2023 Western Carolina Football Preview

On the edge of greatness, the 2023 Western Carolina football season could secure their second FCS playoff appearance in program history.

Western Carolina QB Cole Gonzales
Source: Western Carolina Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: Kerwin Bell (10-12/3rd Yr)

2022 Record: 6-5 overall, 4-4/5th in SoCon

Returning Starters: 15

Offensive Starters: 6

Defensive Starters: 7

Special Teams: 2

Players To Watch Offense

  • QB Cole Gonzales (102-of-161 passing, 1,336 yds, 11 TDs, 7 INTs)
  • RB Desmond Reid (119 rush att, 826 yds, 4 TDs)
  • RB Jalynn Williams (41 rush att, 204 yds, 2 TDs, 5.0 YPC)
  • WR Censere Lee (36 rec, 634 yds, 6 TDs, 17.6 YPR)
  • WR David White Jr. (20 rec, 384 yds, 5 TDs, 19.2 YPR)
  • TE Ajay Bellanger (20 rec, 176 yds, 1 TD)
  • TE Clayton Bardall (11 rec, 163 yds, 14.8 YPR)
  • WR Calvin Jones (missed the entire 2022 season due to injury)
  • OL Blake Whitmore
  • OL Tyler Smith
  • OL Christian Coulter
  • WR/RS AJ Colombo (5 rec, 36 yds/25.8 KOR avg)

Key Losses on Offense

  • QB Carlos Davis
  • RB TJ Jones
  • OL Dalton Tomlison
  • WR Raphael Williams
  • OL Neyland Walker
  • QB Samuel Cornett

Players to Watch Defense

  • NT Marlon Alexander (25 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FR)
  • DL Jaquarius Guinn (21 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBHs, 1 FR)
  • DL Micah Nelson (35 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 4 QBHs, 1 FR)
  • DB Rod Gattison (37 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
  • DB CJ Williams (14 tackles, 1 PBU)
  • DB Mateo Sudipo (46 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 FFs)
  • LB Va Lealaimatafao (52 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 FFs, 1 PBU)
  • LB Hayward McQueen (59 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 QBHs)
  • DB Samaurie Dukes (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
  • LB Ed Jones IV (38 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 PBUs)

Key Losses on Defense

  • DB Jacob Harris
  • DL KJ Milner
  • DB Taurus Dotson
  • CB Cameron McCutcheon

Key additions from the Transfer Portal

  • LB Antoine Williams (Austin Peay)
  • LB Tyler Matheny (Virginia Tech)
  • QB Charlie Dean (Harvard)
  • LB Tahjae Mullix (Western Illinois)
  • RB Brandon Benjamin (Missouri State)
  • LB Bryce Wilsaon (Akron)
  • LB Curtis Fann Jr. (Akron)
  • OL Therion Cannon (UAB)
  • OL Derek Simmons (Abilene Christian/had to sit out 2022 season due to NCAA transfer rules)
  • OL Ashton Travis (Iowa Central CC)
  • OL Xavier Graham (UMass)
  • RB Levi Berryhill (Rhodes College)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections

  • OL Tyler Smith (1st Team)
  • TE Ajay Belanger (1st Team)
  • DB Andreas Keaton (1st Team)
  • DE Micah Nelson (1st Team)
  • PK Richard McCollum (1st Team)
  • RB Desmond Reid (2nd Team)
  • Christian Coulter (2nd Team)
  • LB Antoine Williams (2nd Team)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 5th (I had them 4th in my SoCon preseason ballot)

Preseason Outlook

Four Decades of Futility

The 2023 football season will mark the 40-year anniversary of one of Western Carolina’s greatest achievements as an athletics program, becoming the first Southern Conference football program to ever make a national championship game appearance.

That 1983 Catamount football team was led by a former quarterback, with the late Bob Waters leading the Catamount football program to some of its greatest achievements as a Southern Conference and Division I football program, joining the conference some six years prior to that run to the national title game.

Though the Catamounts would eventually lose, 43-7, to Southern Illinois at The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium in Charleston, S.C., It appeared that Western Carolina had put down a marker as a football program in its new league and classification.

Waters, who played his college football at Presbyterian College and after that spent a short, four-year career in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers, would end up passing away at the age of 51 due to complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

In his final season as a head coach, Waters spent his time coaching from a motorized wheelchair on the sidelines. After his death in 1989, he had left the Catamount football program a talented, foundational base to build from.

From 1980-89, the Catamount football program would end posting a 51-59-4 record, however, with almost half of those 51 wins coming in a three-year span from 1982-84 (25 wins).

The early ‘90s would be a period in which Catamount football would see some success, but no eventual breakthrough, causing some to actually call the Catamount football program one that was cursed.

Following one season with Dale Strahm (1989) as the head coach, Steve Hodgin would assume the head coaching responsibilities from 1990-96. After winning just five games in his first couple of campaigns as the head coach, the Catamounts were the talk of the SoCon in the early portions of the 1992 season.

Led by quarterback Lonnie Galloway, and dynamic wideouts Craig Aiken and Kerry Hayes, along with running back Harold Hines, the Purple and Gold had one of the most explosive, big-play offenses in the SoCon and all of Division I-AA. Led by arguably the best talent at the skill positions in the SoCon, the Catamounts gained 1,096 more yards (4,567 yds-3,471yds) and had 18 more passing TDs (23-5) in 1992 as compared to 1991.

The offensive explosiveness of that ‘92 team Catamount team would become a trend in years to come, continuing all the way up until present day. In fact, the 1992 offense would be the second-best offense in school history, gaining 766 less yards than the 1983 squad, which ended up playing three more games and running 382 more plays. The Catamounts’ 332 points were the second-most points in program history, bested only by that ‘92 team, which posted 38 (370 pts).

Though Hodgin’s squad some 31 years ago would end up finishing the season just out of the Division I-AA playoff picture (now referred to as FCS playoffs), the season would be a harbinger of things to come for Western Carolina in the Southern Conference, which has become synonymous with offensive talent, as the Catamounts have seemingly produced some of the league’s top offensive talent.

The Catamounts had some impressive wins during the ‘92 campaign, including victories over a couple of ranked foes, knocking off No. 23 Furman (W, 23-20) and on Halloween 1992, the Catamounts would get one of the program’s biggest wins in its history, defeating No. 2 and eventual national champion Marshall, 38-30, on a rainy Halloween afternoon at EJ Whitmire Stadium.

Sporting a 7-3 record entering the final football game of the season against arch-rival Appalachian State, the Catamounts needed a win in Boone in the Battle for the Old Mountain Jug to qualify for the FCS playoffs for the first time in nine years and the second time in school history.

Things started extremely well for Western Carolina, and it appeared the Purple and Gold might be on its way to a third win over a ranked foe, as the 15th-ranked Catamounts battled the 18th-ranked Mountaineers in one of the few battles for the Jug that featured a ranked matchup. With a playoff bid and a share of the Southern Conference

However, in what was a defensive battle between the Catamounts and Mountaineers, it was Appalachian State, which ended both the Catamounts’ SoCon title hopes as well as being able to return to the FCS postseason for the first time in nine years.

The 1992 missed playoff appearance would be the beginning of some pretty good Catamount football teams that would go on to just miss out on both SoCon title and FCS playoff opportunities.

The 2005 season had looked promising, with a 41-21 win over No. 2 Furman and also posted a 21-7 win over Mars Hill to get off to a 2-0 start to the season.

But the Catamounts would have their game canceled against Nicholls State due to a Hurricane, and then dropped a 7-3 contest at FBS Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium. Back-to-back losses to The Citadel (L, 7-17) and at Georgia Southern (L, 7-45) ultimately spelled doom for the ‘05 Catamounts under the direction of then head coach Kent Briggs.

It would once again be Appalachian State that put the final nail in the coffin, with the Mountaineers ending both SoCon title and FCS playoff hopes, with a 35-7 win in Boone.

It would be a tough eight seasons before the Catamounts found themselves back in a similar situation. The year was 2014 and Mark Speir was the head coach.

Like those other Catamount teams that had missed out on both SoCon title and FCS playoff glory, Western Carolina would be loaded on the offensive side of the ball with quarterback Troy Mitchell and running backs Detrez Newsomeand Darius Ramsey leading another talented offensive team. Spearman Robinson and Terryon Robinson were among the best receiving tandems in the Southern Conference.

Losses in three out of the final four games, however, spelled doom for Mark Speir’s Catamounts. With a potential Southern Conference title on the line, Western Carolina dropped a 51-0 contest at home to the Chattanooga Mocs on a day when the Catamounts honored the Cherokee nation with a special, commemorative helmet.

Samford handed the Catamounts a 34-20 loss a week later and then the Catamounts closed the season with an expected loss at Alabama (L, 14-48). Another seven-win season just like way back in 1992. A good season with nothing to show for it.

A year later, the Catamounts would be close again, finishing 7-4, however, a win over Division II Mars Hill would ultimately end up leaving Western Carolina on the short end of the FCS playoff picture once again.

Probably the season that stings the most when it comes to those missed opportunities for Catamount football is 2017. After opening the season with a 41-18 loss at Hawaii, the Catamounts would win their next four games–victories over Davidson (W, 63-17), at Gardner-Webb (W, 42-27), No. 17 Samford (W, 38-34) and at Chattanooga (W, 45-7). The Catamounts would see their winning streak come to an end in a ranked matchup, as the 22nd-ranked Catamounts faced SoCon preseason favorite and No. 5 ranked Wofford in Spartanburg, dropping what was a heartbreaking, 35-28 loss in Spartanburg to the Terriers.

The Catamounts had another strong offense, which was led by quarterback Tyrle Adams, wideout Steffon Hill, running back Detrez Newsome, running back Donovan Spencer and wideout Terryon Robinson, the Catamounts again had elite talent on the offensive side of the ball.

However, having a defense that continued to be porous in seasons when the Purple and Gold had elite offensive talent among its league peers continued to be costly for Western Carolina.

On a rainy, cool Saturday in Cullowhee, the game that would end up changing the trajectory for the Catamounts would be when they faced Furman in late October in the “Battle for Purple Supremacy”. The rain kept down what would have been undoubtedly a big Whitmire Stadium crowd. The 20th-ranked Catamounts were handed a 28-6 loss on their home field, and to make matters worse, quarterback Tyrie Adams would leave the game with an injury and wouldn’t return.

It was the first time all season the Catamount offense had looked human, as the Paladins limited Western Carolina to a season-low six points, and the Paladins out-gained the Catamounts 423-348 in what was a game that the Catamounts had looked like they had in that 51-0 loss to Chattanooga in front of its home fans some three years earlier.

But the game that ultimately kept the Catamounts out of any postseason conversations came a couple of weeks later, hosting Mercer at EJ Whitmire Stadium. A 35-33 home loss to Mercer would end all hopes of a potential playoff bid.

From 2018-20, the Catamounts once again became a doormat of the SoCon gridiron and it would eventually bring about a coaching change. It’s true Mark Speir was on the brink of taking the Catamounts back to the promised land, but three different seven-win seasons had only made the Catamount fanbase hungry for more. Over his final three seasons in Cullowhee, Speir’s Catamounts teams were only able to produce a 7-25 overall record in his final three seasons.

In 2021, Kerwin Bell was introduced as the new leader of the Catamount football program, and he has a unique vision for Catamount football and his vision includes using the transfer portal extensively to the program’s benefit.

Like Bob Waters back who took over in 1969, Bell had been an accomplished quarterback in his collegiate career and parlayed that into a solid coaching career, with plenty of success at both Jacksonville and Valdosta State before his arrival in Catamount country.

Following what was an inauspicious 0-5 start to his coaching career in Cullowhee, Bell has turned the tide of Western Carolina’s football program 180 degrees in the span of 1.5 years. Bell’s Catamounts have posted a 10-6 mark in the time since that 0-6 start, with a 2021 win over the 2023 preseason SoCon favorite Furman, 43-42, which seemingly changed the direction of the program.

By the end of the 2022 season, it was the Catamounts playing the role of spoiler, handing No. 15/17 Chattanooga a 32-29 loss to prevent the Mocs from making a postseason appearance. It was the first win for the Catamounts over a ranked foe since that win over Samford back in 2017.

Bell’s Catamounts were one of the hottest teams in FCS football by the time the 2022 season concluded, as WCU won each of its final three games to close out the season, with wins over Wofford (W, 36-29) and at East Tennessee State (W, 20-17) in the lead-up to the win over the Mocs to close the season.

The 2022 Catamounts were 30 years removed from that ‘92 team, however, it was a team that, like that Catamount squad three decades earlier, proved to be one of the top offenses in program history. The Catamounts effectively posted six more yards (5,339-5,333) than the 1983 team, which had been the top offense in Catamount history in terms of yards gained. The Catamounts’ 691 yards against the Paladins in a 47-40 loss last season were the most yards ever allowed by a Paladin defense in the history of the program. WCU’s 485.4 YPG ranked it as the eighth-best offense in SoCon history.

Bell’s 2022 Catamounts did it in four less games, as the ‘83 Cats did it in 15 games en route to making the school’s only national title game appearance in what was WCU’s only postseason appearance at the NCAA Division I level.

As good as WCU’s offense has been in those seasons that his been on the brink of making back to its first FCS playoff since 1983, the defensive performances have let the Catamounts down time and time again.

The Catamounts seemingly made some promising strides on the defensive side of the football last season, finishing the campaign ranking fifth in total defense (390.5 YPG).

The good news for Bell and the Catamounts is the return of 15 starters from last season’s team that finished red-hot, as the Catamounts return six on the offensive side of the ball, while seven return on defense and a pair of returnees are back on special teams.

Will the Catamounts end a four-decade streak of missing out on the FCS postseason this fall? I think they have an excellent chance of doing so.

Western Carolina’s seven or eight-win seasons since 1983 that have not yielded a return to the FCS playoffs

  • 1984
    • Record: 8-3
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-2 SoCon/2nd in SoCon
  • 1992
    • Record: 7-4
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-2 SoCon/T-2nd in SoCon
  • 2001
    • Record: 7-4
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-3 SoCon/4th in SoCon
  • 2014
    • Record: 7-5
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-2 SoCon/4th in SoCon
  • 2015
    • Record: 7-4
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-2 SoCon/3rd in SoCon
  • 2017
    • Record: 7-5
    • SoCon Record/Finish: 5-3 SoCon/4th in SoCon

Previewing The Catamount Offense

The Catamounts welcome the return of six starters from that offense that was so explosive last season, however, two of those major missing pieces will be Carlos Davis, who has transferred to UMass, as well as Samuel Cornett, who is competing for the job at Wofford.

The other major loss on the offensive side of the football is All-SoCon wide receiver Raphael Williams, who has transferred to San Diego State. Williams was WCU’s leading wide receiving threat last season, as he hauled in 47 passes for 658 yards and six scores last season.

With Davis transferring out at quarterback, it leaves Cole Gonzales and incoming Harvard transfer Charlie Dean, as the two primary candidates to replace Davis as the starter this season. Due to injuries last fall, Gonzales saw plenty of action under center. To give you an example of how much turnover has played a role for the Catamounts under Bell on both sides of the ball, it will mark the third different starter to begin a season under the third-year head ball coach in Cullowhee.

Gonzales is the quarterback that headed into fall camp as the starter, and I feel pretty confident the way head coach Kerwin Bell spoke at media day, the rising sophomore will indeed be the starter when the Catamounts take the field on Sept. 2 at Arkansas.

As a true freshman last season, Gonzales had some outstanding performances for the Catamounts. The Ocala, FL, product saw action in eight games for the Purple and Gold during the 2022 season, completing 102-of-161 passes for 1,336 yards, with 11 TDs and seven INTs. In the regular-season finale, 32-29, win over Chattanooga, Gonzales was sensational, connecting on a career-best 24 passes for 224 yards and a pair of TDs in WCU’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2017.

In a 47-40 loss at Furman last season, Gonzales came in and completed and was a big part of the 462-yard passing day, as he finished the contest by connecting 12-of-16 passes for 253 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Also competing to see time under center as the starting quarterback for is Harvard transfer Charlie Dean. Dean is a 6-1, 190-lb quarterback that will have two seasons of eligibility remaining and coach Bell likes the fact that Dean comes to Western with already a good working knowledge of the spread offense.

He saw action in 14 games with the Crimson, which included logging five starts. Dean completed 221-of-380 passes for 2,705 yards through the air to go along with 22 scoring tosses. He probably won’t enter the season as a starter, but there’s an excellent chance that Dean sees more than his fair share of action under

Gonzales and Dean will again have a good contingent of receivers to throw the football to, even without the services of All-SoCon wideout Raphael Williams, who has transferred to San Diego State.

As is usually the case with Western Carolina, there are several speed merchants to rely on in 2023, however, with Censere Lee, Calvin Jones, and David White Jr. all returning to the fold for the 2023 season. AJ Colombo is another player that could be explosive in the passing game. Last season, his speed was a game-changer in the return game for the Catamounts, as he garnered SoCon All-Freshman Team honors as a return specialist.

Central Florida transfer Terrance Horne Jr. also figures to be in the mix as a big-play threat for the Catamounts. The overall depth the Catamounts possess at the receiving corps in the Southern Conference is unmatched, and while both Mercer and Samford have more prolific options among their starting wideouts, neither team possesses the depth at the position that the Catamounts have.

In recent seasons, tight end is a position that the Catamounts have utilized with some regularity in the passing game. Returning to the fold at tight end for the Catamounts this fall will be Clayton Bardall and Ajay Belanger, who give Western two solid options in down field in the passing game. Both are big targets and capable receiving options for either Gonzales or Dean.

Sophomore tailback Desmond Reid was the 2022 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year last fall and he’s one of the most versatile running backs in the Southern Conference. With 4.3/40-yard dash speed, Reid is also one of the most explosive running backs in the SoCon, as well as the entire FCS.

Reid is a running back I think is the SoCon’s version of Marshall Faulk with his ability to make plays in both the passing game and the running game out of the WCU backfield. Getting him 15-20 touches a game was something that Catamount head coach thought was paramount at SoCon Media Day a few weeks back in Greenville.

In addition to Reid, the Catamounts went to the transfer portal and were able to get a solid addition from Missouri State, in Brandon Benjamin, who will be a nice complement to the skill set that Reid gives the WCU offense.

Reid will have one of the top offensive lines in the Southern Conference to run behind this fall. Three starters return to anchor the offensive front, in Blake Whitmore, Tyler Smith and Christian Coulter. Smith enters the 2023 season as an All-SoCon selection and an All-America candidate.

Bell believes his offensive line has a chance to be one of the very best in all of FCS football this fall. Backing up that claim is how good the Catamounts were offensively in 2022.

In the 2022 season, the Catamounts ranked sixth in the nation in total offense, averaging 485.4 YPG last season. Western Carolina finished the season with 43 offensive touchdowns and averaged 31.9 PPG, and that was good enough to rank the Purple and Gold scoring offense 31st nationally in 2022. The Catamounts also finished the season ranking seventh nationally in passing offense (301.1 YPG).

Previewing The Western Carolina Defense

On the defensive side of the football, the Catamounts made clear strides defensively last fall. The Catamounts return seven starters from a unit that ranked fifth in the SoCon in total defense last season, surrendering 390.5 YPG and the 31.9 PPG surrendered by the Catamounts ranked them eighth overall in the SoCon. The Catamounts sported an excellent pass defense last season, giving up just 207.7 YPG through the air, which was second to only The Citadel last season.

In terms of defending the run, there’s still plenty of work to be done for WCU, which ranked seventh in the nine-team SoCon in rush defense last season, surrendering 182.7 YPG.

The Catamounts did a nice job of getting after the quarterback last season, posting 32 sacks in 11 games, ranking second to only Chattanooga in that category last fall. The 4,295 yards surrendered by the Catamount defense last season marked the best unit in terms of total yards yielded to the opposition since the Catamounts gave up 4,195 yards in 2009. That total from this past season came on a total of 755 plays, while the 2009 campaign saw the Catamount opposition log 798 plays.

The 351 points surrendered by the Catamounts were the least amount of points given up by a Catamount defense since the 2017 Western Carolina team gave up 325 points, which impressively, was done in a 12-game season.

Those improvements on the defensive side came as the 2022 progressed. From one game to the next, the Catamount defense seemingly got better on the defensive side of the ball with each passing week. Western Carolina held its last three opponents in SoCon play to less than 30 points. That came after giving up 30 or more points to four of its first five league foes, with only VMI being the exception. It was no coincidence, then, that the Catamounts started 1-4 in league play.

The credit for the tremendous improvements and adjustments made on the defensive side of the football last season can be attributed to defensive coordinator Chazmon Scales, who has helped the Catamounts develop a toughness and grit that it has lacked in recent seasons. It would seemingly all start to come together in those last three games last fall, which resulted in wins over Wofford, East Tennessee State and Chattanooga.

Though the Catamounts had only four departures on the defensive side of the ball, there were a couple of significant departures, in defensive lineman KJ Milner and linebacker EJ Porter. Milner was the Catamounts’ top pass-rusher last fall, finishing the season with 45 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and six sacks. He parlayed that into garnering All-SoCon honors last season. Porter started nine of 11 games last season, posting 31 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, and forced a fumble.

Caleb Fisher will try and fill the void left by Milner at defensive end. The key to the overall defensive improvement for the Catamounts down the stretch last fall was the strong play on the defensive line. Three starters are back from that unit this season, and joining the ranks alongside Fisher up front this fall will be defensive end/bandit Micah Nelson,nose tackle Marlon Alexander, and defensive tackle JaQuarius Guinn.

The Catamounts went to the transfer portal and added a trio of transfers. The first of that trio is grad transfer Bryce Wilson from Akron to help bolster what is a strong unit even more. Wilson saw action in 29 games from 2019-22, posting 47 tackles (21 solo) and 4.5 tackles-for-loss. He was a three-star recruit coming out of Parkview High School in Lilburn, GA.

Another addition to the defensive line from the Akron football program is redshirt junior Curtis Fann Jr. The native of Stillmore, GA, will add depth at defensive end for the Catamounts this fall.

The final addition is from Western Illinois, as Tahjae Mullix. The native of Covington, GA, will have three years of eligibility remaining and coming out of high school was ranked as the 48th best defensive line recruit in Georgia by MaxPreps.

At linebacker, the Catamounts return both of their big hitters in the middle of the defensive unit, with Va Lealaimatafao, as does Hayward McQueen III.

McQueen might have been the most talented linebacker on the Catamount squad last season, finishing out the season with 59 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, one sack and three quarterback hurries. His 59 stops ranked second on the Catamount defense in 2022. McQueen was named to the SoCon’s All-Freshman team last season, finishing the season with a career-high 10 tackles in the upset win over Chattanooga, which was good enough for an honorable mention nod for FedEx FCS Freshman of the Week, which is awarded weekly by STATS FCS.

While the two returning are solid, potential All-SoCon candidates by season’s end, the best addition the Catamounts made on either side of the football in the off-season is at linebacker, where Antoine Williams joins the fold after having played his previous three seasons at Austin Peay.

Williams saw action in 24 games over three seasons in Clarksville, TN, playing for the Governors. He finished his career with Austin Peay credited with 100 tackles over those three campaigns, and that included 47 solo stops. He also had 12.5 tackles-for-loss and registered four sacks and forced a pair of fumbles.

The other transfer linebacker that could be in for a big season in his first and only season in Cullowhee is Virginia Tech graduate transfer Tyler Matheny. Matheny was a walk-on with the Hokies, and he saw action in eight games with two starts from 2018-22.

Western Carolina has one of the up-and-coming defensive backfields in FCS football, and that unit is slated to be anchored by junior Andreas Keaton (72 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 5 PBUs, 7 PDs), who returns as the hard-hitting safety and a player that could compete for SoCon Defensive Player of the Year honors this fall.

Joining Keaton on the Catamounts’ defensive back line will be Samaurie Dukes who plays as a nickel defensive back/linebacker and was a SoCon All-Freshman team selection last fall. Mateo Sudipo is also back at safety, as is Rod Gattison and CJ Williams at both cornerback spots. One of the strengths of the WCU defense will once again be its secondary.

Special Teams Preview

The special teams unit will be in great shape with the return of Richard McCollum (17-of-19 on FGs last season/40-of-41 on PATs) from the transfer portal. The rising senior place-kicker will likely compete for All-America honors this fall. Western Carolina must find an adequate replacement for Brandon Dickerson at punter (43.7 YPP in 2022), with Paxton Robertson, who handled kickoff duties for the Purple and Gold last fall, expected to compete for the job.

Overall Synopsis

Western Carolina is a team that seems to be knocking at the door of being a consistent upper echelon finisher in the Southern Conference, and this is a season which I think the Catamounts break through and become the SoCon’s fourth qualifier for the FCS playoffs for just the second time in league history, and for Western Carolina’s football program, will mark just its second FCS playoff appearance in program history.

2023 Schedule prediction

  • Sept. 2 at Arkansas (L, 17-52)
  • Sept. 9 vs. Samford (L, 38-41)
  • Sept. 16 at Eastern Kentucky (W, 35-28)
  • Sept. 23 vs. Charleston Southern (W, 57-24)
  • Sept. 30 at The Citadel (W, 31-28)
  • Oct. 7 at Chattanooga (W, 31-30)
  • Oct. 21 vs. Furman (L, 30-40)
  • Oct. 28 vs. Mercer (L, 30-33)
  • Nov. 4 at Wofford (W, 42-28)
  • Nov. 11 vs. ETSU (W, 38-31)
  • Nov. 18 at VMI (W, 51-31)

Projected Final Regular-Season Record: 7-4 overall, 5-3 SoCon/FCS at-large playoff invitation