Coach Dean Hood, center, and the Colonels have their eye on another OVC title. Last year the team finished 5-6, missing the playoffs, but look to rebound and return to the postseason. (Maggie LaFleur)

By Darren Zancan

A new season brings new expectations, new players and a new attitude. Just ask the football team.

After last season’s disappointing 5-6 (5-3) finish, Coach Dean Hood and the Colonel players had their sights set on rebounding and capturing a second OVC title in the past three years.

Last year it came down to the final regular season game, but Jacksonville State came away with a 34-26 win.

Heading into camp, Hood returned several starters on both sides of the ball, with only one significant injury. Jeremy Caldwell, stand-out defensive back, missed all of camp while recovering from a hernia, but hopes to be back for the regular season opener against Missouri State.

“On paper we think he’ll be back,” Hood said. “But we are taking it cautiously and letting it heal.”

The offensive side of the ball has all the makings to be one of the most explosive teams in the OVC.

Sophomore T.J. Pryor starts his first full season as the starting quarterback. Last year he split time with Cody Watts.

Pryor’s teammates have seen a change in the approach the young quarterback has made to the game.

“Every quarterback has to take his game to the next level,” said Shannon Davis, wide receiver. “He’s done a hell of a job, as far as reading the defense, not getting arrogant and staying humble. He doesn’t get caught up in things; T.J. puts in a tremendous amount of work, especially over the summer. Hard work pays off.”

Hood echoed the sentiment.

“Bigger, faster, stronger,” Hood said. “That’s what he is. He has more command of the offense and people will follow him because he is humble.”

Davis is one of several receivers returning to give Pryor a spark in the passing game. Davis said 16 receivers started in camp and now the team is down to nine.

Toward the end of the year, Pryor relied more on his arm, throwing longer passes downfield.

“We love throwing the ball and we have a fast team,” Pryor said. “I feel like I have a great arm and I know we can make some plays.”

With offensive weapons Davis (19.1 yards-per-catch last season), Orlandus Harris (31 catches for 431 yards), Evan Cromer (16 catches for 192 yards) and a new addition in Matt Lengel, who transferred to Eastern from Northeastern in Boston, Pryor will have options to throw to.

“Right now it’s scary,” Davis said. “We’re athletic. We can mix and match receivers that can be dominant. Across the board I don’t think anyone can compete with us on defense.”

Lengel transferred after Northeastern decided to cancel its football program. He is eligible to play right away. At 6 feet 7 inches, Lengel is one of the tallest players on the team and can help stretch the field, especially lined up in the slot.

“Coaches told me to basically play basketball on the field,” Lengel said. “Box backs out, get big and don’t let them get around you. Size helps.”

Lengel was not with the team last year but knows expectations are high heading into this season.

“There is a poster in the locker room with our goals on it and we want to reach those goals,” Lengel said. “Win the OVC and get to the playoffs. Last year was a fluke. We have to prove that last year shouldn’t have happened.”

The running game will rely heavily on H.B. Banjoman, after the departure of C.J. Walker to graduation. Senior Aaron Bradley is an option but is currently recovering from an injury. Hood thinks he will be able to contribute. Junior Kyle Lumpkin has taken several snaps in the backfield during summer practice as well.

With the expansion of the playoff system from 16 to 20 teams, it gives the Colonels a better chance of making the playoffs, even if they do not win the conference title.

“Our non-league games are important,” Hood said. “Playing UT Chattanooga and Missouri State will be big games. Obviously our goal is to be 11-0, but it’s a tough schedule. Every game is important and the game is played by tough people.”

The defense will be counted on to help carry the load early as well.

Senior and all-conference player Andrew Soucy anchors the defensive line. Soucy was ranked fifth in the OVC with 9.5 tackles for a loss. Combine his efforts with the likes of a healthy Caldwell and a strong linebacker core that features Jordan Dalrymple and Antonio Frederick, make for a potent defense.

One thing Soucy and the defense have worked on in camp is better pursuit of the ball.

“We’ve been flying around, pursuing the ball,” Soucy said. That’s where our focus is at. Tackling is a big focus, too. We lost some ball games down the stretch because of tackling. To be a good team, you have to be a good tackling team.”

Caldwell finished the season with seven interceptions, but wants to make a bigger impact this year.

“I gotta do what I gotta do to win,” Caldwell said. “The new guys are stepping up and we are getting better by the day.”

Don’t count out linebacker Patrick McClellan. Toward the end of the season, McClellan was one of the most consistent players on the defense. He finished with three interceptions and 61 tackles.

After ending a streak of 31 non-losing seasons, the Colonels now can start a new streak. The Colonels are ranked third in the OVC preseason standings and face a tough non-conference schedule, including a trip to Louisville, but rankings don’t seem to faze anyone.

“It’s nice to be ranked up there where we are and play the role of the spoiler,” Soucy said. “The true test is the season itself.”

Hood’s squad takes to the road for the first three regular season games and then head home to face Kentucky State on Oct. 2.

Hood seems confident the team will be ready for opening day.

“You can tell the kids took ownership of the team over the summer,” he said. “It was obvious. Camp has had more energy and it has been fun. I think we have good leadership. Our guys are buying into our standards of excellence.”

Game Notes:

Derek Moore, transfer from Hofstra looks to start on the offensive line.

Logan O’Connor will be used primarily as a placekicker and field goal kicker. Redshirt punter Jordan Berry looks to fill as the primary punter.