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September 4, 2013Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Last season: 8-3, Returning starters: 13
Coach: Dean Hood
Record at EKU: 34-23, five seasons
After getting crushed at Purdue 48-6 to start the season, EKU reeled off four straight victories: 24-17 over Morehead State, 35-17 over Coastal Carolina, 51-21 over Jacksonville State and 28-16 over UT Martin. A 23-20 loss to Tennessee State broke the momentum a bit, but EKU returned to its winning ways with a 25-14 victory over Austin Peay and 42-28 victory over Tennessee Tech.
A 24-7 loss to Eastern Illinois was the Colonels' last setback as they closed the season with victories over Southeast Missouri (31-7) and Murray State (55-24).
EKU's offensive attack was run first last season as the Colonels averaged 4.1 yards per rush and scored 25 touchdowns on the ground. But that may not be the case this year.
Replacing tailback Matt Denham will be tough. The FCS All-American rushed for 1,386 yards and 14 TDs, averaging 126 yards per game. EKU also lost his backup, Deshaun Sands, who rushed for 297 yards and three TDs in nine games.
Hood said that the running back spot was a toss-up as of mid-August. Junior Caleb Watkins (6-0, 220) entered camp number one on the depth chart, but redshirt freshmen J.J. Jude (5-9, 191), Thomas Owens (5-10, 211) and Jared Sanders (5-7, 155) are also in the mix. Jude was a prep legend at Johnson Central High, rushing for an all-time Kentucky record 8,633 yards. He scored 41 touchdowns as a senior in high school and was a five-time All-American in wrestling.
Senior fullback Roman Lawson (6-0, 244) is a threat as well. He caught a touchdown pass in the most recent scrimmage.
The Colonels also have to replace starting QB TJ Pryor, who threw for 1,929 yards and 15 TDs last season. Junior quarterback Jared McClain (6-0, 192) inherits the starting role, with redshirt freshman Kyle Romano (5-11, 195) as his backup.
Speedy sophomore wideout Deno Montgomery (5-10, 182) could be a factor after moving over from defense. Freshman Tranard Chester (6-4, 180) could also be a playmaker at wide receiver.
If Eastern is going to have another successful season it is going to rest on the back of the defensive unit. And they appear ready to shoulder that load. The defense held the offense without a point in the first half of the team's scrimmage last Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium. The only scoring in the first half was when sophomore linebacker Chris Kelly snagged an interception and returned it 21 yard for a TD.
The EKU defense allowed foes just 108.2 rushing yards per game last season and just 10 rushing touchdowns. Coach Hood said he is pleased with his front seven, which returns five of seven starters and three All-OVC performers.
"I think we are in really good shape right there," Hood said. "We may even have some redshirt freshmen come in and push for playing time."
On the line, seniors Shawn Shupperd (6-5, 246) and David Carter (6-2, 300) will anchor that group.
Shupperd, an All-OVC end, will be joined on the other side by either Anthony Shoemaker (6-2, 264) or Ryan Bonner (6-3, 248). The tackles will most likely be Carter and sophomore Bryce Krebs (6-1, 298).
Two all-OVC linebackers return in seniors Anthony Brown (6-0, 232) and Ichiro Vance (6-1, 240). Brown had 12.5 tackles for a loss as an outside linebacker last season and could be the OVC Defensive Player of the Year this season. Vance had 159 tackles the last two seasons and is a two-time all-conference pick. Juniors Tyrelle Johnson (6-0, 215) and Khiry Maddox (6-1, 219) are competing for the third linebacker spot.
The biggest area of concern this year involves the defensive backfield. EKU's defense was more than generous through the air last season, allowing 254 yards per game and 21 TDs. Getting that pass defense shored up is a top concern, but three of the four starters are gone from 2012.
"We are a little more confident of what we're going to get at safety than the corner position, but I like a bunch of guys back there," Hood said.
Junior all-conference safety Brandon Stanley (6-1, 204) is the leader of the group. The other spots weren't decided as of press time, but sophomore Stanley Absanon (5-11, 173) will likely be one of the corners. Redshirt freshman Louisville Butler product Kiante Northington (5-9, 165) could be the other corner.
Senior Jordan Berry (6-5, 205) is a two-time All-OVC punter and is now in his fourth season as a starter. He could be the best punter Louisville faces all season. Two kickers - senior Luke Pray (5-7, 150) and junior Andrew Lloyd (5-11, 190) - made field goals from 42 yards during a mid-August scrimmage. Pray figures to be the starter there. He connected on a 53-yarder in the spring game.
"This is the best I've ever felt about (our field goal kickers) because I'm seeing the production on the field," Hood said.
Louisville should win this game easily, but EKU figures to be a fairly good team at its own level. Hood is a talented coach who already has collected a pair of Coach of the Year trophies (2008 and 2011). He came to Eastern from Wake Forest, where he was the defensive coordinator when the Deacons faced Louisville in the 2007 Orange Bowl. Hood said his team is fired up to play the Cardinals.
"We appreciate the opportunity to play Louisville," he said. "It's not too many times you can say you are going to play a top-10 (FBS) team. We are going to show up and play the game."
TOP THREE PLAYERS
1. Punter Jordan Berry -- The 6-foot-5, 205-pound senior from Essendon, Australia, averaged 42.9 yards per punt as a freshman in 2010. Louisville hasn't had a punter average even 41 yards per punt since 1992 (Brandon Brookfield, 41.7), and Berry's 42.9 mark would tie Klaus Wilmsmeyer for UofL's all-time record.
2. LB Anthony Brown - A two-time All-OVC pick from Cincinnati's Winton Woods (he was a teammate of UofL RB Dominique Brown), the 6-foot, 232-pound bruiser has been a starter since his redshirt freshman season in 2010 when he forced a fumble against Louisville.
3. RB J.J. Jude -- He's only a redshirt freshman, and he may not play a whole lot against Louisville, but if his high school numbers are any indication, he'll be a major star for EKU in the future. The 5-9, 191-pound Hagerhill, Ky., native had back-to-back 3,000-yard rushing seasons in high school.