By Ryan Alves
Head Coach Dean Hood and his Colonel football team ended last season on a four-game winning streak, and for the second straight year, come into this season being picked to finish third in the preseason Ohio Valley Conference football poll.
And as week three of preseason camp comes to a close, the Colonels are ready to begin their quest for their 21st OVC championship.
“The guys are in good shape,” Hood said. “We’re playing real physical right now, running the ball well and playing good defense. Special teams is coming along nicely, and I’m real pleased at where we are at this point.”
In the preseason OVC polls, Eastern had seven players voted to the preseason All-OVC Team, but received zero first-place votes.
Five of the seven players named in that lisT came from the defensive side—Emory Attig, Anthony Brown, Tyson Patrick, Jeremy Caldwell and Patrick McClellan—which will prove, once again, to be Eastern’s strong suit.
Eastern ranked first in the OVC in rushing defense (125 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (22.7 points per game) last season, and will look to rely on its veteran defense once again.
Attig said he is trying to replace the leadership roles that graduating seniors Jordan Dalrymple and Andrew Soucy had last year.
“Last year, guys looked to them for experience,” Attig said. “I’m starting to see the field better and I kind of feel like an old veteran who can see the formations better than before.”
Attig is also recuperating from a knee injury he suffered in the last game of last season, but insists he will be ready for his senior season.
“There’s pain, but this is college football and I’ve got one year left, so you deal with it,” Attig said.
Caldwell, Eastern’s dynamic special teams playmaker and lock-down cornerback, looks to continue the stellar season he had last season, when he finished with 32 tackles, three interceptions and three kick-returns for a touchdown.
This season, he was also named to college football’s Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, which is given to the top defensive player in the Football College Subdivision (FCS).
“We’re really starting to execute and bring these young guys along and get ready for Kansas State. It’s been a while,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been getting a few reps on offense, and I didn’t realize how good our defense really is until then. The defense looks amazing right now.”
Defensively, Eastern also made a coaching change as former assistant coach Tony Hatmaker took over the defensive reigns from Hood.
“I was having a hard time managing the game with being concerned with the defense,” Hood said on why he stepped back. “I wasn’t able to help the offensive coaches, or the special teams very much. Its one of those thing like you can’t see very much when you’re the guy in the forest. It was just too much for me.”
And Attig said the defense is no different with Hatmaker steering the ship.
“We’re really doing the same things defensively as when Coach Hood was calling it, but Coach Hatmaker adds a little more intensity and he means business,” Attig said. “But he’s really bringing the guys together, creating a more family atmosphere amongst the defense. We’re working on fitting the run and getting to the quarterback on our blitzes. We want to earn the title of best defense in the OVC.”
Eastern also has a new look offensively with Dane Damron, last year’s special teams coach who has taken over as offensive coordinator for Mike Springston, who resigned this summer.
Damron has added a newfound excitement and passion to an offense that ranked toward the bottom in overall production in 2010.
“The offense is simplified down for us now. There are less plays, the calls are more fluid and it’s a lot easier for us,” said quarterback T.J. Pryor. “We’re working really hard right now.”
The Colonels’ offense suffered one severe set-back this spring when junior wide receiver Orlandus Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury before the start of camp. In 2010, Harris caught 56 passes, led the team with 940 yards receiving and seven receiving touchdowns. Harris was one of the players named to the preseason first-team All-OVC Team.
In his place will be junior Tyrone Goard, who had 20 catches in 2010, sophomore Justin Williams, who finished with 15 catches in 2010 and junior college transfer Cameron Bailey.
“The run game will open up the pass game for us, which is real good,” Pryor said. “Tyrone’s doing real well and Cam Bailey. They’ll both be offensive threats for us.”
At running back, Eastern returns every back that recorded a carry in 2010, which works to their advantage because of Damron’s newfound significance on the run-game.
Eastern will feature more of a two-back system this season with Jeremiah Williams, also a junior college transfer, at the top of the depth chart. Kyle Lumpkin, H.B. Banjoman, Matt Denham and Caleb Watkins will also get their chance at carrying the ball.
Plus, the speedy transfer Jeremiah Williams, a slot reciever turned running back will give the Colonel’s offense another home-run threat.
The offensive line looks to be Hood’s most experienced yet, with four starters returning: Joe Arnason, O.J. Enabosi, Derek Moore and Patrick Ford. Senior Kevin Brown also returns from injury last season and junior college transfer Andrew Melton adds some depth to the group.
“The offensive line is doing great,” Pryor said. “They have another year of experience and I
am really confident in the great job they’re doing.”
Pryor, a junior, will once again lead the offense from behind center, and in his third season should be one of the conference’s most dynamic offensive weapon.
Pryor comes in nearing 4,000 career-passing yards and 31 touchdowns, and will look to lead more with his arm this season.
But the junior did suffer a hand injury in a scrimmage last week but hopes to make it back for the first game against Sept. 3. The team does not know when he’ll return but does not expect to be out the entire season.
“We’re getting the ball in our running back’s hands more,” Pryor said. “It takes a lot of pressure off the quarterbacks to not have to use our legs as much. We’re going under center more and our O-line is blocking real well.”
Eastern begins the season Sept. 3 at Big-12 opponent Kansas State, and will look to get off to a much quicker start than last season where they fell to 0-3 and then to 2-5 by November.
But after rolling off four straight wins to end the season, Hood and company are eager to get started.
“We still have another week to play with before we start looking at Kansas State,” Hood said. “This will give us a good chance to still work on fundamentals of our offense and defense and the calls. But we’re ready to get started.”