By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
In the past two seasons, Matt Denham racked up almost 3,000 yards rushing, scored 23 rushing touchdowns and was the driving force behind the best ground attack in the Ohio Valley Conference.
He earned All-American and All-OVC honors and finished his career as one of EKU’s all-time leading rushers.
Now, someone else will have to carry the load for the Colonels.
And who will step into that role is one of the biggest questions as the team goes through spring workouts.
“We lost a lot of production, but the good thing is that we didn’t lose a lot of players,” EKU coach Dean Hood said of the running back position. “We only lost 13 players (overall). If we had lost 25 players and all that production, then you are looking around trying to find one guy or maybe two guys to step up because you graduated them all. We are looking at four guys. Denham is gone, but we are looking at Caleb Watkins. J.J. Jude, Jared Sanders and Thomas Owens. Can one of those guys or the four of them replace Denham’s production.”
The Colonels have options in the backfield, even though some of the key reserves from last season aren’t currently on the roster.
DeShaun Sands (297 yards and three TDs on 78 carries) has been permanently dismissed from the team, while Jeremiah Williams (DNP in 2012) and Zavier Foster (226 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries) have both been suspended indefinitely.
Whether or not they will be allowed to rejoin the squad will probably be determined this summer prior to training camp.
“I’m going to take my time and see how things go and make my decision later,” Hood said.
Without Denham, Williams, Sands or Foster, the Colonels leading rusher returning from last season is Watkins.
The redshirt sophomore (6-foot, 226 pounds) from Corbin had 10 carries last season for 26 yards. He saw action in 10 games in 2011, but mostly just on special teams.
Watkins was at the top of the depth chart at the start of spring practice, but he’s been pushed by several other talented back.
Freshman J.J. Jude sat out last year after putting together a tremendous high school career at Johnson Central. He is the state’s all-time leading rusher and had two 3,000-yard seasons. Jude was also a two-time state wrestling champion.
Jared Sanders also sat out last season. The 5-foot-7, 157-pound freshman was a standout football and track athlete at Hallandale (Fla.) High School.
Thomas Owens, a junior college transfer, is also in the mix.
“The guys who have caught my eyes are the young running backs,” Hood said. “I’ve been really impressed with J.J. Jude and Jared Sanders. Caleb, I knew he could (step up) because he’s been with us for a while. I’m impressed with him. Thomas Owens is a kid we recruited and he had to sit out a year.”
In last Thursday’s first spring scrimmage, Watkins made the biggest play, turning a short screen pass into a big gain.
The Colonels will practice again Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday before traveling to Hazard on April 13 for a scrimmage.