The Lions football team has one game to go in their second Division-I season against Gardner-Webb. Thus far, they develop a 3-7 overall record, with all three wins at home.
North Alabama endures a tough second season in facing three top-10 FCS opponents at one point in Montana, Jacksonville State and Kennesaw State. They even played against teams that were receiving votes such as Campbell.
“Strength of schedule right now out of 126 teams, we are around 38th,” said head coach Chris Willis. “Last year we were 7-3 but our strength of schedule was in the 90’s. The competition is tremendous, the athletes are amazing across the board. We are a young team and the youngest team in the Big South.”
Senior Christian Lopez led most of the way at quarterback again this season until junior transfer Blake Dever came in for one game against Kennesaw State and also a half against Campbell.
“This season hasn’t been matched to last season [for Lopez],” said Willis. “That might have to do with we are not helping him out running the ball, the competition or even that we are piecing the O-Line together right now. We lost some games in a row, so we made the change to Dever and he played great for the KSU game. We made the move [against Campbell] to put him [Lopez] back in the game and look what happened, he led us from behind to win the game.”
Lopez matches his touchdown totals from a season again at 14 but nearly quadruples his interceptions with seven so far this season. He surpasses his last years yardage total with 2253 passing yards but his completion percentage dips from 59 percent to 50 percent.
Damon Cox led the running game a season ago, this year Terence Humphrey steps into the role and became the leading rusher early with over 500 yards on the season and six touchdowns. This also allows Jaxton Carson, Ja’Won Howell and Ron Thompson to get some running time in a crowded backfield behind Humphrey.
The RS-Sophomore receiving core of Cortez Hall, Jakobi Byrd, Andre Little and Dexter Boykin led the way once again with all of them surpassing 450 yards on the season with three above 500. Byrd led the core with the most catches with 40 and Boykin led with the most reception yards in 579 while also hauling in the most touchdowns with four.
The offense stays the same in year two by holding onto a crisp 25 ppg in both seasons. However, the plays for the Lions went from 668 in 2018 to 611 in 2019 and also a dip in rushing yards from 1780 to 1278.
The Lions went from 7-3 in 2018 to 3-7 just a season later, this comes from the tougher competition instead of a poor team. KSU scores a minimum of 20 in each game in 2019 and beat six teams by 20 or more points. Campbell went 6-1, with their only loss to Troy, before coming into Braly Municipal and then leaving with a loss.
The Lions team is a very tough team that needs to be seen on the field instead of the box score. In two of their big losses to Hampton and Monmouth, UNA scores a majority of their points in the second half.
Against Hampton, the Lions were left trailing 20-2 at break; after the half the Lions put on a 32-point downpour before they fell 40-34. Monmouth, the leader of the Big South conference kept it close well throughout the game. This led the Lions to score 31 of their 38 points in the second half while Lopez put a career-high in passing yards with 383.
“We never been on the same page,” said Willis. “The offense will show up for one half while the defense will show up another. We haven’t been able to get them on the same page. When we beat Campbell we played 10 minutes of football with the defense and the offense on the same page.”
The defense lost many starters going into their second season, leaving holes in the secondary and the defensive line. Defensive End Jaylin Dailey and Maurice Burton Jr. are two of the big names that anchor the 2018 defensive line while the big name Chris Johnson from the secondary hurt the Lions this season.
However, D’Andre Hart steps up this season and leads the team with the most tackles (85) and the second most interceptions (1). K.J. Smith, Jeffery Battle, David Swen and A.J. Bracey made moves within the secondary to give it a boost.
For the defensive line and linebackers, Will Evans steps with the most sacks on the team (3) while others follow suit. Brodric Martin, Jalen Dread, Wallace Cowins Jr., Devonte Toles, Brady Owensby and Jbril Glaze have all seen time on the field this season to fill in the gaps.
The defense lost a step in their second year with their young look team. They went from holding opponents to 24 ppg to allowing 34 ppg this season. They allowed 600 more rushing yards this season in 2382 for an average of 218 per game.
“We are seeing better offenses and better quarterbacks,” said Willis. “We have one senior at D-Line and one at linebacker. We are a young team, and this strength of schedule is tough. It shows how much we are playing freshmen, but we have a great nucleus of freshmen that will play in the next few years.”
The secondary however picks up where they left off a season ago with the same amount of interceptions (8)
and allowing almost the same amount of passing yards with just over 2100. They also only allowed two more passing touchdowns than they did a season ago in 20 this season.
“With a young team, and the way we fight and don’t quit, we can win,” said Willis. “We have big recruitment visits with lots of kids coming in, we aren’t losing 25-30 players. We are losing 12, so a good majority of the nucleus will be here to stay.”
The Lions have yet to release their 2020 season schedule but with the move to the Big South, Coach Willis and Co. will see a majority of the same teams for the next several years. The Lions will have to figure out a new quarterback and running-back situation, however a majority of the offense and defense is here to stay with only a few small movements.