Five good questions about the 2017 Eastern Kentucky Colonels football team:
Question one: Can Tim Boyle stabilize the quarterback position?
A season ago during EKU’s 3-8 slog in Mark Elder’s first go as head coach, Eastern Kentucky used four different quarterbacks — Missouri transfer Maty Mauk; incumbent starter Bennie Coney; Tyler Swafford; and wide receiver/QB James Smith Jr. — due to injuries and other issues. This year, all but Smith are gone. Senior Tim Boyle, who sat out last season at Eastern after transferring from Connecticut, has been named the Colonels’ starter. A 6-foot-4, 235-pound pocket passer, Boyle started eight games and played in 19 games at quarterback for UConn in three seasons, throwing for 1,237 yards. After so much churn at QB last season, Boyle playing well enough to provide stability under center would be huge for Eastern.
Question two: How will Eastern distribute carries among a deep stable of running backs?
Ethan Thomas, a 5-11, 203 pound junior from Johnson City, Tenn., returns after having led EKU in rushing the past two seasons — albeit with relatively modest totals of 385 yards in 2016 and 498 yards in 2015. Eastern has added a bevy of other running back options, including transfers L.J. Scott (Louisville) and Jason Lewis (Arizona State). Scott, 6-foot and 222 pounds, had a 126-yard rushing game against Murray State as a U of L freshman in 2014. Lewis, a 6-3, 253-pound bruiser, was moved to middle linebacker last year at ASU. Out of high school in Virginia Beach, Va., Lewis reportedly chose ASU over scholarship offers from Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Louisville, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State and Tennessee, among many others. Also in the running back mix are sophomore Daryl McCleskey Jr. (260 rushing yards in 2016) and true freshman Alonzo Booth, a 6-1, 260-pound behemoth who ran for 2,437 yards and scored 41 touchdowns as a senior last year at Ohio’s St. Francis DeSales High School.
Question three: Will EKU’s line play on both sides of the ball give the Colonels a chance to succeed?
Whether Eastern can take advantage of its bevy of running backs is apt to depend on whether an offensive line with only two returning starters — right guard Chance Edwards and right tackle Cameron Kowalewski — can jell. Former defensive lineman Kagen Skidmore is battling to become the starting center; sophomore De’Jour Simpson started three games last year at guard. Defensively, EKU’s only returning starter on its line is standout end Aaron Patrick, who led the Colonels in tackles for loss (10) and quarterback sacks (seven) last season. Otherwise, of the 20 defensive linemen on the Eastern roster, 15 are redshirt freshmen (four) or true freshmen (11).
Question four: Can Eastern survive the first two weeks of FBS foes without getting beaten up physically?
EKU opens its season Sept. 2 at ancient rival Western Kentucky, facing the Hilltoppers for the first time since 2008. The following week, Eastern travels across I-64 to face the Kentucky Wildcats. It will be the first meeting between EKU and UK since the Cats needed a furious rally from 27-13 down in the fourth quarter to escape with a 34-27 overtime victory over the Colonels in 2015. Adding spice to this year’s EKU-UK game game is that the Eastern head coach in 2015, Dean Hood, is now coaching outside linebackers and special teams for Mark Stoops at Kentucky. Whatever the outcomes vs. WKU and UK, the key thing for an FCS team (limited to 63 scholarships) opening the season by facing back-to-back FBS foes (85 scholarships) is not to get beaten up physically in such a way that it negatively impacts the rest of the season. That’s why it is good for Eastern that it has an open date in Week 3 (Sept. 16).
Question five: When will Eastern win another FCS playoff game?
For those old enough to recall the EKU football glory days under iconic head coach Roy Kidd, it is hard to believe Eastern has not won a playoff game since 1994. Kidd led Eastern Kentucky to victories in eight of its first 10 FCS (formerly 1-AA) playoff games, including the 1979 and 1982 national championships. However, Eastern is 8-17 in playoff games since then and has lost seven in a row. Coming off a 3-8 season in 2016, it would be asking a lot to expect Mark Elder and the Colonels to end the playoff victory drought in 2017. Visible on-the-field improvement that suggests Eastern is moving toward that goal, however, is a reasonable expectation.