LEBANON, Tenn.--The 2019 Cumberland University football team begins its season under second year Head Coach Tim Mathis and a new look staff this Saturday.
The 2018 team went 5-6 including a 3-3 Mid-South Conference record, defeating the then fourth-ranked Lindsey Wilson team. Out of the six games that the Phoenix dropped last year, four of them came by less than 12 points.
This season Cumberland has seven coaches that are new or are in new positions and they are looking to bring a new passion to get things back in the right direction. "The energy that all these young coaches are bringing are the best thing that has happened to the program. They love Cumberland and that is huge. They can sell this place to the kids." Mathis spoke about his new staff and how he thinks that they will play a big role in helping the development of the athletes.
Coach Mathis expressed how eager they were to get on the field this week, “We are really excited. We are ready to hit somebody that is in a different color jersey.” Offensive Coordinator Broc Loveless added, "Camp went really well and the guys are really excited and ready to get back after it."
The Phoenix return 34 letterwinners, including 15 on offense, 18 on defense, and one special teams' player. Cumberland also brings back 16 players that started at least five games last year. Mathis said, "We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football." Besides the returnees, Cumberland's coaches are also excited about the transfers and freshmen they are adding to the team.
Four players that earned All-Mid-South Conference recognition come back for Cumberland this season: Sam Michael – OL, Kendall Johnson – SLOT, Telvin Rucker – RB, Aaron White – DL, Tyler Tate – LB and Denarius Toliver – WR.
Last year's offense ran for 193.2 yards per game last, good for 26th in the nation. The Phoenix look to add to those numbers with a physical style of play and increased size on the offensive line. Joseph Rushin leads the charge this year from the Quarterback position and both Mathis and Loveless think very highly of the senior's skillset and leadership abilities.
"Joseph Rushin is going from running back to running the show and he has done nothing, but be a leader. He not only has done it in the past, but he can step up and be that guy," Mathis said of Rushin. Last season, Rushin spent most of his time at the B-Back position rushing for 366 yards on 98 carries and posting three rushing touchdowns. In 2017, Rushin spent more time at his natural position, Quarterback, and threw for 524 yards on 58 attempts with four touchdowns.
"Rushin is a leader in the huddle and the guys feed off of him. He makes all the correct checks at the line he is extremely smart." Loveless continued, "He has honestly taken some stuff off of my plate of having to do the extra leadership stuff.
The Phoenix look to be very deep at running back this year, returning star seniors Telvin Rucker and Kendall Johnson as well as looking for production from Kris Parker, Chris Gatewood, Riley Darden, Rez Robinson, and freshman Treylon Sheppard.
"Getting Kris Parker back is going to be big for us at b-back. He is a bigger body guy who we can stick him in there and reliably get three or four yards when we need him to," Loveless explained. Parker missed last season, but in 2017 he rushed for 634 yards and three touchdowns. Continued Loveless, "having Telvin (Rucker) back at the b-back position helps a lot as well." Rucker last year broke out for MSC First-Team Running Back honors, rushing for 691 yards and four touchdowns.
Loveless gushed about newcomer Treylon Sheppard, "We are really excited to get him playing this season. He’s had a great camp, he’s been really explosive and I know the kid can run and he is not afraid to lower his shoulder."
"At the receiver position, we have a lot of leadership with (Denarius) Toliver, (Ian) Hafner, Ian Spence and Ty Jobe is there too and he has experience and Shaw Niblett is there too and he comes from a big high school, Hoover (Alabama)." Loveless has high remarks about the wide receiver group as they are experienced and can play a big role in the offense.
"The offensive line has a lot of older guys that have played last year and they are a key part to our offense." The line is returning four guys that started in games last year with First-Team All-MSC OL Sam Michael leading the group. Redshirt freshman Josh Mathis is in the loop to get a lot of time at center and getting Left Tackle Wyatt Page back from an injury last season will help them get their running game going.
The defense returns nine guys that started in five or more games, while continuing to add depth. They want to create confusion for offenses by throwing multiple looks at them and playing exceptionally fast.
"We have a very good veteran group coming back." Defensive Coordinator Taurean Smith added, "We are going to play fast, play physical. play aggressive and play tough."
"Defensively we got a couple of transfers in that are really going to help us. [Tyler Martin-Miles, Tristian Taylor, Kaleb Witherspoon]" Mathis thinks they will seamlessly fit into the current dynamic of the squad.
The coaches showed even more excitement for the front seven unit. "That is probably our strong suit. We are more experienced on the defensive line," Mathis said. Cumberland is returning First Team All-MSC Defensive Tackle Aaron White whom last season recorded 56 total tackles, seven for a loss and five sacks. To go along with White, senior Damian Starks and Malik Trollinger are back who recorded 4.5 and two sacks, respectively.
First Team All-MSC Linebacker Tyler Tate is back to hold up the linebacker position along with returning starter Jon Carrothers. Coach Mathis has high expectations for redshirt sophomore Brandon Taylor and believes he can be a big help to the defensive core. "He didn’t necessarily play a lot last year, but we expect him to do good things." Coach Mathis believes our front seven on defense can be great and it starts with these guys and the defensive line.
Prentiss Summerall and Tony Bennett are back in the secondary after starting every game in 2018. Transfers Tyler Martin-Miles and Kaleb Witherspoon are expected to step in and be great additions to the defense.
Cumberland takes on four teams ranked in the NAIA Preseason Coaches' Poll- at No. 13 Lindsey Wilson, No. 16 Bethel University, No. 17 University of the Cumberlands and at No. 21 Georgetown.
"Our division is tough. We are going to be really good and four other teams in our division are ranked. Here you have to show up every week." Mathis continued. "Pikeville is a .500 team, Thomas More put 40 points and threw for 500 yards (last week vs Kentucky Christian), so every week is important. Our conference top to bottom is really tough. There are no off weeks in this division."
Coach Loveless ended on, "At the end of the day football is about blocking and tackling and if you do your job we will be successful."
Cumberland is receiving votes in the NAIA Preseason Coaches' Poll and were picked seventh in the Mid-South Bluegrass Division.
The Phoenix are at home this Saturday vs Cincinnati Christian University. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.