Last year was supposed to be his year. One Kentucky school glad its star is back.

Aaron Patrick (44) was named to the coaches’ preseason All-OVC first team. The redshirt junior defensive end returns to the Colonels after missing most of last season with an injury.
Aaron Patrick (44) was named to the coaches’ preseason All-OVC first team. The redshirt junior defensive end returns to the Colonels after missing most of last season with an injury. EKU Athletics

In a fair world, last season would have been a monumental one for Eastern Kentucky University defensive end Aaron Patrick.

The big man was expected to do even bigger things after taking the Ohio Valley Conference by storm in 2016, his sophomore year and the first for the Colonels under head coach Mark Elder. After seeing limited playing time as a true freshman, Patrick emerged as one of the Colonels’ defensive leaders, transforming into a formidable force in the trenches.

The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder was named first-team All-OVC after recording team highs with 10 tackles for a loss and seven sacks to go along with 53 tackles.

He was named to the coaches’ preseason All-OVC first team last year and appeared well on his way to proving worthy of the honor, totaling three tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in the first three games of the year. But in the third game, a 24-21 win over Tennessee Tech, the Colonels lost their ascendant defensive star. Patrick suffered an undisclosed, season-ending injury and was forced to watch from the sidelines as EKU lost five of its final eight games.

“I’m a hands-on person, so just watching wasn’t all that fun,” Patrick said at the team’s media day.

Patrick said the hardest part of sitting out the bulk of last season was “watching plays where I personally thought I could help the defense. And coming to practice and watching everybody put in work that I’m used to being a part of.”

The silver lining to Patrick’s injury was that it occurred so early in the season that he qualified for a medical redshirt, so he still has two years of eligibility remaining. And the weight of expectations on his shoulders is just as heavy heading into this season as it was a year ago.

Patrick is again a preseason coaches’ All-OVC selection. He’s also garnering national attention, earning a third-team nod on the STATS FCS Preseason All-America Team.

Accolades aside, Patrick’s coach is just happy to have his defensive anchor back out on the edge.

“We missed him last year,” Elder said. “He’s obviously able to rush the passer. He’s put up some big numbers in the sack game, but he’s also really good against the run. He’s strong, he’s physical. He can create separation to fill in his gap and he’s a tough kid.

“He drives me crazy because he’s always talking, he’s always getting after the quarterback ... but I love that because he’s competitive and pushes himself every day. He works his tail off in the weight room every day and he works his tail off on the football field every day.”

Senior linebacker Gavin Bryant is certainly happy to have Patrick back in the lineup as well. Last year was Bryant’s first with the Colonels after he transferred from the University of Tennessee, and Patrick quickly made an impression on him.

“The energy that (Patrick) brought, coming off the edge and making the offense erratic, it was great to have,” Bryant said. “And I feel like we’ll get a lot of that this year.”

Patrick said he feels like he’s in the best shape of his career after a successful rehab regimen and several months in the Colonels’ newly renovated weight room. So in what kind of shape are the Colonels’ chances of turning things around and competing for an OVC title?

“We’ll get as far as we take ourselves. We’ve had a great summer and a great camp so far, so it’s not a question of if we’ve put enough work in,” Patrick said. “We’ve definitely put the work in to have the type of season that we want, now we just have to get out there and execute on Saturdays.”

Austin Scott was 7-for-8 for 54 yards with no touchdown passes and no interceptions in Eastern Kentucky’s 27-16 loss at Kentucky last season. Scott has the most experience of any of EKU’s seven QBs. David Stephenson AP

Scouting report

Head coach: Mark Elder (third season). Was special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Tennessee before taking over Colonels at the end of 2015.

Last season: 4-7 (3-5 in Ohio Valley Conference, tied for fifth place).

Returning starters: 17 (7 offense, 7 defense, 3 special teams).

Outlook: Despite a pair of recruiting classes ranked in the top 25 of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Colonels struggled in their first two seasons under Mark Elder. They went 3-8 and finished eighth in the nine-team OVC in 2016 and last year improved to 4-7 and tied for fifth in the conference.

But in year three of the new regime, EKU finally has some stability with its roster. In each of Elder’s first two seasons there were around 60 players, including freshmen and transfers, who were new to the program. This season there’s about 30 new players, which Elder says is “pretty normal.”

That means coaches have spent less time installing their system with younger players who’ll be expected to step in and contribute immediately and more time building off the experience of veterans.

”It’s been the first time that the offseason has started with everybody on the same page pointed in the same direction, understanding what we’re doing here and wanting to be a part of it,” Elder said. “We’re finally at a point where there’s competitive depth across the board at every position. Everybody knows that the starter is a good football player and the guy behind him is a good football player. Competition is a great thing.”

Game of the year: After their bye in Week 5, the Colonels host Jacksonville State, the program that has dominated the OVC for nearly half a decade. The Gamecocks have won the conference championship four years in a row, and if EKU could end its five-game losing streak in the series it would go a long way toward convincing fans the team has turned the corner. (Oct. 6, 4 p.m.)