How impactful has Newberry quarterback Raleigh Yeldell been this season? There are any number of ways to measure that, but his own head coach, Todd Knight, had the most unique way of doing so.
“Everyone looks at his numbers and thinks he’s a big kid,” Knight during a radio interview in September with 107.5 FM in Columbia, S.C., “but he’s really a little ol’ thing. He sorta reminds you of a really mad chihuahua.”
And those numbers? They’re German Shepherd-sized. With one regular-season game left – a South Atlantic Conference showdown between the Wolves (9-1) and Wingate (8-2) on ASN — the 6-foot, 175-pound Yeldell has already broken the school’s single-season records for completions (260), attempts (370) and yards (3,087), and his 27 touchdown passes are one shy of equaling a mark established by Josh Stepp in 2006.
Yeldell, who has clicked on 70.3 percent of his attempts, leads the conference in TDs and passing yards per game (308.7), a figure that is sixth-best in Division II. He also has accounted for 3,418 yards total offense, the eighth-highest total in SAC history.
All of which has allowed the Wolves, No. 2 in the NCAA Super Region II rankings and No. 19 in the American Football Coaches Association national poll, to earn at least a share of the conference regular-season title. A victory over Wingate would give Newberry the outright crown. It would also extend the Wolves’ winning streak to 10, as their only loss this season came to Florida Tech in their opener.
“They’re very sound,” Yeldell said of the Bulldogs, who are ninth in Division II in total defense (276.7 yards per game). “They’re very physical. They really stick to (defending) the run game, but I think we can really get them in the pass game.”
Certainly Yeldell and Co. have gotten everybody else. A preseason All-SAC choice, he has thrown for at least 215 yards in every game this season, and at least 300 in five. His high of 447 came in that loss to Florida Tech, a game in which Yeldell also threw four of the 11 interceptions he has to date.
He is happy to talk about a receiving corps led by Markell Castle (58 catches), Braxton Ivery (50) and Cole Watson (48); he called it “electrifying.” And he is happy to give props to an offensive line that in his estimation has given him “outstanding” protection.
He also said the Wolves’ overall success is due to everyone “bonding together and the team always being there for each other and having each other’s back.”
Yeldell is, however, far more reluctant to talk about himself, even though it is clear he has made strides as a passer every year. As a backup his first two seasons he was known more for his skills as a runner; his freshman year, in fact, he gained 533 yards on the ground to become the first Newberry QB to lead the team in rushing since 2003. And in addition to everything else he holds Wolves career records for rushing yards (1,527) and TDs (22) by a player at his position.
He earned the starting job last season and completed 61.8 percent of his throws for 1,504 yards and 13 scores (while still running for 399 yards), and this year has been nearly unstoppable.
“Throughout the summer, throwing with the receivers — getting the timing down with the receivers and getting to know where they’re going to be at all times in their routes,” he said.
The bond first formed in the summer sun was hardened in the closing minutes of a Sept. 17 game at North Greenville, the Wolves’ only narrow victory to date. Down 28-22 with 4:01 left, they took over at their own 20 and went 80 yards in 12 plays.
Yeldell hit three of five passes for 31 yards and ran three times for 21, four for the winning touchdown on a read option with 1:04 to play: Newberry 29, North Greenville 28.
“Honestly, that last drive really brought us more together than any other thing we really did together as a team,” he said, “because we just knew that we had to come together, we had to put one solid drive together, take it play by play, down by down and just try to move the chains one play at a time – and just stick together no matter what the results were or how it all ended. And that’s what we did.”
They remain in lockstep. But the little guy – the mad chihuahua, as it were – is every inch the lead dog.
Video courtesy WACH, voiced by Mike UVA