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Orlando Mitjans got an up-close look at the kind of talent the Colonels are capable of putting on the field during last year’s season finale.

Mitjans, then an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Ohio Valley Conference rival Tennessee State, watched from the sidelines as Eastern Kentucky University rolled to a thoroughly dominating 49-0 victory over the Tigers in Nashville.

He couldn’t help but be impressed with the Colonels’ performance — so much so that he jumped at an opportunity to join the EKU coaching staff.

“I was very impressed,” said Mitjans, who was named EKU’s secondary coach earlier this year. “I had coached at Towson, Morgan State and Tennessee State and I was very much impressed with the level of talent right across the board.”

Mitjans joined the coaching staff at a time when the Colonels have more depth and talent in the secondary than they have in many years. EKU did graduate two starters last year — Tremayne Perkins and Carl Hayden — but still have a trio of standout performers back at both cornerback and safety who could all start and will battle for playing time this season.

“(Coach Mitjans) was really surprised — and he’s been doing this for a long time,” EKU coach Danny Hope said of Mitjans, a long-time assistant with more than 20 years of experience.

The first-year Colonel assistant has seen an intense competition continue between six outstanding players who have been for fighting for the four starting spots since last spring. There was very little separation between EKU’s top corners and safeties coming out of training camp and the depth chart could change from week to week throughout the season, depending on performance.

“There’s some good competition,” EKU senior cornerback James Gaines said. “We are all battling and any one of us can step in and be the starter. It doesn’t matter who is the starter, we can all come in and do the same thing.”

The Colonels have outstanding depth at every position in the secondary, but Mitjans might be the most impressed with his cornerbacks.

Derrick Huff, an athletic 6-foot 192-pound junior, started nine games last season and was named the OVC Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes in a win over Jacksonville State.

He had 39 tackles, also tied for the team lead with three interceptions last year and came out of training camp as the starter at right corner.

Gaines, a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder, has started each of the last two seasons and had a career-high 51 tackles in 2004. The senior is probably the Colonels’ best cover corner and is also set to begin the season as a starter.

Antwuan Molden, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, earned play time last season after transferring from Toledo. The junior saw action in 11 games and had 37 tackles with two forced fumbles and one interception.

He can rotate in at both corners and has the potential to knock Gaines or Huff out of the starting lineup.

“I have three corners who I really feel could play in Division 1-A right now,” Mitjans said. “I’m glad that they are here.”

In addition to Molden, Huff and Gaines, the Colonels could also use Garnett Phelps, a freshman from Louisville who was a receiver in high school, and Detrick Belvin, a redshirt freshman, at corner.

“The competition at corner is the same as it was a year ago,” Hope said. “James Gaines has been a starter. Derrick Huff has been one of our best secondary guys since the day he stepped on campus. Antwaun Molden played quite a bit and is really a great athlete. He’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever been around.”

The competition at safety has been just as intense.

Victor Nichols, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound senior, has played the last three years, starting as a sophomore and junior. He finished fourth on the team last year with 46 tackles and also had three interceptions.

He’s started 20 games during his four seasons at EKU and is the projected starter at free safety.

Brandon Gathoff, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound sophomore, saw action in eight games as a redshirt freshman and showed tremendous improvement in spring practice and training camp.

“The biggest surprise for me has been Brandon Gathoff,” Mitjans said. “I had heard people say that last year he would never pull the trigger and that he would be in position and not make the play. But he’s made a complete turnaround. He’s making those plays now.”

Gathoff will begin the season as the starting strong safety, but both safeties could be pressed for playing time by Jules Montinar and Kody Tuupo.

Montinar started two games last year after transferring from West Virginia and had 37 tackles, four forced fumbles and an interception. Tuupo, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore, saw action only on special teams last season.

“In the spring, Victor Nichols was injured and Brandon had the luxury of getting all the reps and he ran with it,” Hope said. “Brandon is a really, really good player. Jules Montinar and Kody Tuupo — those guys haven’t been full-time starters, but they’ve played some and the competition is very strong.”

There wasn’t much, if any, competition at cornerback or safety just a few years ago, but the talent level in the secondary has increased dramatically lately, especially with the addition of the two Division I-AA transfers.

“We’ve come a long way,” Gaines said. “When I first got here, there really wasn’t any competition. Guys already had their set spots. Now, no one has a set spot. You better come ready to practice every day.”

And that competition should be just as fierce in years to come.

“The great thing is I only have two seniors,” Mitjans said. “Everyone else is coming back. We are going to be really rich around here for a lot of years.”

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