By Todd Purvis/Sports editor

With preseason practice winding down, the 2004 football Colonels are looking to feed off last year’s success and make another run at the conference title in the second season of the Danny Hope era.”This season is going to be a lot of fun,” head coach Danny Hope said. “We’re hoping that we can do something special this year.”

Although the Colonels started last year’s season off with a 1-4 start, they rallied back and won six of their last seven games, leaving them with a 7-5 overall record. Last season, Eastern proved to be a force in the conference, where they finished in second place with a conference mark of 6-2.

“We should be able to pick up where we left off last year,” Hope said. “The team came back into practice in good shape with a really good attitude.”

This season, the Colonels return 16 seniors to the squad and will have a more experienced team on the field. Eastern lost only 11 starters from last year’s team and will return 17 back to the field.

Seven returning starters and four other players who received a significant amount of playing time last season will power the Colonel offense.

Senior quarterback Matt Guice will be taking the snaps again this season for the Colonels. Last season, Guice proved to be a major threat on the Eastern offense when he set a new single-season passing record with 2,266 yards.

“Matt Guice is a proven player,” Hope said.

A preseason injury to freshman quarterback Klay Koester leaves freshman quarterback Josh Greco as the upright second-string quarterback for the Colonels.

“We’ve been getting a whole lot of reps for Josh Greco; he has really progressed over the last few weeks,” Hope said. “He has really been making a lot of strides in practice.”

The Colonel air attack also returns a group of explosive receivers from last year’s squad that should disrupt nearly every secondary they face. This season, junior receiver Andre Ralston will lead the way for Eastern. The Sports Network named him as the ninth-best receiver in I-AA football. Ralston finished last year’s season with 1,082 receiving yards and nine touchdowns through the air.

Also leading the way for Colonel’s air game will be Allen Evans.

Last season, Evans reeled in 446 yards with two receiving touchdowns.

“Evans and Ralston are our key targets,” Hope said. “We’ve got all of our receivers back from last year, so they should be able to lead our team.”

Andre Green will also be a key receiver for Eastern. Green picked up 371 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Another player that Hope expects to see a fair amount of playing time is redshirt freshman tight end Patrick Bugg.

“Bugg has developed a lot in the off-season,” Hope said. “He’s one of our most improved players.”

In addition to the strong air attack, the Colonels return another key element to their offensive scheme in their running game. Senior running back C.J. Hudson enters the season needing just 63 yards to reach the milestone of 3,000 career-rushing yards. Last season, Hudson rushed for 606 yards and found the end zone six times for Eastern.

“C.J. has taken his game to another level,” Hope said. “He’s a big time player.”

Backing up Hudson at the running back position will be freshman Mark Dunn.

“Mark is a very good runner that runs the ball extremely hard,” Hope said.

The Colonel offensive attack will heavily rely on the push of the big and experienced offensive line.

“We have a big, talented offensive line,” Hope said. “They are a very promising group of players.”

Although the offense appears to be a huge factor in Eastern’s success, the hard-nosed Colonel defense is certainly not short-manned.

After losing both starting tackles on the defensive side of the ball from last year, the Colonels have etched in two new starters, being sophomore Mark Cristiani and senior Derrick Hill.

“We’re young at defensive tackle, but I like what I see there,” Hope said. “Derrick Hill and Mark Cristiani, who played a lot last year, are looking pretty good this season.”

With the middle of the line lacking a bit of experience on the Eastern defense, the tight end position for Eastern is anything but lacking experience.

“We’ve got both of our defensive ends back and those guys have improved a lot from last year,” Hope said.

On the right outside position of the Colonel defensive line will be all-OVC senior defensive end, Chad Dewberry. Last season Dewberry tallied 74 tackles, 12 of which were tackles for a loss.

On the other side of the Eastern defensive line will be senior defensive end Elias Israel. Israel recorded 38 tackles and four sacks last season.

The Colonel linebacker core is one of the most experienced positions for the Eastern defense.

“We’ve got all of our linebackers back and they’ve had a whole year to get better, and they’re seasoned players,” Hope said. “Our linebackers are guys that were all starters last year, and are veteran players and they have proved that we can win with them in the past.”

Leading dominant linebacker crew will be senior middle linebacker Justen Rivers. Rivers is on pace to be a three time All-OVC performer this season. Last year Rivers racked up 99 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, three sacks and one fumble recovery.

Joining Rivers will be returning starters Jerome Jones who will be playing weak side linebacker and Will Stilley who will be playing strong side linebacker, both are juniors.

Last season Jones finished just behind Rivers with 90 tackles, while Stilley tallied 63 on the year. One of the most improved units from last season is the Colonel secondary.

“We’ve improved a lot on defense, our secondary has improved a lot from last season,” Hope said. “We’ve got a really good nucleus on defense.”

This season junior’s Tremayne Perkins and James Gains will be starting at the cornerback position.

Occupying the strong safety position will be senior leader, Pierre Wright. Last season Wright was fourth on the team with 85 tackles.

Freshman Victor Nichols will be the team’s free safety. Nichols recorded 15 tackles last season. The kicking core is another unit in which the Colonels return everyone from last season.

Sophomore Steven Swann will be the placekicker and senior Phil Kuhl will once again take care of the kicking duties.

“Our kickers and punters are playing extremely well right now,” Hope said.

This year the Colonels will play another challenging schedule, much like last season. The season opener will take place on the road at Appalachian State on Sept. 11, then Eastern will return home for their home opener on Sept. 18, when they will host Western Kentucky University in the ‘Battle of the Bluegrass.’

Another big non-conference contest for the Colonels this season will take place on Oct. 23 when they will motor to Nashville, Tenn. to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores.

“We have a good football team and a great schedule that will be great for our fans,” Hope said. “Our schedule is ranked in the top 5 in I-AA football.”

Hope is looking forward to a great season and believes that the fans will play a huge roll in the teams success.

“The community is rallying behind our football team, and that is what I like to see,” Hope said. “The fans are going to be huge for us this year.”

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