The well runs deep in college football story lines around Kentucky. Beyond the bright lights of the state’s largest universities, here are some of the themes to keep an eye on around the commonwealth this fall:
Morehead trending upward
Morehead State was picked to finish eighth in the Pioneer Football League in Rob Tenyer’s third season as coach. Instead, the Eagles turned the corner, finishing 7-4 overall and 6-2 (third place) in the PFL, the school’s best season since 2007.
A defense of unknowns ended up ranking ninth in the FCS in interceptions. Quarterback Austin Gahafer delivered on lofty expectations and then some, passing for a league-leading 3,244 yards — fourth-best among FCS quarterbacks.
Now the Eagles look to build on their momentum with a strong returning crop led by 2015 PFL Offensive Player of the Year Gahafer and nine other seniors. Among that group is Gahafer’s favorite target, wide receiver Jake Raymond, who made 72 receptions last season.
Last year, the Eagles gave up the fewest sacks in the conference, which played well for the pass-driven offense. But the offensive line returns only one starter in redshirt senior C.J. Phillips.
The defense also took some hits through graduation but still revolves around All-PFL second-team senior linebacker Ryan Bennett (team-best 96 tackles) and junior defensive lineman Colt Briggs (10.5 tackles for loss, five sacks).
How Tenyer fills the Eagles’ holes will determine whether Morehead’s climb continues.
“We have a lot of guys, especially young guys, getting a lot of reps, and we have the makings to be a very successful team this year because of our depth,” Tenyer said after a recent scrimmage. “We do need to clean up some areas, and I feel like both sides of the ball need to play with a little more urgency and we’ll be OK.”
Back in Kentucky
John L. Smith’s numerous head coaching stops have established him as a program builder. He engineered successful turnarounds earlier in his career at Idaho, Louisville and Michigan State — and now is back in Kentucky to have another go at it with Kentucky State.
“We’ve made a lot of changes since we’ve been here and it feels like we’re starting from scratch,” Smith said during the team’s media day.
Smith has more than doubled the size of the Thorobreds roster since last spring.
“We’ve worked our tails off getting these guys in here,” Smith said. “The pool for recruiting is so much bigger in Division II, there are so many guys who haven’t been given a chance, and we’re here to give them their opportunity.”
The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s coaches and sports information directors picked KSU to finish fifth in the West Division in Smith’s inaugural season.
Can Georgetown repeat?
Under head coach Bill Cronin, Georgetown has positioned itself as a conference title contender year in and year out.
The Tigers finished 6-4 overall and won the Mid-South East Division with a 5-0 record last season. The league’s coaches made Georgetown the favorite to claim the East again in 2016, and the Tigers enter the season ranked No. 18 in the NAIA national poll.
“The respect for what we do here is nice, but now we need to go prove it on the field,” Cronin said. “What matters is what happens between those lines.”
The Tigers’ defense was a fortress in 2015, ranking in the top 25 nationally in eight categories, including sixth-best in scoring defense. Georgetown expects no drop-off on that side of the ball.
The Tigers, who allowed only 16.3 points per game, return two senior leaders in cornerback Josh Harris and linebacker Jake Blust, who finished first and second on the team in tackles, respectively. Cronin further bolstered the defense by adding junior cornerback Brandon Napoleon, a transfer from West Virginia.
Quarterback Ozzie Mann and running back JJ Jude, themselves former transfers, return to lead the offense along with receiving targets Alan Williams (33 receptions last season) and MSC East co-rookie of the year Ross Cox (seven TDs).
Life without Jacob
If there was any doubt about NAIA All-America quarterback Jacob Russell’s relevance at Campbellsville, the Mid-South preseason coaches’ poll provides proof. The Tigers (8-3, 5-0) won the West Division last season. With Russell no longer at the controls, the Tigers were picked to finish fourth this preseason, even though they are ranked 17th nationally.
Campbellsville also lost top running back A.J. Strong and wide receiver Jarrod Harrington, leaving head coach Perry Thomas to start from scratch with the offense. To help Thomas out, Strong will be staying with the team, being hired on immediately as the running backs coach. Defensively, the Tigers graduated their top three tacklers and will lean heavily on underclassmen. Junior linebacker Khalil Baker and junior defensive back Keith Foster will be called on to lead.
Other players to watch
WR Keelan Cole, Kentucky Wesleyan: NFL scouts have been showing up in Owensboro to check out the former Central High School player, who finished No. 2 in the NCAA with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2015. Cole was also second in receiving yards per game (134.5) and No. 11 in receptions per game (7.3). The 6-foot-2, 175-pounder has received preseason All-America accolades.
QB Adam Craig, Cumberlands: Craig led Cumberlands to a 7-3 record and was named Mid-South East co-offensive player of the year last season. As a senior, Craig will try to build on a season in which he drove defenses crazy by passing for 1,144 yards and rushing for 746.
QB KD Humphries Murray State: Humphries led the FCS with a school record 3,778 passing yards last season and topped the nation for the second consecutive season with 30 completions per game. As a junior last year, Humphries threw just seven interceptions in 532 attempts. He also has earned preseason All-America honors.
Games to watch
Sept. 17: Thomas More vs. Washington & Jefferson. The defending Presidents Athletic Conference champs host W&J in an early-season showdown that could end up being for all the marbles. League coaches picked Thomas More and Washington & Jefferson to finish first and second in the league this preseason.
Oct. 1: Centre at Hendrix. Hendrix beat out Centre by one game for the Southern Athletic Association crown in 2015. That one game difference was Hendrix’s 51-48 win on Centre’s Homecoming.
Oct. 29: Lindsey Wilson at Campbellsville. Campbellsville and Lindsey Wilson enter the season ranked No. 12 and No. 13 respectively in the NAIA. This one could settle things in the Mid-South West.
Nov. 5: Cumberlands at Georgetown. Last season’s 30-13 Georgetown win on Senior Day in Williamsburg wound up as the only separation between the teams atop the Mid-South East. Is revenge in the air?
2016 College Football Preview
Click on the links below to read other stories from the Herald-Leader’s season preview. Watch for more coming Monday and Tuesday, or pick up the Sunday Herald-Leader and get it all at once.