Walt Wells spent the better part of past three decades as an assistant coach, working his way up from a high school program in Tennessee all the way to the Southeastern Conference.
Nine months ago, he finally got an opportunity to run his own program.
Wells was announced as the 15th head football coach in Eastern Kentucky University history in December.
It was a special homecoming for Wells, who had served as an assistant coach at the school under legendary coach Roy Kidd.
At that time, Wells couldn’t have imagined the challenges he would face in his first season as a head coach.
“I made six training camps schedules. I finally went with the last one,” Wells said. “I just finished my fourth schedule for the season. There’s been a lot of sudden change. You’ve just got to react and respond and realize that no one has a gameplan for this. We just have to move forward.”
Wells and his staff have seemingly had to pivot on an almost daily basis to react to an ever-changing world.
COVID-19 swept into the United States in March, just one week into EKU’s spring practice.
Nothing has been the same since.
“It’s a different time for our country,” Wells said. “But, it’s been great being back at EKU.”
The Colonels and their new head coach will finally get a chance to get back on the field next week.
EKU is set to open the 2020 season with a match-up against former rival Marshall on Sept. 5 in Huntington, W.Va.
It will be the beginning of an unconventional, abbreviated schedule. The Colonels will play just eight non-conference games this fall, including three games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams — Marshall, Troy and West Virginia.
The other games will consist of match-ups with solid Football Championship Subdivision teams from impressive conferences — Western Carolina and The Citadel (Southern), along with Central Arkansas (twice) and Stephen F. Austin (Southland).
The Ohio Valley Conference canceled all fall championships with the hope of rescheduling in the spring. Members schools were still allowed to play four non-conference football games, but the Colonels decided to split from the league, which they have been a member of since its creation in 1948.
“I thought the spring would be a difficult situation for our young men,” Wells said. “You look at the timeframe and where we are located geographically and it was just going to be a struggle to do that. I was intent on playing in the fall and our administration was in the same court as I was.”
That meant scrambling to find teams to play.
“In about 48 hours, (the administration) put together what is probably the most challenging schedule in EKU football history,” Wells said.
The official announcement came just 15 days before the first game.
The Colonels missed most of spring practice, but a majority of the roster has been on campus and practicing since late July while awaiting word on the program’s plan for the season.
Those workouts and three intra-squad scrimmages have allowed the coaches a chance to make up for lost time.
“We hadn’t had a lot of time with our players,” Wells said. “We didn’t get a chance to get to know them and be around them this spring. That was the biggest challenge.”
There are lots of new faces on the field at EKU — in addition to the coaching staff.
The Colonels have only 11 seniors and return just a handful of starters back from a team that went 7-5 last season.
More than half of the team’s roster is either freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“We’ve got a young roster, but there’s no excuses when you get on the field,” Wells said. “You’ve got to get out there and play.”
Who will play against Marshall is still a bit of an unknown.
The school has not released a depth chart and all practice and scrimmages are closed to the public and media.
The coaching staff has not even named a starting quarterback, yet.
Parker McKinney, a redshirt sophomore from Coalfield, Tenn., has appeared in 13 total games in the past two seasons. He made seven starts in 2019 and had seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.
He appears to be in a competition for the starting position with redshirt junior Dakota Allen and Kaymen Cureton, a redshirt junior transfer from the University of Nevada.
“We should come out with a decision on Monday or Tuesday that we will keep internally,” Wells said. “We will let Marshall find out when we walk out on the field.”
EKU brings back some talented offensive weapons for McKinney, Cureton or Allen to work with.
Redshirt junior running back Alonzo Booth had 673 yards rushing last season with 14 touchdowns.
“Alonzo is an attitude changer when he comes on the field,” Wells said. “He runs with a mission. He is quick-footed and can make the cuts.”
Senior Keyion Dixon had a team-best 34 catches for 497 yards and one touchdown last season. Senior Matt Wilcox Jr., (24 catches, 189 yards) is also back, along with redshirt junior Jackson Beerman (12 catches, 188 yards, 2 TDs).
EKU also brings back its two top tight ends — redshirt juniors Ethan Bradds (nine catches) and Collin Sanchez (one catch).
The Colonels don’t have nearly as many veterans back on the other side of the ball.
Elijah Taylor, a redshirt senior from Cincinnati, transferred to EKU in 2018 from Notre Dame.
He played in all 11 games his first year, but suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the 2019 season.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive lineman is back and healthy.
“He seems to be doing well with his knee,” Wells said of Taylor “So, we are excited about him.”
Other starters back on defense include redshirt senior defensive back Josh Hayes, junior defensive Daulson Fitzpatrick, junior defensive back Joseph Sayles and redshirt senior defensive back T.J. Comstock who missed almost all of last season with an injury.
The rest of the defensive line-up will be filled by newcomers.
“They are talented players,” Wells said. “It’s just like I told every kid in the first meeting we had, ‘There’s going to be a game where one of you is going to play who doesn’t think he has a chance to play right now.’”
Those new Colonels will get a chance to make their debut in front of a national audience.
EKU’s season opener will be televised live on ESPN.
“It’s a great thing for the university and a great thing for our program,” Wells said.