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  • Michael Peckerar

2021 Football Spring Season Recap

At the start of the 1919-20 academic year, Atlantic Christian College students had grown frustrated with the state of ACC sports. The young college had been struggling athletically due to the impact of World War I and… the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. In response, ACC hired C.L. Blackburn to coach a newly formed football team. Of the 14 players on the team, only four of them had ever played the game before.


Following a winless season, Coach Blackburn sang the praises of the team’s hard work and “good clean sportsmanship,” winning the young coach the admiration of the student body. In response, the editors of the campus paper (then named The Radiant,) wrote “May football continue at Atlantic Christian College, so here’s to Next Year’s Team!”


Can parallels can be drawn between the first ACC football season and the first Barton College football season? Take your pick… global pandemic, new coach, a team with limited experience, you name it. The abbreviated, Spring schedule of the newly reformed Bulldogs brought with it successes, setbacks, and more than anything, teachable moments.


Offense


It’s utterly impossible to discuss Bulldogs Football without discussing QB Jaquan Lynch. He’s mobile, crafty, athletic, and is able to find the time and space needed to create unseen opportunities.


That being said, Lynch is being forced to work way too hard. Of his 178 net rushing yards, far too many of those were recorded under duress. Far too much time was spent scrambling, dodging, or just trying to save the play. Once Head Coach Chip Hester is able to settle into a system that works for the team, it’s Lynch’s experiences this season under pressure, that will make him the centerpiece of that offense.


Giving Lynch the system he needs to flourish however, is going to hinge on the offensive line.


Simply put, the biggest challenge faced by the Bulldog O-line this season was size. They simply aren’t big enough to fend off threats posed by opponents. Just in the Lenoir-Rhyne game alone, the Bulldogs allowed three sacks for 21 yards lost. By no means is it anyone’s fault, that’s just part of being a new team. Look for this to likely be a recruiting priority moving forward as well as more time in a college level offseason conditioning program.


What is absolutely remarkable though, is how completely balanced and even the passing and rushing games are. The Dogs notched a total of five touchdowns both rushing and passing, and averaged right about four and seven yards per attempt, respectively. Hester seemed to have taken this balance literally, with per game averages not at all very far apart — 147.6 rushing, 134.4 passing.


Being so balanced, anchored by a diamond in the rough quarterback, and now having gained a sizable chip for their shoulders; once the offensive line can get sorted, this offense has the potential to be explosive.


Defense


While it might have looked like Barton’s defense got pushed around by opponents, there’s a lot more going on.


Get it out of the way right now, lack of size hurt the defense. Just like on the offensive line, the Dogs just weren’t big enough to make those big stops. Credit to the secondary, however, because it was the conditioning, coaching, and creativity that allowed them to stop big runs before they became highlights. This is going to give the rest of the defense a bit of a safety net, allowing them to develop next season — without the specter of giving up huge yardage every series.


Leaders like Sophomore DE Dionte Osbey are going to be the key to any new system moving forward. His big, big afternoon against Erskine in the season opener was quite the coming out party, but his solidly consistent play from then on is the archetype for the d-line moving forward.


One of the brightest performances on defense came from redshirt Freshman DB Franklin Wheeler. The rest of the year was great for Wheeler, but it was against nationally ranked powerhouse Wingate that he put up 6 solo tackles, including one dealing out a loss of yards. Again, this was against Wingate. Wheeler is fearless and hungry, and the exact type of player who will keep the Dogs competitive.


All the pieces are there on defense and Hester has all the tools he needs to create a truly spectacular defense. It’s really just a matter of settling into a system, and building up some size.


Special Teams


It sounds weird, but it’s all about chemistry here.


WR’s Anton Tropina-Popov and Kameron Johnson both had solid seasons on returns, all things considered. Averaging 11 and 18 yards per return, respectively, is a great sign. Where the opportunity exists are in the blocking. Neither receiver had a long run for more than about 35 yards or so. Both of them offer good speed and athleticism, but need to be given the time and space to showcase this.


This is easily filed under first season wrinkles being ironed out. You can practice all day long, but it takes those full-speed game scenarios to actually gel as a unit, to the point where the chemistry exists to operate seamlessly. With two weapons as formidable as Johnson and Tropnia-Popov running, laying these key blocks and gaining quality field positions are going to open the options back up for Lynch and the rest of the offense.


Overall


The ‘Dogs are legit.


It’s really easy to write off the 2021 season as growing pains and “just starting out,” though that would be doing the team a disservice. Despite one balloonhead color commentator at Lenoir-Rhyne calling Barton “a JV squad”, the Bulldogs not only gained but earned the respect of even the most seasoned of opponents.


Wingate and Lenoir-Rhyne presented the greatest challenges of the shortened season, but go back and watch those game tapes. Every down was a battle, nothing was given, and more importantly — they showed improvement. Coming back from a big loss with lessons learned and applied is something that just can’t be taught. It has to be coached.


The #BeUncommon approach that Hester has introduced is working perfectly in the situation in which Barton finds themselves. The team isn’t as experienced or big as their opponents, but they’re making it work. They’re well conditioned, they’re creative, and they’re finding opportunities to improve at every bend.


Coming into next season, it would be nice to see a more pass-heavy offense, assuming the offensive line can get bulked-up. Not by any means a slight on QB Tyler Flippen, but the starter’s duties should solidly become Lynch’s. He has the field vision and athleticism to fit into any transitional system needed while the ‘Dogs recruit for size.


Once the 2021 regular season starts, it would be unwise to write Barton off as a “just starting out” team. The challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic are actually an advantage. Barton has a “practice season” under our belts, and come fall — they who underestimate this team, do so at their own peril.

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