This is the second part of a two-story preview for the 2013 Eastern Kentucky University football team.
The front seven in EKU's 4-3 defense has the look to be one of the best in Dean Hood's six years as head coach. Five of the seven are returning starters and three earned All-OVC honors a year ago.
"I think we are in really good shape right there," Hood said. "We may even have some redshirt freshmen come in and push for playing time."
Two all-conference selections headline the linebacker unit. Senior Anthony Brown, a two-time All-OVC first team pick, may push for OVC Defensive Player of the Year honors this fall. Brown finished second in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss at outside linebacker last year. Fellow senior Ichiro Vance, a third-year starter at middle linebacker and two-time all-conference selection, is a steady player who has notched 159 career tackles.
Sophomore Marquise Piton (outside) and senior Tyler Horn (middle) give the Colonels some quality depth behind Brown and Vance.
Juniors Tyrelle Johnson and Khiry Maddox are expected to compete for the weakside linebacker position. Both players have been key reserves and utilized on special teams for the past two seasons.
On the defensive line, seniors Shawn Shupperd and David Carter give the Colonels an excellent inside-outside combination. Shupperd, who plays on the end, earned second team all-league accolades as a junior after leading the team with 16 quarterback hurries. Carter is a third-year starter in the trenches and has the ability to compete for All-OVC honors in his final year on the squad.
"This was the first season that Shawn was able to play in the spring due to injuries and surgical stuff," Hood said. "He really improved and I think he will be a real force this year."
Sophomore Bryce Krebs will team with Carter at the other tackle position. Seniors Anthony Shoemaker and Ryan Bonner are the most likely candidates to nail down the final spot on the defensive line. Shoemaker served as a back-up to All-OVC defensive end Robert Knowles last year. Bonner has filled in at tackle and end throughout his career at EKU.
A pair of redshirt freshmen – Avery Pitt (tackle) and Justin Adekoya (end) – will push for playing time on the line.
The biggest area of concern for the football team this year involves the defensive backfield. Three of the four major contributors in 2012 were seniors.
"I've joked with [defensive coordinator] Tony Hatmaker several times throughout the spring that that's the deepest, most talented question mark position I've ever seen in my life," Hood said. "We are a little more confident of what we're going to get at safety than the corner position, but I like a bunch of guys back there."
Junior all-conference performer Brandon Stanley is the leader of the group. The safety notched a team-high 81 tackles as a sophomore and always seems to be around the football. Senior Christian Albertson will attempt to put his name on the other starting safety position. Albertson has been a key reserve in his two other seasons playing at Eastern.
Junior transfer Chris Owens, who missed the spring game with a minor injury, has impressed the coaching staff and will be in the hunt for playing time at safety as well. Sophomore Paul Ritter is a fourth member who plans to keep his name in the safety mix.
Sophomore Stanley Absanon and redshirt freshman Kiante Northington are penciled in as the top two cornerbacks heading into preseason camp. Absanon saw action in all 11 games last year and posted three pass break-ups. Northington began his redshirt season at wide receiver before moving over to the defensive side of the ball late in the fall.
Senior Theron Norman and sophomore Deno Montgomery offer some experience and depth to the cornerback spot. Norman, who joined the team as a safety from Virginia Tech last year, switched to corner back this past spring.
The Special Teams
Eastern Kentucky's top two special team contributors are both seniors in 2013.
Senior Jordan Berry will be in his fourth year serving as the team's punter and holder on field goals. The two-time All-OVC honoree set an EKU single-season punting record as a freshman in 2010 (42.9 ypp). He can do a variety of kicks ranging from traditional to rugby and has even practiced punting left-footed.
Fellow senior Luke Pray is expected to handle the majority of the other kicking duties. Pray has converted 17-of-34 field goal attempts in two years for the Colonels, but concluded last year making five of his final seven tries. Sophomore Zack Burgy-VanHoose played occasionally last year and will push Pray for playing time. Burgy-VanHoose made a team season-long 45-yard field goal in the win at Southeast Missouri a year ago.
Pray connected on a 53-yard field goal in the spring game while Burgy-VanHoose stepped up with a 43-yarder.
"This is the best I've ever felt about [our field goal kickers] because I'm seeing the production on the field out of our guys," Hood said.
The Colonels are lined up to play 12 teams in 2013, marking the first time in 10 years that EKU will play this many games in the regular season. Eastern Kentucky has six home games on the schedule including Homecoming, which is slated for Oct. 19 against Tennessee Tech.
Eastern opens the season with a rare Thursday night home game against Robert Morris on Aug. 29. The last time EKU began the year with a home Thursday night game was Sept. 2, 1993 versus Western Kentucky.
The following week, the Colonels face a potential top-10 FBS team in Louisville. The Cardinals have won the last two meetings including a 23-13 decision in 2010.
"We appreciate the opportunity to play Louisville," Hood said. "It's not too many times you can say you are going to play a top-10 [FBS] team. We are going to show up and play the game."
After two more non-conference games against Coastal Carolina (Sept. 14) and Morehead State (Sept. 21), Eastern Kentucky begins Ohio Valley Conference action on Sept. 28 with a showdown at 2012 league champion Eastern Illinois. The Panthers used a 24-7 victory over the Colonels last year to catapult themselves into the FCS playoffs.
The Colonels will celebrate EKU Athletics Hall of Fame Weekend on Oct. 5 against Austin Peay.
The other two home games are scheduled for Nov. 2 against Tennessee State and Nov. 16 versus UT Martin. TSU is 3-1 against Eastern under Hood, including a last-second 23-20 win in Nashville last fall. UT Martin has never won in Richmond, dropping all 11 tilts.
The NCAA FCS playoffs expand from 20 to 24 teams in 2013 and will feature 16 teams playing in the opening round on Nov. 30.