New Eastern Kentucky football coach Mark Elder has experienced his fair share of spring practices, but the spring that culminated in the Colonels’ Maroon and White game on April 16 was his first in charge.
“I’ve coached a lot of different positions in my time as an assistant, and regardless of whichever one it was, you’re locked in on that group of guys making sure you’re doing your part for your piece of the puzzle,” said the 38-year-old Cincinnati native who was hired to replace Dean Hood last December. “As a head coach you’re trying to see the big picture — what’s our pace, what’s our effort, what’s the mentality of these guys. That has been something that has been different for me. I don’t think that you ever get that big-picture look at things until you’re sitting in that head coaching chair.”
And how is that big picture shaping up, just over four months away from the season opener against Purdue? Elder, who held assistant coaching positions at Cincinnati and Michigan before spending the last three years as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator under Butch Jones at Tennessee, said he’s pleased with the way the team is adapting to the new regime.
“When you go from one head of an organization to another, they’re going to have a different standard as far as what they want culture-wise, and to flip an 18- to 22 year-old’s world upside down, that’s difficult on those guys. I’ve got to say that their attitude has been outstanding. The way that they’ve adjusted has been fantastic,” he said.
The transition has been aided by a core of experienced offensive players who were big contributors last season. Quarterback Bennie Coney, who had the second-most passing yards in school history (2,471) and threw 23 touchdown passes, returns for his senior campaign.
“There’s no harder position for a transition than the quarterback position. I don’t think the casual fan understands how much has to go into their brain to perform at a high level,” Elder said.
“We saw Bennie get better and better as the spring went along. I think the first day he threw to the wrong color a few times, as you expect to happen, but to see him progress and get more comfortable was great.”
Sophomore running back Ethan Thomas, who led a crowded Colonels backfield with 507 rushing yards and a 6.1-yard average , also returns. As does senior wide receiver Devin Borders, who had a team-best 37 catches for 376 yards.
One big loss on offense was tight end Ben Madon, who led the Colonels with 456 receiving yards as a senior. But Elder is confident that production can be replaced by one or more of the six tight ends Eastern will carry on its roster this fall.
“That may be our deepest position. Walking out of spring we feel like we have a number of guys that will certainly be able to perform on Saturdays,” Elder said.
Sophomore tight end Dan Paul was recognized at halftime of the spring game as one of EKU’s most improved players. Elder also mentioned junior Tyler Malone as a candidate for the starting tight end job.
“He’s a tough, physical guy,” Elder said. “He was competing with Ben (Madon) last year to see who was gonna run out on the field first and got injured, but Tyler was right in the mix with him.”
On defense, the Colonels’ biggest challenge will be finding a way to replace defensive end Noah Spence. The transfer from Ohio State declared for the NFL Draft after a junior season in which he racked up 11 1/2 sacks, 22 1/2 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles on his way to FCS Defensive Performer of the Year and All-American honors. Spence is projected as a potential first-round pick.
“The defensive linemen took some big steps forward, which was good to see. But it doesn’t matter what program you’re at, you don’t replace a first-rounder very often and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this guy waiting in the wings.’ That type of production, it’s going to have to be a group effort,” Elder said.
The Colonels signed four defensive linemen in their 26-player freshman class. The 13 linemen who will fight to replace Spence’s production include senior Patrick Graffree, a transfer from Kentucky, and redshirt freshman Taquan Evans, who impressed Elder this spring.
“(Evans) didn’t play like a redshirt. He played like a guy that had been in the fires which was great to see,” Elder said. “He showed some big pass rush ability off the edge … I really thought he showed the most improvement on defense in the spring.”
Elder also mentioned defensive back Kiante Northington, who tied for the team lead last year with three interceptions, and defensive lineman Avery Pitt as players who took on clear leadership roles in the spring.
Elder said that beyond identifying individual players who could step up and help Eastern win its first playoff game since 1994, this spring’s practices were about “setting the standard of how we’re going to do things. The effort and intensity with which we’ll approach everything.”
“We don’t need to be the most complex team in the world, we’re not trying to outsmart people,” Elder said. “We’re gonna punish people. We’re gonna out-physical people …that’s gonna be our identity. We’re gonna be simple, we’re gonna be sound, and we’re gonna be a damn tough football team.”