Just a few years ago, Eastern Kentucky University coach Mark Elder struggled to put together enough players to run through full intra-squad drills in practice.

That's how thin the roster was.

A lot has changed since then.

The Colonels opened training camp on Saturday morning at Roy Kidd Stadium in Richmond.

And at times during that first workout of the season, they were able to run the same team drills simultaneously on separate ends of the field.

"We've got the most depth that we've had (since I've been here)," said Elder, who is set to begin his fourth season at EKU. "We've got the most talent (since I've been here). I really think this has the makings of a tremendous season for us. This is an opportunity to us to take a big step forward as a program."

The expectations are high.

And they should be.

The Colonels were 7-4 last year, including victories in their final four games. It was the first winning season for the program in three years and the most wins for the team since 2014.

EKU is set to return 18 starters and 47 of 61 players who were listed on the season-ending depth chart. Overall, only 20 players who appeared in a game last season for the Colonels are not back with the team.

The Colonels had a 5-2 record in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, finishing behind Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri State in the standings - both of which advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.

EKU was picked third in both the OVC's preseason coaches and media polls, which were released earlier this month.

The Colonels, however, have bigger goals.

"I don't think anyone is excited about that," Elder said of the preseason polls. "Well, if we finish third, there's going to be a lot of disappointment around here. That's not where this team believes it should finish."

The Colonels will have lots of familiar faces back in uniform this season.

On the sidelines, things will look a little different.

EKU has five new full-time coaches on the staff, most of which are on offense.

Adam Austin took over as the team's offensive coordinator prior to spring practice. He spent the past eight seasons at Midwestern State University, helping the school win four-conference championships and make five appearances in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

"Our guys have really taken to him and to his system," Elder said of Austin.

Donte Ellington was also part of that success at Midwestern State, serving as the team's co-offensive coordinator for the past two years. He was hired as EKU's wide receivers coach in March.

Danny Hope was part of national championship team as a player at EKU and later served as the program's head coach for five seasons (2003-2007). He rejoined the coaching staff this spring as offensive line coach.

Troy Rothenbuhler worked for the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals in 2018 in a quality control role. He spent the previous seven seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at the University of Findlay.

He was hired as EKU's tight end coach earlier this year.

Jesse Williams- EKU's new defensive line coach -  has more than 30 years of coaching experience. He spent the past two seasons as the defensive line coach at the University of Kansas and before that spent five seasons at Ohio University.

EKU used four quarterbacks last season, then signed two high school seniors and added a transfer - Conor Blount (Oregon State).

One of those QBs, however, won't be back.

Alphonso Howard played in eight games last season, including two starts. He completed 26-of-53 passes for 314 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

He also rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns.

Howard left the program after spring practice.

"It just felt like he was behind some people on the depth chart and wasn't necessarily going to have the role he wanted to have this year," Elder said. "I wish him well and I'll help him anyway I can."

The Colonels will hold 14 practices over a 16-day period during training camp.

All workouts are scheduled to be held at Roy Kidd Stadium and are open to the public. Those who attend are asked to sit in the stadium seats.

Scrimmages are scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 10 and Saturday, Aug. 17.

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