By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
The Colonels can’t change the past.
They know that.
So, there’s no point in wasting time thinking about the disappointing way last season ended.
The Colonels won eight games (8-3), finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference (6-2) and earned a tough road win over the Big South Conference champion, but they didn’t get an at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
“I think that’s the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” sixth-year EKU head coach Dean Hood said. “I felt terrible for the seniors and I felt terrible that we didn’t make it.”
That snub still stings.
If they had been given the opportunity, Hood still believes the Colonels could have been a major factor in last year’s FCS Playoffs.
Of course, they didn’t get that chance.
But, Hood hopes his team learned one very valuable lesson from that disappointing experience.
“The bottom line is you can’t put your fate in the hands of other humans,” Hood said.
This season, the Colonels have no intention of leaving their fate up to the NCAA Selection Committee.
A conference title assures an automatic berth to this year’s expanded 24-team FCS Playoffs.
Last season, the OVC got only one team into the postseason — Eastern Illinois (7-5, 6-1 OVC) — despite the entire league putting together a solid resume against other FCS opponents.
“The OVC had its best year in a millennium in winning games outside of its conference,” Hood said. “Our teams beat other conference’s champions. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way it went down.”
The Colonels have won a record 21 OVC titles — more than twice as many as any current member of the league — and have made 20 appearances in the FCS Playoffs — the second-most in the history of the tournament.
For the Colonels to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011, they will have overcome the loss of a large and talented senior class.
Most of EKU’s offensive production from last season is gone, including an All-American running back, a big-play wide receiver and two NFL-caliber offensive linemen.
The Colonels do return seven starters from a rock-solid defense, but there are holes to fill on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got some unproven commodities, but we feel good about Jared (McClain) and his leadership abilities,” Hood said. “He doesn’t have a ton of game experience, but the experience he has is against some stiff competition.”
McClain steps into the starting role at quarterback full-time this year, taking over for T.J. Pryor, who was a four-year starter and left the program as the school’s all-time leading passer.
McClain, a junior from Hiram, Ga., has already been battled tested. He has played in 17 games the past two seasons and started games at Kansas State and Purdue.
McClain completed 57 percent of his pass attempts last year, while throwing for three touchdowns and running for three more scores.
He came off the bench to lead EKU to a come-from-behind win over SEMO on the road.
“I’ve been through the fire,” McClain said. “I played in all the games last year. That was my role. Now my role is different and I have to take ownership of that role.”
McClain is a proven commodity.
The rest of the offense has plenty of question marks.
Matt Denham rushed for more than 3,000 total yards the past two seasons, fueling EKU’s run-first offense.
The All-American is gone, leaving three redshirt freshmen (J.J. Jude, Thomas Owens and Jared Sanders) and one junior (Caleb Watkins) to competing for playing time in the backfield. Those four backs have a total of just 11 carries at the college level.
“There’s a lot of competition out there,” Hood said of the running back position. “There’s a lot of guys who want the ball handed to them.”
The Colonels also lost their top two receivers from last year. Tyrone Goard and Cameron Bailey combined for 90 catches, 1,540 yards and 13 touchdowns in their senior seasons.
Senior receiver Ike Ariguzo (18 catches, one TD last season) is back, along with senior tight ends Matt Lengel (missed almost of last year) and Nathan Watts (13 catches in 2012).
The Colonels will also be counting on sophomore Jeff Glover (one catch last year) and redshirt freshman Devin Borders to have an impact this season.
“We’ve got some older guys at the tight end position, but the guys on the outside are really talented too,” McClain said. “They’ve just got to get reps.”
The Colonels also return three starters on the offensive line — senior Justin Meredith (a Second-Team All-OVC selection last year), senior Travon Carter and sophomore Brett Eyckmans.
“We lost some great guys from last year,” McClain said of the EKU offense. “We’ve had a whole month prior to camp (to get some) reps in. Coming into camp, we were a bit ahead of schedule because we’ve been practicing all summer. The young guys have to step up. But, so does the entire team. The juniors and seniors have to step up for us to accomplish the goals we want to accomplish.”
Especially early in the season, the offense could be a work in progress.
But, McClain is confident the Colonels will be able to put point on the board.
“We have great pieces,” the junior quarterback said. “Now its time to put those pieces together.”
There are certainly few question marks on the other side of the ball.
The Colonels had four defensive players pick up preseason All-OVC honors — senior defensive tackle Shawn Shupperd, senior linebackers Anthony Brown and Ichiro Vance and junior safety Brandon Stanley.
“We’ve got a lot of experience and have veteran guys,” Vance said. “It’s just a matter of communication and getting everyone on the same page and having the younger guys understand why we do what we do.”
Senior David Carter and sophomore Bryce Krebs also return as starters on the defensive line, while senior Anthony Shoemaker will step into a starting role at defensive end.
Junior Tyrelle Johnson was limited to just four games last year because of injury, but is expected to take over at weakside linebacker.
“We’ve got two really veteran guys in the linebacking core,” Hood said of Brown and Vance. “That front seven is really good.”
Brown was a starter on the defensive line as a sophomore and moved to linebacker last season. He finished second in the OVC in tackles-for-loss (12.5) last season and had 60 tackles, second-most on the team.
The Cincinnati native has been a First-Team All-OVC selection the past two years.
Vance has been the rock-steady leader of the linebackers in recent years.
The LaGrange native has played in every game the past three seasons and has started every game the past two years.
Vance was a First-Team All-OVC selection in 2011 and a Second-Team All-OVC selection in 2012.
He has 159 career tackles in 34 games.
“I hope I’ve left my legacy here,” Vance said. “I just want to end on a good note. I want to make sure our young guys know to carry on the tradition.”
Stanley and senior Christian Albertson will likely be the starters at safety and Stanley Absanon is slated to take over at cornerback full time after starting eight games last year as a true freshman.
Kiante Nothington was at the top of the depth chart at corner coming out of spring practice, but an injury could keep him out for the first few weeks of the season.
Senior kicker Luke Pray and senior punter Jordan Berry are also back for the Colonels.
While the memories of last year’s postseason snub are still fresh in the minds of the coaching staff and returning players, the Colonels aren’t looking back.
Their focus is on making the playoffs this season.
But, admittedly, postseason success this year would be even sweeter after having to watch from the sidelines a year ago.
“If that’s your total motivation, then there’s something wrong,” Hood said. “You should be motivated to get better every day. That being said, I do think there’s a little something still there.”