Last season under first-year head coach Dane Damron, the Cavaliers finished 6-5 — the first winning season for the NCAA Division II school since 2008. The finish came on the heels of a 1-10 season in 2015, the worst in the program’s history.
Damron readily admits there’s plenty of optimism about the upcoming season, though he’s not ready to clear a spot for some major hardware in the trophy case just yet.
“We’re not going to win a national championship. We’re not there yet,” Damron said Tuesday during the team’s media day. “But the product you’ll see on August 31 is better than the product you saw at the beginning of November last year when we finished the season at Charleston.”
Expectations are high but realistic around Wise. Fourteen returning starters will hit the field for the Cavs when they open the season on Thursday, Aug. 31 at Glenville State in Glenville, W.Va. They’ve also added 10 NCAA Division I transfers to the roster, several of whom should make an immediate impact.
“We’ve added some depth,” Damron noted.
Norfolk State transfer Kwadwo Diawuo, who was ineligible to play in 2016, strengthens the defensive secondary. The 5-foot-10, 174-pound redshirt sophomore has the early nod at free safety. The strong safety spot is occupied by sophomore Buster Henderson and senior Maurice Watkins. Demetrius Mann, a transfer from Eastern Kentucky, holds one cornerback position and Andre Hamilton is listed at the other corner.
Replacing All-American Zach Blair at linebacker is the toughest challenge for Damron and Cavs defensive coordinator Shap Boyd. Nickel back Ed Kargbo returns after earning honorable mention recognition on the All-Mountain East Conference team last season.
Ernest Holden, another Norfolk State transfer, beefs up a defensive front that held opponents to 100.1 yards rushing per game last year — second best in the Mountain East.
Redshirt sophomore Brycen Lee returns at quarterback after battling through a banged-up shoulder most of last season. Lee, who transferred from East Kentucky last year, said he’s 100 percent and ready to go for his second season as the Cavs’ No. 1 signal-caller.
“Last year was my first year playing college football. I’m a lot more comfortable this year,” Lee noted.
Tailback Carlton Griffith heads the stable of running backs. The senior totaled 714 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in 2016 to lead Virginia-Wise in rushing for a third straight season.
Griffith will be spelled in the backfield by fellow senior Javonte Latney with help from Von Purvis, Davontae Jordan, Terrence Lambert and Victor Mitchell.
“You can throw any of us out there and we’re going to get the job done,” Griffith said.
Team goals for the season, not individual ones, are uppermost in the senior’s mind.
“All the 1,000-yard seasons and all the touchdowns are good,” he said, “but if you’re not winning what does it matter?”
Brothers Jacob and James Cousins, now seniors, are back at wide receiver, along with Cedrick Watkins. Junior-college transfer Kaian Duverger adds to the mix along with freshman Joe Addison.
At tight end, sophomore Jake Barnett and redshirt freshman Daniel England return.
The Cavs have plenty of depth on the offensive line after the addition of a pair of junior-college transfers: 6-3 Will Pendegraph and 6-4 Donovon Lynch. Each tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.
Juniors Roberto Baird, Connor Patton, Chase Cluesman and Will White join sophomore Landon Mance in the rotation up front.