BOILING SPRINGS – Gardner-Webb was back on the turf at Ernest W. Spangler Stadium Tuesday morning, its fifth day in a row of practice under warm summer skies.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs worked once again in shells (shoulder pads, helmets, shorts) for just shy of two hours on perhaps the steamiest morning of the month to date. Despite the heat, the squad pushed forward and wrapped up another solid day of preparation. Gardner-Webb opens its season on Saturday, September 4, at Georgia Southern. Kickoff is set for 6 pm in Statesboro, Ga., a place not visited by the gridiron ‘Dogs since 2002.
Depth in several key areas will be important for Gardner-Webb throughout the 2021 season, and one of the more underrated areas heading into camp – running back – has shown its depth so far in practices.
All-Big South Conference runner Narii Gaither (5-10, 177, Jr.) has a hold on the starting job in the team’s one-back sets, but the potential 1,000-yard rusher is far from the lone threat in that room. Local product Jalin Graham (6-1, 195, So.) blends great size, vision and speed after starring at nearby Crest High. Dexter Brown (6-0, 196, Jr.) has experience and sprinter’s speed (10.4 in the 100m dash). Newcomer Donovan Jones (5-9, 180, Fr.) has shown good balance and is coming off of Florida Class 2A State Offensive Player of the Year honors as a prep senior. Veterans A.J. Moses (6-0, 223, Sr.) and D.J. Hancock (5-9, 174, Jr.) are more than capable of carrying the rock as well.
Another newcomer, Janeiro Crankfield (5-8, 165, Fr.) entered camp listed at receiver, but has worked exclusively with the running backs this month. He has exceptional quickness and is right at home in the open field.
* Gardner-Webb may wind up using three different kickers for specific roles once the season begins. Punter Jack Pawloski (6-0, 190, Gr.) is one of the most experienced men at his position in the country and has punted for 2,992 yards (41.0 average) during his 14 career games at Gardner-Webb. The Florence, S.C., native has tried his hand at placekicking as well this camp, but will likely settle in again as the starting punter – and holder. Newcomer Jay Billingsley (5-10, 160, Fr.) and returning letterwinner Austin McKay (5-11, 169, Jr.) continue to battle for the starting job on field goals at PAT kicks, while international addition Dominik Sojat (6-2, 220, Fr.) will likely handle kickoffs. Sojat has a very powerful leg and played both rugby and soccer before trying his hand at American football. He boomed a kickoff out of the back of the end zone on Tuesday.
* Gardner-Webb has a gifted four-man rotation developing at inside linebacker. Honus Wagner (6-0, 225, Jr.) has moved over to the MIKE position after a solid spring splitting time at WILL, and has been working with the first team all camp. He had a season-high 10 stops in the win over Presbyterian on March 6. Returning starter Will McRainey (6-0, 217, So.) has also been running with the ones over the past few days and is emerging as a team leader on defense. All-Big South veteran Cade Hamilton (6-0, 228, Sr.) rotates in with the first team at MIKE as well, and former outside linebacker Tray Dunson (6-2, 221, Jr.) is settling in well at WILL.
* Several members of the team were tabbed to shoot clips for the team’s hype and intro videos on Tuesday afternoon, and were thrilled with the opportunity to meet the schools’ new live mascot, Bo the Bulldog. Bo calmly sat through an hour of shooting – video and still photos – with players, head coach Tre Lamb and his family.
* Gardner-Webb will enjoy an off day on Wednesday before getting back to the field in full gear on Thursday morning.