The Colonels know they are supposed to beat Valparaiso when the teams open the season on Thursday night at Roy Kidd Stadium.

After all, the Crusaders finished seventh in the non-scholarship Pioneer League last season after winning just two games -- and they have a new coaching staff.

EKU's players and coaches, however, are well-aware that they can't underestimate any opponent.

The last time the Colonels took on a non-conference Football Championship Subdivision team at home, they had to go to overtime to beat Robert Morris.

"We treat everyone the same," EKU senior cornerback Frank Sumpter said. "We don't look at one opponent one way and one opponent a different way."

There is a different feeling surrounding the Colonels this year.

EKU was 7-4 in 2018 and return 18 starters from a team that won its final four games and just missed out on a bid to the FCS Playoffs.

"Optimism abounds around the program right now," EKU coach Mark Elder said. "But, we are full-fledged focused on Valpo right now."

The expectations are high.

And the first step towards reaching those optimistic goals is a match-up with the Crusaders.

Game time is set for 7 p.m.

"We are just taking it one game at a time," Sumpter said.

The Colonels bring back 47 of 61 players who were on the season-ending depth chart.

But, there will be a newcomer under center.

Oregon State transfer Conor Blount was named the starting quarterback on Monday. The Wisconsin native transferred to EKU in January and beat out three QBs -- Parker McKinney, Austin Scott, Dakota Allen -- who started games last season.

"Going through it with all those guys was a great time," Blount said. "They are talented and a great group of guys."

The EKU offense also returns a standout running back -- Daryl McCleskey (144 carries) -- and its top receiver -- BK Smith (23 receptions, 244 yards).

"We've got a few new faces, but we feel like this is our deepest and most talented offense we've had and we've got a lot of specialists back," Elder said.

While the Colonels have plenty of experienced players on the rosters, the Crusaders have just 11 starters back from last season.

Valpo returns both its quarterbacks -- Chris Duncan (10 games, 1,781 yards, 14 TDs and had nine INTs) and Jimmy Seewald (four games, 446 yards, three TDs and two INTs).

The Crusaders also have their top running back - Kyle Cartales (419 yards, four TDs) - back from the 2018 season.

Landon Fox took over the Valpo program in March. He spent the past 11 seasons as the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Dayton, which is also in the Pioneer Leage.

"Landon Fox is a friend of mine," Elder said. "He brought in a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator. There will plenty of new faces and a new scheme, a different culture. That presents a lot of issues when you are preparing for them."

EKU leads the all-time series with the Crusaders 3-1. The Colonels beat Valpo 52-10 on Sept. 3, 2015 at Roy Kidd Stadium.

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