Less than a month away from its Sept. 3 season opener against Purdue, the Eastern Kentucky University football team is in the midst of a heated quarterback competition that has yet to see the emergence of a frontrunner.
First-year head coach Mark Elder is tasked with deciding between two experienced senior signal callers who have clearly demonstrated the ability to helm successful offenses.
In one corner is Bennie Coney, who started 10 of 11 games for the Colonels last year and passed for 2,471 yards, the second most in program history. Coney’s 23 touchdown passes ranked 12th in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) last season.
In the other corner is Maty Mauk, the former Missouri quarterback who led the Tigers to a 17-5 record and back-to-back Southeastern Conference Eastern Division titles in his three years as a starter.
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Mauk was suspended three times over a four month span during his junior year and was dismissed by new Missouri head coach Barry Odom in January. He was given a second chance by Elder, who was heavily involved in Mauk’s high school recruitment while an assistant coach with the University of Cincinnati.
At EKU’s Media Day on Monday, Elder insisted the race for the starting job remains wide open at this point.
“They’re competing, they really are,” he said. “We’re four days in, we’ve had two days in pads. It’s a long ways from anything really ironing itself out. But I will say this, we’ve got talent in that group … where we’re at in that room right now we’re gonna be solid in that position.”
When asked what factors would weigh on his final decision, Elder cited several.
“It’s a production-based deal,” he said. “It’s a natural position of leadership. He’s a guy that’s got to take control of the huddle. He’s got to have some of those alpha attributes … another extremely important part of it is how you react when you’re backed up against a wall.
“One great thing is that they’ve both led offenses. They’ve both been out there and won games and been successful, so they’re not walking into a huddle and thinking ‘this is the first time I’ve had everybody looking at me and I have to have all the answers.’”
Coney appeared unfazed by the prospect of fighting for his job after a junior season that saw him rack up several accolades, including three Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Week awards and a midseason addition to the FCS National Player of the Year watchlist.
“Competition is lovely,” he said. “Maty Mauk is pushing me and I’m pushing him … I just have to keep being a leader. I’ve got to keep going out there and doing what coach asks me to do. That’s what you have to do when you play quarterback, master the offense and that’s all I’m trying to do.
“My teammates love me and I love my teammates, and I love Maty just like he’s been our teammate, that’s how we do it here. We’re just trying to win a championship.”
After originally being scheduled to appear at Media Day, Mauk was a late scratch for the news conference.
When asked to shed some light on the quarterback competition, sophomore running back Ethan Thomas flashed a cheshire-cat grin, laughed and replied “no comment.” But the Colonels’ leading returning rusher did express confidence that either quarterback could lead the team to a postseason run.
“They’re great, that’s all I can really say,” he said. “They’re really pretty much the same if you really think about it. They’re both mobile, they can throw and they read great.”
Elder had a straightforward answer when asked what would ultimately be the deciding factor in choosing the starting quarterback for his first campaign as the Colonels’ head coach.
“The guy that leads the team down to score touchdowns the most. It’s real, real simple.”
Eastern Kentucky at Purdue
Noon Saturday, Sept. 3, on ESPNews