Halfway through the 2015 season the Eastern Kentucky University football team appeared to be firing on all cylinders.
After a narrow 34-27 overtime loss to Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium that could have easily gone the other way, the Colonels reeled off three straight blowout wins to improve to 5-2 heading into a road game against rival Jacksonville State with first place in the Ohio Valley Conference on the line.
A 34-0 shellacking at the hands of the Gamecocks was the genesis of a meltdown that saw EKU drop three of its last four games to finish the season 6-5 and miss out on the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. After eight years and two OVC titles, head coach Dean Hood was fired.
Enter new head coach Mark Elder. The 38-year old Cincinnati native was hired to replace Hood last December. After assistant coaching stints at Michigan and Cincinnati, Elder spent the past three years as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator under Butch Jones at Tennessee.
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He’s tasked with leading the Colonels to their first OVC championship since 2011 and piloting their effort to jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision, a goal which EKU Athletics Director Steve Lochmueller has openly touted.
Elder’s first goal was to impart his vision of a team identity.
“Here’s what we’re gonna be, we are gonna be a tough football team,” he said. “Yes, we’re gonna play fast ... but don’t get that confused with finesse because we’re gonna be anything but finesse. We’re gonna be tough. We’re gonna play with tremendous effort. We’re gonna play excited, with our hair on fire.”
Elder also said fostering team chemistry is a top priority.
“We’ve got talent to be a successful team, but we’re not a wrestling team or a swim team, it’s not just talent,” he said. “We’ve got to become a team and we’ve got to come together ... the very first thing I do when I walk into the cafeteria every single day is walk up and down, and anybody sitting by themselves I go grab their food and move it to a place where they’re with other people .... we’re forcing them to get to know each other and spend time with each other because we think that’s so important for us to be successful.”
Known as a top-notch recruiter, Elder wasted no time reshaping the Colonels’ roster. He signed 26 players to his first freshman class and added a slew of transfers including former Connecticut quarterback Tim Boyle and former Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk.
Boyle is eligible for a redshirt and appears to be a good candidate to spend this season soaking up knowledge on the sidelines in anticipation of a potential starting nod in 2017. Elder is likely mulling a difficult choice between Mauk and last year’s starting signal caller Bennie Coney, who passed for the second-most yards in EKU history. Both are veteran seniors who have proven they can lead successful offenses.
Elder remains tight-lipped about the quarterback battle, and the starter might not be known publicly until the team takes the field for the season opener. A team depth chart released Friday listed the starter as Coney or Mauk or sophomore Tyler Swafford.
Whomever gets the nod at quarterback will have some proven weapons at his disposal. Senior wide receivers Devin Borders and Bryan Green were key cogs on offense last year. Green was one of the Colonels’ best red zone threats, hauling in a team-high five touchdowns. Borders proved a valuable possession receiver, snagging a team-best 37 catches including four touchdowns.
The offensive line will be anchored by 6-foot-5, 294-pound bruiser and preseason All-OVC selection Justin Adekoya. In addition to protecting whichever quarterback wins the job, Adekoya will look to open holes for sophomore running back Ethan Thomas. After leading a crowded backfield with 507 yards, a 6.1 yard-per-carry average and four touchdowns last year, Thomas looks to be the clear choice to head the Colonels’ rushing attack this season.
New defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix, who spent last season as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at Valporaiso, has fewer returning pieces to work with. Only three starters remain from last year’s Colonels defense, and Mattix must find a way to replace the production of linebacker Noah Spence, who as a junior had 11.5 sacks and was named OVC Co-Defenensive Player of the Year before being selected by Tampa Bay in the second round of the NFL Draft.
But the Colonels do return defensive back Kiante Northington, who tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions and had 7 pass breakups, as well as defensive lineman Avery Pitt.
Pitt, who had 26 tackles including six tackles for loss as a junior, said the team warmed up to the new coaching regime quickly.
“This staff brings a whole new energy to the program,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s been lacking in the past but they’ve changed things up a bit and I think everybody has bought in.”
The new-look Colonels will be thrown into the fire right out of the gate this year as they face FBS opponent Purdue to open the season. But Elder expects his squad to be ready for the challenge. And on a personal note, he said he’s eagerly anticipating his chance to lead his own team out of the tunnel on a Saturday for the very first time.
“That’s gonna be exciting,” Elder said. “I can’t wait.”
Coach: Mark Elder (first season)
Last season: 6-5 overall; 5-3 and fourth place in Ohio Valley Conference
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 3 defense, 4 special teams)
Outlook: A media panel picked the Colonels to finish second in the OVC behind Jacksonville State. Expect to see the Colonels employ a spread offense that will be in hurry-up mode much of the time. Several returning players mentioned the new coaches’ emphasis on offensive pace when asked about the differences between last year’s staff and Elder’s.
Question marks: The Colonels return just three starters from a defense that ranked second in the OVC last year, allowing 330 total yards per game. The biggest loss is defensive end Noah Spence, the 2015 OVC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Game of the year: The season opener against Purdue will be a big test for the Colonels, but the most important game of the year will likely be the Oct. 22 home date with defending OVC champ Jacksonville State. The Jaguars have had the Colonels’ number for the last three years.
Five key players
QB Bennie Coney: The senior thrived in his first full season as the starter last year, tossing 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Coney said he welcomes the battle for the starting quarterback job. “Competition pushes you and brings out the best in you and that’s what we need here so we can win a championship,” he said.
QB Maty Mauk: The Missouri transfer was heavily recruited by Elder at Cincinnati. He went 17-5 as the Tigers’ starter before being dismissed from the team following a suspension-riddled junior season.
WR Devin Borders: He led the team with 37 catches as a junior last year and should play a big role in what looks to be a fast-paced offense. “He’s got a lot of sweat invested into this program and it’s important to him,” Elder said.
DL Avery Pitt: The 6-foot-3, 290 lb. senior should help ease the growing pains of a young defense that will feature a lot of fresh faces. “He’s a guy that embodies what we’re looking for, he’s tough and he works hard every single day,” Elder said.
OL Justin Adekoya: A preseason All-OVC first-team selection, Adekoya is a quiet leader who Elder said sets a good example. “He’s a pretty complete guy, he can be tough and physical. He’s very good in pass protection and he’s an intelligent guy.”
RB Ethan Thomas: The Colonels’ leading rusher last year with 507 yards, Thomas will be expected to shoulder even more of the backfield burden after the departure of Dy’Shawn Mobley, who had a team-high 110 carries. “I’m gonna work as hard as I can work and push everybody around me,” he said.
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.