The Eastern Kentucky University football team will take the field Saturday representing their new conference, the ASUN, while facing a familiar foe on the road, Western Carolina.
The Colonels lead the all-time series 4-2, including the last matchup between the two, where EKU beat the Catamounts, 49-17 in November 2020 at Roy Kidd Stadium. The first matchup between the two was in 1988, where EKU won 32-14 on the road.
Western Carolina has changed since the Colonels last faced them in 2020. The Catamounts have a new coaching staff which EKU head coach Walt Wells has called a disadvantage. His team has had to review film from different schools where those coaches last coached at.
“We know that they are a talented football team,” Wells said. “We respect what they are doing and I know they are going to try to throw it all over the yard and be a high tempo offense.”
Leading up to the season, Wells said his team has been fortunate to have avoided many injuries and limit the spread of COVID-19. Wells said every EKU scholarship player was either fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or in the process of being fully vaccinated. According to Wells, a few walk-on players opted out of getting the vaccine and he said he respected their decision.
“They made the educated choice, we had speakers come in and talk to them at different times and I think that really helped. But they also did their own research,” Wells said about his players getting vaccinated.
Wells addressed how young this year’s team is, but he is pleased that the players have bought into their mission and are prepared for the season ahead.
According to the EKU roster, there are 56 true freshmen, 15 redshirt freshmen and only eight seniors on this year’s team.
Even with a young team, Wells and his squad are excited to finally be back on the field for a fall football season.
“It feels like a normal game week,” Wells said. “It feels like a normal season right now and we’re looking forward to it.”
Due to the Labor Day holiday and many people traveling to Cullowhee, North Carolina the EKU football team will have to stay an hour away in Asheville.
“I didn’t realize that Cullowhee was a destination point for Labor Day, but it is, so that’s a good thing,” Wells said.
The Colonels have selected, by a team vote, tight end Dakota Allen, linebacker Kyle Bailey, linebacker Matthew Jackson and quarterback Parker McKinney as the 2021 team captains.
McKinney has been named the starting quarterback for the Colonels after coming off of a shoulder injury last season. He said that he is one hundred percent and ready to let the ball fly.
“I’m excited about this upcoming season and I think we’ve all been looking forward to it,” McKinney said. “This summer I feel like it was the most work we’ve put in during a summer since I’ve been here.”
The redshirt sophomore had 23 career touchdowns with 15 interceptions and more than 3,300 passing yards.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in the offense obviously having a spring and a summer (to prepare) and then a whole year under my belt, all the reads have become second nature to me and I know what to look for and the coverages,” McKinney said.
McKinney said that outside of football, he is glad the team has been able to build their chemistry now that the COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed.
The Colonels will open the 2021 season against the team they faced in the 2020 season finale. That has happened only one other time in the 112-year history of the program when the Colonels faced Union College in the 1928-29 season.
EKU will kick off the new season at Western Carolina at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Fans can watch the action on ESPN+ and follow @SportsEP on Twitter for updates.