Rhodes protected by its Shield

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In one of Rhodes' toughest tests of the season, linebacker Michael Shield had a career day. Against Centre, he had a hand in 15 tackles, scooped up a lost fumble and intercepted a pass.
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When Dan Gritti arrived at Rhodes College, it was with a three-year plan for the football program.

As he set about building a team that fulfilled his vision -- one that emphasizes speed and athleticism with a willingness to compromise on bulk and sheer strength -- Gritti found Michael Shield.

“The sheer speed that he plays the game at is phenomenal,” Gritti said. “He epitomizes what we do on defense.”

The Lynx offered Gritti his first chance at a head coaching job, and the former attorney left his position as the defensive line/linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at the University of Chicago for the opportunity. So there’s some sort of symmetry between player and coach.

Shield is an outside linebacker from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, a confident 5-feet-9-inches with a ready laugh. He was something of a hot recruit on the Division III landscape, attracting attention from recruiters at bigger schools who mentioned putting his speed and athleticism to use at safety.

So, Shield, who also played running back in high school, started telling recruiters he saw himself as a prospect at safety.

That he landed back at outside linebacker is maybe less surprising to him than his arrival at Rhodes. He’s in Memphis, Tenn., a truly Southern city where people don’t even describe the weather the same way Shield understood it before. No one seemed to realize just how hot it was when he arrived on campus. And when the mercury finally started to settle into a range Shield is comfortable with, they were already complaining about the cold.

But Rhodes was one of the first colleges he looked at. It was literally on the cover of the first college guide he opened. On his visit, he went out to a birthday dinner with his host and his host’s family and felt he had already been accepted as part of the family. He got a strong sense of sincerity from the coaches.

And of course, he could look at the roster and see the seniors -- ready to move on and make room for him on the field.

It added up to a recruit Gritti says he’s happy to hang his hat on. He’s proud of his recruiting efforts; the Lynx covered 41 states last year, he said, looking for the right combination of academic and athletic ability. And Shield is a player he can point to, one of the freshmen who arrived on campus as a starter on a team that’s heavy with youth. Gritti says he’s playing a handful of seniors -- three on offense, four on defense.

As he molds his program, Gritti is serious about playing the best 11 he has available, even if that means moving personnel into different positions to make it work. And after a brief evaluation Shields moved into the linebacker role, albeit in a different scheme than he had learned in high school.

“It’s a four-three under defense played with three-three-five personnel,” Gritti said. “So we’ve got a lot of guys who are undersized.”

If the assignment wasn’t a surprise, Shield’s immediate impact may have been. Some time late in the season, the freshman realized he was leading the conference in tackles. Shield averaged 8.9 tackles per game in 2012. As the Lynx wrapped up with a win over Centre to finish the season at 6-3, Shield was involved in 21 tackles.

“I had really just kind of gotten a feel for the position, and I was really trusting my keys and things like that,” he said.

This year, Rhodes and Centre met earlier in the season as the Lynx enters the thick of its conference schedule. The teams came in to Saturday’s game with identical records 5-1 and a shared loss at Washington University.

The similarities seemed to fall apart on the field, however, as Rhodes opened a 35-0 lead, sewing up 35-14 win.

After his performance against the Colonels last year, Shield expected -- humbly -- a little extra attention in the meeting. But he posted another career day, putting a hand in 15 tackles. He had 3.5 tackles, including a sack, for 11 lost yards. He scooped up a lost fumble and he intercepted a pass.

“The only thing he hasn’t done really is score on offense, and I don’t plan to give him a chance to do that,” Gritti said.

The sophomore, for his part, sounds a touch wistful -- “Who doesn’t like scoring touchdowns? Come on!” -- but in fact he’s done that, too: In a close game against Chicago, Shield returned a blocked punt 11 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, sealing a 41-24 win.

He says he still likes hitting more than scoring, though and he’s done plenty of that: Shield has averaged 9.7 tackles per game, trailing only Centre’s Ben Leahy (10.5) in the SAA standings. Shield leads in total tackles, getting a hand in 80 so far this season, including four sacks.

“I was born to be on the dark side,” he said, laughing.

Both player and coach are quick to point out that the Lynx get dominating play from the defensive linemen, creating opportunities for Shield to succeed.

“I wouldn’t have half the tackles that I do if our defensive line didn’t penetrate like they do to open up holes for me,” he said.

For Gritti, the win over Centre was a benchmark. His program is, in fact, rising to the level he expected at the pace he planned. This week, the Lynx travels to Birmingham-Southern (4-3, 2-2), then to Hendrix (3-4, 1-2) -- the first year team from Texas with a habit of hanging with the more established programs -- and finally Rhodes finishes the regular season with a home date against Millsaps, the undefeated leader of the Southern Athletic Association with a perfect 7-0 record and three wins in conference play.

Gritti and Shield agree that Rhodes has been improving on the field every week. The goal was to peak as they closed out the schedule in conference play. And while the coach is still questioning that early loss to Washington University, he acknowledges that it may have helped get his team focused early.

For Shield, there’s no question.

He immediately references the NFL, where championship teams are never undefeated. “Every championship team has that one loss where they wake up and snap to reality,” he said.

Shield believes that as Rhodes tries to close out its best start to a season since 1990, that reality check will be in the Lynx’s favor. For Gritti, it’s all part of the plan.

“I think it takes people awhile to notice” he said. “… I think people knew we were making progress. I don’t think people knew we were making as much progress as we thought we were.”

Southern Athletic Association

-- Millsaps is still the one to catch in the SAA. The Majors (7-0, 3-0) defeated Sewanee on the road Saturday, 21-14. Quarterback Zak Thrasher was 11 of 20 for 137 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Mike Barthelemy rushed 37 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Barthelemy leads the conference in both yards per game, averaging 151.7, and touchdowns, with 14.
Millsaps also has the SAA sack leaders. Zach Bell has nine, followed by teammate Jeff Milner’s 7.5.

Bell had eight tackles on Saturday.

Curtis Johnson carried 22 times for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns for Sewanee (2-6, 1-3). Alex Kops was in for 15 tackles, eight solo.

American Southwest Conference

-- Howard Payne won its first conference game of the season, defeating East Texas Baptist, 47-36 at home in a game that was tied three times before the Yellow Jackets pulled away.

Howard Payne (3-4, 1-3) scored three third-quarter touchdowns while holding the Tigers scoreless in the period to put the game out of reach.

ETBU (2-5, 0-3) scored twice in the fourth quarter following a lightening delay -- the Tigers’ third this season -- and successfully converted a pair of two-point attempts, to pull within eight points at 44-36 but could get no closer.

The Tigers were one of five on fourth down attempts Saturday. Howard Payne rushed for 153 yards.

The two teams were each flagged with 13 penalties for a combined 208 yards.

Howard Payne's Richard Yound completed 31 of 41 passing attempts for 372 yards and four touchdowns. Neither quarterback was intercepted.

Young also rushed for 65 yards and two touchdowns on six carries. Zarron Dover had 16 touches for 63 ground yards.

Colby Mica caught 12 passes from Young for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Dove caught eight passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.

Jordan Shaw was in on 10 tackles and forced a fumble.

ETBU's Jamaine Sherman caught 13 passes for 258 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tyler Bates caught 17 passes for 108 yards, setting a school record for catches in a game.
Josh Warbington completed 36 of his 51 attempts for 418 yards total and the two touchdowns to Sherman.

Drew Benge was in on 12 tackles, 10 solo, for the Bulldogs, and had two breakups. Ja'Kory Hunter was in on 10 tackles.

Howard Payne’s next challenge is at undefeated Mary Hardin-Baylor.

-- Mary Hardin-Baylor (7-0, 3-0) rolled over Hardin-Simmons, 63-7, on the road Saturday.

Elijah Hudson rushed 24 times for 122 yards and a touchdown for undefeated UMHB. Zach Anderson carried 12 times for two touchdowns and 64 yards. Caleb Moore also rushed for two touchdowns.

Three Crusaders combined to be 6 of 11 passing for  54 yards with one touchdown and one interception against.

Baylor Mullins returned an interception 23 yards for a touchdown for Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Josh Christian was 15 of 37 for 147 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off three times for Hardin Simmons(3-4, 2-2).

Jonathan Wilder was in on 16 tackles for the Cowboys.  Korey Zavala had a hand in 15 tackles, including a sack.   

-- Louisiana College (5-2, 3-1) topped visiting Sul Ross State, 61-14.

The Lobos led the ground game, outgaining Louisiana College 112-65. But the Wildcats threw for 262 yards without throwing an interception while the special teams returned a punt for a touchdown and the defense returned one of two interceptions to score.

Louisiana College's freshman quarterback Easton Melancon passed for four touchdowns, going 20 of 30 for 216 yards.

Ten different receivers caught passes for the Wildcats. Junior linebacker Beau Brewer had 11 tackles.

Lobos’ quarterback Jerem Boatright was 14 of 26 through the air for 146 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, but was sacked five times Saturday.

Randall Carroll caught six passes for 93 yards for Sul Ross State (0-7, 0-3).

Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference

-- Conference champion Texas Lutheran held off host Mississippi College, 35-32, Saturday to remain undefeated and solidify the Bulldogs’ grasp on the SCAC.

The Choctaws closed to within three with under four minutes to play as quarterback Jonathon Redd rushed 19 yards for the touchdown and completed a pass to Jaime Harris for the two-point conversion.

TLU (7-0, 3-0) took over at its own 28-yard line and ground 3:44 off the clock. Mississippi College got the ball back with 12 seconds to play and Redd was picked off by Adam McGuire on second-and-10 to close the door.

Bulldogs quarterback Brent Peavy completed 8 of 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game. Trenton White went 9 of 15 for 110 yards off the bench.

Marquis Barrolle carried 17 times for 128 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Lewis Williams had five catches for106 yards and caught the scoring throw from Peavy.

Ty Johnson led the defense with 10 tackles, nine solo.

Reginald Bennett had 11 solo tackles for Mississippi College (3-4, 3-1), 12 total. Jake Weddle was in for 10 tackles, eight unassisted.

Redd was 16 of 30 for 230 yards and a touchdown. He was picked off twice and rushed for a pair of touchdowns.

-- Austin (3-5, 0-1) won two in a row for the first time this year, defeating Hendrix, 45-38, at home.

Noah Jesko completed 15 of 23 throws for 225 yard and four touchdowns for the Kangaroos.

James Nwankpah had 23 carries for 202 yards and a touchdown. Bryce Murphy also had a rushing touchdown, carrying 17 times for 111 yards.

Travis McClinton led the Kangaroos receivers with five catches for 88 yards. Mitch Trentman caught three passes, two for touchdowns.

Brooks Ward had 14 tackles to lead the Austin defense. Jantzen Foster had 12. De’Andre Holmes added 10.

Dayton Winn was everywhere for the Warriors. Winn caught seven passes for 114 yards a touchdown, rushed six times for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns -- leading Hendrix in ground and receiving yards. Winn also returned a kickoff and a pair of punts for 33 total yards.

Spencer Smith had nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. Travus McMahon also had nine catches.

Reid Cone was involved in 13 tackles and credited with two breakups for the Warriors.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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