In just his second year as head coach, John L. Smith took the Kentucky State Thorobreds to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship game for the first time in school history. KSU lost in double overtime, but the standard has been set for the future.
“I think when they look in the mirror now, it’s a total different self-image looking back at them than it was a year ago,” Smith said. “They look in the mirror now and (say), ‘We’re capable of winning.’”
KSU’s conference championship game appearance was a surprise, but no one is underestimating the Thorobreds this season. They have been picked to finish third in the West Division of the SIAC.
If they make a return trip to the conference title game, the Thorobreds will do so with a young roster containing only nine seniors.
Paul Campbell, a junior college transfer from Iowa Central Community College , is stepping into the starting quarterback job in his first season.
“With Paul here, and the new receivers and the old receivers too, everybody’s starting to come along and starting to grasp the system,” starting running back Lavelle Cloud said. “I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
Cloud, a Bryan Station graduate, is a senior who was on campus before the recent success. Cloud said Smith was the perfect coach for the program’s turnaround.
“Everything about what he (Smith) wants to bring into this program and everything is a lot different than what it was before,” he said. “The players are actually buying into it and following through with his lead.”
Georgetown ready to break playoff drought
In 2014, Georgetown made the NAIA playoffs for the fifth year in a row. The Tigers haven’t been back since.
They were in consideration for a playoff bid last season until an upset loss to Pikeville ended their postseason dreams. Georgetown had been 15-0 against Pikeville.
“They did a nice job of hanging in there and competing with us, and you get beat by a field goal; that stuff is going to happen,” Coach Bill Cronin said.
On the defensive side of the ball, Georgetown has playmakers including first-team Mid South Conference defensive lineman Cameron Oshodi and veteran linebackers Max Nussbaum and Cody Elbert.
However, the secondary is younger than in past years, so Cronin is a little worried.
That’s always a concern for all teams, I think,” he said.
The offense will have to replace JJ Jude, the MSC East offensive player of the year, but Cronin said he has a good replacement in Kyle Longworth.
“He catches the ball well, he runs hard, he’s got good speed,” Cronin said. “He should be a kid that other teams are going to have to reckon with.”
Cronin has talented players on the roster ready to break the playoff drought, but he emphasized the need to avoid injuries.
“I think the talent level is there. I think we’re fine. I just think it’s a matter of staying healthy and bringing along that next level of players.”
Morehead State knows it must win close games to be competitive
In 2015, Morehead State finished third in the Pioneer Football League with a 6-2 record, its best since 2007.
Many people thought the Eagles would be competitive in the league again in 2016, but they finished 3-5, tied for seventh.
“In ’15 we won some close games; we found a way to win some games in the fourth quarter. Last year, we just came up short,” Coach Rob Tenyer said.
Tenyer had a point. In 2015, the Eagles won four of six league games by at least a touchdown.
Last season, they went 2-3 in games decided by six points or less.
This season, Morehead is ready to get back to winning close league games. But the Eagles will have to do so with a relatively young team; 40 seniors have graduated in the past two years.
“We won’t have as many veteran players, but we still return over 60 players with playing experience, which is good,” Tenyer said.
He said his young squad has the talent to win and turn the program around.
“We’ve been playing a lot of close football games over the last three, four years. It’s time for us to kind of break through, I think.”
Players to watch
Jordan Gandy, WR, Murray State: Gandy is coming off a season when he led the Racers with 62 catches for 976 yards and 11 touchdowns. Gandy had more touchdowns than all of Murray State’s rushers combined, and he accounted for almost half the receiving touchdowns. He will go into his senior season looking to improve those numbers.
“I’m feeling good. I’m just ready for everything to get started,” Gandy said.
Cal Lewellyn, DB, Centre: It’s not often that freshmen make an impact on a football team, but that’s exactly what Lewellyn did. He had seven interceptions last season, fifth-most in the NAIA, and was second in the country in pass break-ups (17). Those stats earned him the Southern Athletic Association’s newcomer of the year award.
“Last season definitely went very well. It was great to have the kind of success that I did,” Lewellyn said.
Hunter Brown, QB, Campbellsville: Brown is coming off an exceptional year, when he broke or tied eight school records and led the NAIA in passing yards per game. He also was fourth in the country in total passing yards at 3,776.
Brown said one of his personal goals is to “have as good of a season I did last year, if not better.”
Games to watch
Morehead State vs. Dayton, Sept. 23: The Eagles are looking to get back to their winning ways and prove that they can contend for a conference championship. A game that could kick-start that drive is the conference opener against Dayton, which was picked to finish second in the PFL coaches’ preseason poll. The Eagles were picked to finish eighth.
Kentucky State vs. Tuskegee, Oct. 21: KSU made the SIAC championship game for the first time in program history last season. To make a return trip, the Thorobreds probably will have to beat Tuskegee, which was picked by coaches and sports information directors to win the SIAC West division. KSU beat Tuskegee on the road last season, and the rematch Oct. 21 will be KSU’s homecoming.
Murray State vs. Eastern Kentucky, Oct. 28: The in-state rivalry between the Racers and Colonels continues in Roy Stewart Stadium. Murray State has defeated the Colonels the past three years and will look to make it four on homecoming night. EKU ranks fifth in the OVC preseason poll, and Murray State ranks eighth.