Price replaced Garin Justice, who left during the off-season for an assistant coaching job at Florida Atlantic. The Concord coaching staff has also been revamped with new offensive and defensive coordinators while the on-field personnel has been altered considerably with several juco transfers joining the 11 returning starters.

“The biggest challenge for us on Saturday is the unknown,” Waialae said. “Price has been there for a few years but the question is whether the new coordinators will change a little or a lot. Offensively, we need to be crisp and decisive. Defensively, we have to read our keys and stay fundamentally sound. At some point, Concord is going to do something we haven’t seen so we’ll have to be able to adjust on the fly.”

Back for his third season as a starter, senior quarterback Dakota Conwell has established himself as one of the premier dual-threat QBs in the region. The University of Arizona transfer has passed for more than 5,300 yards and 46 TDs in the past two years but he’s also tacked on nearly 1,000 rushing yards.

Senior WR Anton McCallum returns after catching 41 passes for 732 yards and 8 TDs a year ago. Also back is sophomore H-Back Ian Kelly, who had 36 catches for 455 yards as a true freshman last fall. Purdue transfer Dan Monteroso (6-3, 195) and juco transfer Mike McLean (6-4, 190) join returning junior WR Max Kapron (6-5, 215) to give Conwell several tall and talented targets on the perimeter.

A deep stable of running backs will operate behind an experienced offensive line. The Black and Gold would like nothing better than matching last year’s ball-hogging performance when they reeled off a season-high 98 plays in the season-opening win against Concord.

“I liked what I saw from our offense in camp,” Waialae said, “but our biggest improvement came on the defensive side of the ball. We have a much more mature group that understands the big picture. I thought last year’s group did a good job of preparing from Tuesday through Friday but there were times when we struggled to execute on Saturday. That’s something we’ve really focused on in our game prep.”

The strength of West Liberty’s defense figures to be a deep and experienced defensive line with four returning starters and a versatile rotation that goes at least 10 deep. At the next level, senior LB Garrett Vulcano – last year’s leading tackler – will be flanked at linebacker by impressive sophomore Cliff Clark.

Both starting cornerbacks – senior Solomon Dixon and junior Terrance Baldwin – return and are coming off very solid preseason camps. Brandon Gaither, a junior college transfer, will likely start at strong safety with veterans Cordell Felder and Miles Young splitting time at weak safety. Redshirt freshman Logan Deri gets the nod at free safety but there’s plenty of depth and versatility in the secondary, as well.

Sophomore Brandon Morrison saw significant game action as a true freshman a year ago while the redshirt freshman duo of Lherry Fontilisse and Josh Ojo are also in line for plenty of action.

Just two seasons removed from a run to the NCAA Division II national semifinals, Concord also boasts some impressive weapons in its arsenal.

Leading the way is the senior duo of QB Brian Novak and WR Jermeil Douse. Novak, a four-year starter, has thrown for 7,507 yards and 56 TDs during his time in Athens. He needs just 324 more yards and two more touchdowns to become the school’s career record-holder in both categories.

Douse, also a dangerous punt and kick returner, came up just short of 1,000 receiving yards last year and had a pair of touchdown catches in the loss to West Liberty.

“Douse is a threat to score from any point on the field,” Waialae said, “so we need to do everything we can to limit his touches. Novak is a very good, very experienced quarterback who really throws the deep ball well. We need to generate a consistent pass rush and not give him time to set up.”