2023 Lenoir-Rhyne vs Wingate

Lenoir-Rhyne Football: Tough Times Built Trust For A Tough Bears Defense

Lenoir-Rhyne Football: Tough Times Built Trust For A Tough Bears Defense

A Lenoir-Rhyne defense that might be the most dominant in all of college football is reaping the rewards of a lengthy process building trust in each other.

Oct 25, 2023 by Kyle Kensing

College football's most lock-down defense set the foundation for a dominant season during lockdown, appropriately enough. 

Lenoir-Rhyne, which heads into the final week of October undefeated and ranked No. 7 in the nation, has rolled to an undefeated record with yields of 119.1 passing yards, 206.1 total yards and 8.5 points per game. The Bears average 9.6 tackles for loss per game and give up conversions on just 23.6 percent of third downs. They rank no lower than No. 4 in Div. II across each of these defensive categories. 

The secret to Lenoir-Rhyne's outstanding defense, lineman Andre Jefferson reveals, is that "there is no secret." 

"We just work really hard, and we really want to win," Jefferson said. "We all compete with each other, and when we compete, we're the best." 

There may not be a secret to Lenoir-Rhyne's outstanding play, but there is a process that built the nation's toughest defense. And it began during one of the toughest times in recent American history. 

COVID-19 impacted Div. II football more profoundly than the Div. I subdivisions. FBS forged on with a shortened, short-and-stop autumn 2020 campaign; FCS delayed its 2020 season until spring 2021 when it played a truncated schedule. 

Div. II, however, canceled the 2020 slate outright. Some teams played in the spring, including Lenoir-Rhyne, but the four-game docket was a far cry from the typical football season. 

What's more, the cancellation of the NCAA Playoffs meant no pursuing the ultimate goal of a national championship. All told, the pandemic year could be understandably frustrating for an athlete. The Bears dealt with the frustration by strengthening their bonds.  

"The guys that have been starting have been here since COVID, so we had no other choice but to blend together. Jefferson said. A time of isolation lent itself to, perhaps more than usual, teammates leaning on one another. 

"Always being around each other made us closer," Jefferson added. "I promise you, we were always together...We was always just playing Madden, kicking it playing [NBA] 2K, or just chilling out and talking. We were able to connect and know each other better, understand other people's backgrounds. Everybody's got their own walk of life."  

In that frustrating time, the Bears began to mold what has become the defining trait of their success three years later: trust. 

Trust is the keyword linebacker Jon Ross Maye used when describing Lenoir-Rhyne's atmosphere. 

"Trust in one another, trust in our coaches," he said. "We laugh about it because it's so simple." 

Simple yet effective. 

Each unit of the Lenoir-Rhyne defense shines this season, starting up front with Jefferson and the line. Jefferson's racked up a team-leading five sacks and has made 11 tackles for loss, in the process generating NFL draft buzz as one of the players chosen for the Senior Bowl watchlist. 

The L-R front also features Rashad Yelding, who has two sacks and five tackles for loss; Darryl Taylor with 1.5 sacks and six tackles for loss; Toney Black at three sacks and four tackles for loss; and Connor Lachesky with 1.5 sacks, four tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. 

Maye's 57 tackles and 13 for loss lead the Bears and set the tone for the L-R linebacker corps. It's a group that also features Devin Hibbitt (30 tackles, six for loss, two interceptions) and Percy King (23 tackles, four for loss, three pass breakups and an interception), both registering their own impressive numbers. 

In the secondary, Malik Taylor, James Ussery, C'Darius Kelley and Deshaun Whitmire have all also made significant statistical contributions. 

"Me and Andre, we love to see everyone on this defense succeed," Maye said. "We want to see everyone eat, and we're going to eat as a defense." 

Each unit of the Lenoir-Rhyne defense has indeed proved trustworthy. And all the Bears groups compete with one another to keep improving. 

Their internal competition isn't about statistical production, though. Maye explains each group prides itself on being the loudest. 

"Last week had an argument about who communicates more, the boundary side or the field side," he said — a playful argument, of course, but a reflection of the teams' competitiveness all the same. "It’s just a little game...more of a ‘I’m louder than y’all, we’re more efficient in our communication.'" 


Communication playing such a central role in Lenoir-Rhyne's make-up on the field fits with the significance Jefferson described in conversation helping form relationships during the pandemic. 

Communication also was vital for the Bears in other difficult times — like the 2022 season. Lenoir-Rhyne held opponents to 18.6 points per game, 3.3 yards per rush and 5.5 yards per pass attempt, all strong numbers on their own. 

But at 8-3 and 7-2 in the South Atlantic Conference, the Bears fell short of their goals to reach the Playoffs and win a league crown that has eluded L-R since 2019. Meanwhile, in losses, the Bears gave up just shy of 30 points per game. 

Being able to address the realities of needing to turn that around, Maye says, helped shape the team's approach going into 2023. 

"As a program, we've been through a lot of ups and downs," Maye said. "We all care so much that we're so focused on going 1-0 every weekend. The captains we have, we're able to really drive that message and the team buys into it." 

Buying in is paying out some impressive dividends. The 2023 Bears defense is on pace to break the program record for tackles for loss (130), hold opponents to the lowest collective total output since the 1962 Camelia Bowl team, and could break the mark for fewest rushing touchdowns allowed in a season that the 1962 and 2013 Bears share (eight; the 2023 defense has given up just three in eight games). 

The process to become this dominant wasn't easy, but Lenoir-Rhyne's toughness is a reflection of the challenges that formed it.