EKU football set for a breakout season. ‘There’s just a different feel.’

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2019 College Football Preview

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Heading into last season’s final month, it appeared the Eastern Kentucky University football team was well on its way to posting a third straight losing campaign under third-year head coach Mark Elder. Murray State had just blown out EKU by 28 points in Richmond, ruining the Colonels’ homecoming celebration and dropping them to 3-4 on the year.

But rather than falling apart after the sting of that setback, the Colonels came together and rallied to their best finish in the Elder era. They won their final four games, including a 40-39 overtime thriller against Robert Morris in their home finale and a 37-6 beatdown at Tennessee Tech in the final game of the year, finishing at 7-4 overall and 5-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

EKU wound up third in the OVC and was left out of the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the fourth straight year. But last season’s strong finish, combined with an experienced roster, has raised expectations in Richmond and fueled hope that the Colonels can compete for a conference title and return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.

“There’s a lot of great anticipation for the team this coming year. We’ve got our most talented team that we’ve had during my time here, the deepest team and the most aligned team from a culture standpoint,” Elder said at EKU’s media day in early August. “We certainly feel like we’ve got all the makings of a tremendous team this coming fall. We walked into this camp with a great sense of belief … There’s just a different feel than what we’ve had.

“Obviously, we’ve accomplished absolutely nothing, we’re zero-and-zero. A lot of people like to take what was last year … and talk about something like a winning streak. That doesn’t exist, that team is a different team … But there is all the makings of what we want this to be, which is an outstanding football team that believes in each other and that’s working really hard to earn what we’re capable of being.”

To be sure, this year’s Colonels squad is certainly different from last year’s. But there are a lot of familiar faces back in the locker room, adding fuel to the raised expectations. EKU returns 24 starters, eight each on offense, defense and special teams.

Among the key returning veterans is senior running back Daryl McCleskey Jr., who was the Colonels’ second-leading rusher last year with 651 yards. He also logged major minutes as a slot receiver and special teams mainstay on his way to third-team All-OVC honors. McCleskey said the timing is right for a breakout year for the Colonels.

“It’s gonna be a real special year,” McCleskey said. “It’s one of those things where a program builds up to this moment where it could be make-or-break. And I feel like we’re on a good track for this to be a very special year and one for all of us to remember.

“One of the main reasons I chose this university was for this reason. It was to turn things around and just after my four-year tenure here to see progress that’s being made … It’s just amazing to be a part of the process.”

Elder said he anticipates McCleskey playing an even more pivotal role in the offense this year after the departure of leading rusher and second-team All-OVC selection LJ Scott. And though McCleskey measures just 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Elder foresees no trouble with him carrying the backfield load.

“Daryl is not very tall, but have him take his shirt off and you’re not gonna want to fight him, I can tell you that much,” Elder said. “He’s worked really hard in the weight room over the last three years … We do anticipate Daryl taking on an even larger role this year. He’s been a huge part of our offense the last couple of years and he’ll have an even larger role.”

McCleskey said it was difficult struggling through back-to-back losing seasons in Elder’s first two years, but if the Colonels’ seniors can capitalize on the chance to leave a legacy as the class that helped spur a turnaround, it will have all been worth it.

“It was tough. We had a lot of new faces. Coach Elder was coming in, there were a lot of new things going on,” McCleskey said. “But to see the groundwork that we put in, the foundation building and really coming to something better than we could have imagined is a great feeling. To be a part of it and knowing that we made a difference is going to be very special.”

EKU opens its 2019 season Thursday, Aug. 29 in Richmond against Valparaiso.

Scouting report

Head coach: Mark Elder (fourth season). Was special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Tennessee before joining the Colonels in 2015. Cincinnati native was an assistant with the Bearcats for three years before that.

Last season: 7-4 (5-2 in Ohio Valley Conference, third place. No postseason appearance).

Returning starters: 24 (8 offense, 8 defense, 8 special teams).

Outlook: There’s good reason to expect this year’s edition of the Colonels to make a run at their first postseason appearance since 2014’s at-large berth in the FCS playoffs, given the experience they return in all three phases of the game. EKU’s offense made a drastic improvement last year, averaging nearly a touchdown more per game than in 2017, and its defense was second in the OVC in both points allowed and total defense.

Two bona fide studs return to that defensive unit: Senior lineman Aaron Patrick and senior linebacker Leodis Moore III, both of whom earned first-team All-OVC honors after their junior campaigns. Moore led the OVC and was ninth in the country with five interceptions. Patrick had 7.5 sacks to move into fifth place on the Colonels’ all-time sacks list. He was named to several preseason All-America teams, as well as the Buck Buchanan Award watch list for national defensive player of the year.

But to make a push for their first OVC title since 2011, the Colonels must make the right call at the quarterback position. Parker McKinney made a case for the job down the stretch last season, starting the final three contests and becoming the first true freshman in program history to throw for more than 300 yards in a game in the Colonels’ season finale. He was also able to retain four years of eligibility because he did not appear in more than four games as a freshman and was therefore able to claim a redshirt season.

His biggest competition for the job might be Oregon State transfer Connor Blount, who started six games for the Beavers as a sophomore last season and is eligible to play immediately for EKU as a junior. Elder said there’s no timetable to name a starter.

Game of the year: The Colonels have no doubt circled the second game on their schedule, a trip to Louisville on Sept. 7. But a win at five-time defending OVC champ Jacksonville State in the regular-season finale on Nov. 23 could solidify a brilliant legacy for this senior class.

Josh Sullivan has worked at the Herald-Leader for more than 10 years in multiple capacities, including as a news assistant, page designer, copy editor and sports reporter. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Lexington native.