RICHMOND - This is part one of a two-story preview for the 2013 Eastern Kentucky University football team. Part two will feature the defense, special teams and schedule.
The Eastern Kentucky University football team is accustomed to playing playoff football. The Colonels have qualified for the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs 20 times, second most by any program at this level. However, the Colonels were left out of the 2012 FCS playoffs even with an 8-3 record and now have to regroup for 2013.
Lots of new faces will fill the depth chart heading into preseason camp as 11 starters from the 2012 squad were seniors including three key positions on offense – quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
“We lost a lot of production,” EKU head coach Dean Hood said. “If you put it down on paper and looked at it, you could make yourself nauseous. I think one thing that has helped us is we lost a lot of production, but we didn’t lose a lot of human beings. I think our redshirting [philosophy] is finally starting to show some fruit.”
Since Hood took over as head coach in 2008, the Colonels have won two OVC titles and 29 league games. Both of those numbers are tops among the nine OVC football teams. Even with so many new starters set to line up for the Colonels this year, the goal as always will be to win the league championship and qualify for the FCS playoffs.
There may be plenty of changes in personnel on offense, but the philosophy will remain the same this fall – run the football.
“Power will still be our number one running play,” Hood said. “That being said, there are a lot of different ways to run the ball. We have a lot of speed out on the perimeter. A play like the fly sweep will make defending our inside running even more difficult.”
Gone are the all-time leading passer in EKU history (T.J. Pryor), a potential NFL wide receiver (Tyrone Goard) and a Walter Payton Award candidate at running back (Matt Denham). If the spring game is any indication, there are lots of potential game changers ready to fill those critical voids.
Expected to lead the offense at quarterback will be Jared McClain. The junior has seen plenty of action in his two previous years on the squad including starts at Purdue in 2012 and Kansas State in 2011. McClain saw action in every game as a sophomore and led Eastern on three scoring drives in the win at Southeast Missouri. He can run and pass as he finished with three passing touchdowns and two rushing scores last fall.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Romano is slated to be the second string quarterback. Romano completed 12-of-20 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. A Rivals.com two-star recruit out of Texas, Romano was a unanimous first team all-district quarterback as a senior prepster.
Three or four candidates could be used to replace Denham at running back. Junior Caleb Watkins, who has been used in a variety of roles in his time at EKU, heads into preseason camp as the number one back. He was mainly used as a fullback last year, but understands the offensive system quite well.
Redshirt freshman JJ Jude will likely see time in the backfield as well. Jude completed his high school career as the all-time leading rusher in Kentucky with 8,633 yards at Johnson Central High.
Fellow redshirt freshman Jared Sanders is a change of pace runner who brings loads of speed to the position. Sanders posted a team-high 102 yards rushing and averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the spring game. A fourth option could be newcomer Thomas Owens. In the second quarter of the spring game, the redshirt freshman exploded for a 62-yard rushing touchdown.
“We had a bunch of guys run well in the spring and I certainly expect one or two players to step up in the fall,” Hood said.
Junior Jeremy James and senior Roman Lawson give the Colonels two quality fullbacks. James has been the primary fullback the last two years. Lawson, a transfer from Miami (Ohio), will also push for playing time.
At tight end, senior Matt Lengel is expected to return following an early season-ending injury in 2012. Fellow senior Nathan Watts stepped up his role last year with 13 pass receptions. Watts gives EKU some flexibility to line up in the h-back position.
Eastern Kentucky lost its top two wide receivers from 2012, but there is plenty of untapped talent ready to challenge opposing defenses. Senior Ike Ariguzo, who totaled 18 receptions as a junior, is projected to be one of the starters. Sophomore Jeff Glover, the other projected starter, put on quite a show in the spring game with eight catches for 214 yards.
Fellow redshirt freshman Devin Borders is another tall receiver who should see plenty of playing time in 2013. Ariguzo, Glover and Borders all stand at least 6-4 in height. Throw Lengel into the mix, who is 6-7, and the Colonels have a very tall receiving group.
Three starters return on the offensive line headed by senior all-conference left guard Justin Meredith. Fellow senior Travon Carter is expected to push for all-conference honors at right guard. The center position will be a battle between returning starter Austin Jaggers and junior Dustin Crane. Jaggers, a senior and converted defensive lineman, started every game at center last year.
A pair of younger players will be asked to step up at tackle. Sophomore Brett Eyckmans had to fill in at right tackle for six games as a true freshman due to injuries. This year, he is slated to move to left tackle. Josh Minor, a sophomore who saw action in most games last year, will line up at right tackle.
“Even though we lost a pair of All-American caliber players at tackle, I don’t feel as bad as that sounds because of Minor and Eyckmans,” Hood said.