The Eastern Kentucky University Colonel football team has been picked 5th in the 2018 pre-season poll for the Ohio Valley Conference. The Colonels also placed three on the pre-season team, TE – Dan Paul, DL – Aaron Patrick, and RS – LJ Scott, Eastern Kentucky.
Eastern Kentucky ended last season by winning three of its final five games, with the two losses coming by a combined 10 points. Third-year head coach Mark Elder brings that momentum into this season with a group of 68 returning players, including seven offensive and seven defensive starters. A year ago, the Colonels defense registered 26 sacks, while its offensive line allowed only eight sacks in 11 games, a mark that was first in the OVC and fifth nationally in fewest sacks allowed. Among the returning defensive players is Preseason All-OVC selection Aaron Patrick, who missed all but three games a season ago. In his last full season (2016), Patrick tallied 53 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, 7.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Also back is senior tight end Dan Paul, who is also a Preseason All-OVC selection. Paul was second on the EKU team with 41 catches a year ago, as the tallied 407 yards and a touchdown in 11 games.
For the fifth-straight year and seventh time in the past nine years, Jacksonville State has been picked the preseason football favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference for 2018. The Gamecocks, who have won four-straight OVC Championships and 32-straight Conference games, received 14 of a possible 18 first-place votes in a poll of league head coaches and communications directors.
The Gamecocks totaled 126 total points to out-distance Austin Peay, last year’s league runner-up, who picked up the other four first-place votes and was tabbed second (112 points). The second-place prediction is the highest-ever for the Governors program. UT Martin was picked third (95) and followed by Eastern Illinois (73), Eastern Kentucky (69), Tennessee State (64), Southeast Missouri (62), Murray State (24) and Tennessee Tech (23).
Jacksonville State enters this season having won 32-straight OVC contests dating back to the end of the 2013 season. The streak is the longest in OVC history and second-longest in FCS history (trailing only a 39-game win streak by Duquesne in the MAAC from 1999-2006). The Gamecocks spent all of last season in the Top 10, climbing as high as No. 2 in the polls before falling in the second round of the FCS Playoffs. Overall JSU has been ranked in the Top 10 for 59-straight weeks. Although they will have to replace Buck Buchanan Award winner (and OVC Defensive Player of the Year) Darius Jackson and OVC Offensive Player of the Year Roc Thomas, the team still has a strong core of returning players, including Preseason OVC Defensive Player of the Year Marlon Bridges. Bridges was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award a season ago after tallying 79 tackles, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, five pass breakups and a blocked kick in 12 games. A year ago, the JSU defense ranked second nationally in total defense (239.6 yards/game allowed). One the offensive side of the ball, JSU had three offensive linemen named to the Preseason All-OVC team in senior guard B.J. Autry, junior guard Darius Anderson and senior center Tyler Scozzaro. The trio will help block for Clemson quarterback transfer Zerrick Cooper who will take over the signal caller duties. Cooper was a four-star recruit out of high school who participated in the Elite 11 Camp and a year ago tallied 256 passing yards and two touchdowns in limited action for the Tigers.
Austin Peay was the surprise team a year ago; the Governors were picked last in the preseason poll but tied the school record for wins in a season (8) while establishing a new record for Conference wins (7). Along the way the team snapped a 29-game losing streak, a 21-game OVC losing streak and a 45-game road losing streak as head coach Will Healy went on to win the Eddie Robinson Award as the FCS National Coach of the Year. Left out of the playoff field, the Governors are likely to crack the Top 25 polls for the first time in school history when they are released in August; the team finished last year two spots outside of No. 25 in both major polls. Among the returning players are sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall (1148 passing yards, seven touchdowns; 453 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and junior defensive end Jaison Williams (44 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, 4 forced fumbles), who was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award a year ago. Also back on the defensive side of the ball is senior linebacker Gunnar Scholato, who tallied 99 tackles a year ago. APSU also brings back a pair of Preseason All-OVC offensive linemen in seniors Ryan Rockensuess and Kyle Anderton.
UT Martin recorded its 12th-straight .500 or better Conference record under head coach Jason Simpson last season, finishing 4-4 in OVC play and 6-5 overall. Simpson, the dean of OVC coaches as he begins year No. 13, ranks seventh in OVC history with 78 total victories. This year he returns 63 players and 13 starters from a year ago, including Preseason All-OVC running back selection LaDarius Galloway. Galloway tallied 859 rushing yards and 307 receiving yards a year ago for the Skyhawks. Galloway will bolster an offensive attack that includes junior wide receiver Jaylon Moore (18 receptions, 297 yards, four touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Dresser Winn (744 passing yards and five TDs in five games). The defensive side of the ball should once again be a strength for the Skyhawks, who ranked sixth in the FCS in total defense (273.8 yards/game allowed) a year ago. Among the returning defensive players are senior linebackers James Gilleylen (88 tackles, 9.0 tackles-for-loss, three forced fumbles) and Kevin Prather, Jr. (77 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, eight quarterback hurries).
Eastern Illinois began last season 5-2 before suffering defeats in three of its final four games to miss out on a playoff berth. The Panthers found a way to win the close games a year ago, as each of its six victories came by three points or less (including three overtime contests). This season fifth-year head coach Kim Dameron has six offensive and six defensive starters returning. The team will make a shift to an “Air Raid” offense under new offensive coordinator Scott Parr, who helped Navarro Junior College rank among the nation’s top offensive units in each of the last three seasons. That system will have competition at quarterback including sophomore Scotty Gilkey, Jr. who started five games last season (606 passing yards, three touchdowns; 275 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and transfers Johnathan Brantley (Tulane) and Harry Woodbery (Navarro JC). The starter will have the luxury of throwing to Preseason All-OVC wide receiver Alexander Hollins, who ranked in the top 10 in the OVC in receptions (47), receiving yards (694) and touchdown receptions (7) in his debut season with the Panthers. Also back is senior running back Isaiah Johnson, who was fourth in the OVC in rushing last year (683 yards), including netting 236 yards in a win over Murray State.
Tennessee State recorded six victories a year ago, including a 17-10 win over FBS foe Georgia State in the season opener. The Tigers were once again solid defensively, ranking seventh nationally in total defense, allowing just 278.5 yards/game. This year Rod Reed’s defense includes a pair of sophomore defensive backs who were named to the Preseason All-OVC team in Vincent Sellers and Dajour Nesbeth. Sellers was a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award (given to the top freshman in the FCS) after recording 49 tackles and two interceptions that he returned for touchdowns. Nesbeth had 48 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 11 games in 2017. Also returning is Preseason All-OVC wide receiver Steven Newbold who caught 34 passes for 627 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore after posting similar numbers as a freshman (41 catches, 784 yards, six touchdowns). The Tigers also have its top five running backs returning, including sophomore Sabree Curtis (439 yards) and junior Seth Rowland (423 yards).
Southeast Missouri begins year five under head coach Tom Matukewicz, who has three victories over ranked opponents during his tenure, tops in program history. His team has 10 returning starters, including five on each side of the ball. Among those starters is senior running back and Preseason OVC Offensive Player of the Year Marquis Terry, who led the OVC in rushing a year ago (1,076 yards) while also catching 20 passes out of the backfield. Terry had four 100-yard rushing games, including a season-best 184 yards in a win over Eastern Kentucky. Also back on offense is junior wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson, who led the team with 52 catches for 553 yards and five touchdowns in nine starts. Last season Southeast recorded 37 total sacks, which ranked sixth in the FCS; this year the program returns junior linebacker Zach Hall who was a big part of that defense. Hall, a second-team All-OVC pick in 2017, led Southeast in tackles (79), tackles-for-loss (15) and sacks (9).
The Murray State roster includes 56 returning letterwinners from 2017, including eight offensive and five defensive starters. A year ago, the team led the OVC and ranked eighth nationally in turnovers gained (28) and was first in the OVC and 16th nationally in turnover margin (+0.82/game). The Racers intercepted 17 passes a year ago, including three by returning defensive back Marquez Sanford. The defense also includes senior defensive lineman Kenney Wooten, who had 10 sacks and forced two fumbles a year ago and who earned a spot on the Preseason All-OVC team this year. Fourth-year head coach Mitch Stewart returns senior quarterback Shuler Bentley, who was an OVC All-Newcomer pick last year after passing for 1,789 yards and 13 touchdowns in nine games.
Tennessee Tech is under the direction of new head coach Dewayne Alexander, who is no stranger to the Golden Eagles program. Alexander, who spent seven years as head coach at Cumberland University (2006-12), played at Tennessee Tech, was a graduate assistant (1997-98) for the program, served two stints as an assistant coach (2002 and 2013-15) with the Golden Eagles and was acting head coach from December 2015 through January 2016. He inherits a team that won only one game last year but returns 65 players, including eight offensive and seven defensive starters. Returning on the defense side of the ball is senior defensive end Tim Collins, a Preseason All-OVC pick. Collins had 51 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for-loss, six quarterback hurries and forced a fumble a year ago. The defense is also bolstered by redshirt junior linebacker Josh Poplar, who missed all of last year with a medical issue but has been cleared to play this season. Two years ago, Poplar led the TTU team with 105 tackles and recovered three fumbles. Offensively, junior running back Andrew Goldsmith is back after leading the team in rushing a season ago (589 yards).
2018 OVC Football Preseason Predicted Order of Finish
1. Jacksonville State (14 first-place votes) – 126 points
2. Austin Peay (4) – 112
3. UT Martin – 95
4. Eastern Illinois – 73
5. Eastern Kentucky – 69
6. Tennessee State – 64
7. Southeast Missouri – 62
8. Murray State – 24
9. Tennessee Tech – 23
2018 Preseason All-OVC Football Team
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Marquis Terry (RB), Southeast Missouri
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Marlon Bridges (DB), Jacksonville State
QB – Jeremiah Oatsvall, Austin Peay **
RB – Marquis Terry, Southeast Missouri *
RB – LaDarius Galloway, UT Martin **
RB – Isaiah Johnson, Eastern Illinois **
WR – Alexander Hollins, Eastern Illinois
WR – Steven Newbold, Tennessee State
TE – Dan Paul, Eastern Kentucky *
C – Tyler Scozzaro, Jacksonville State *
OG – B.J. Autry, Jacksonville State *
OG – Ryan Rockensuess, Austin Peay **
OG – Darius Anderson, Jacksonville State **
OT – Drew Forbes, Southeast Missouri **
OT – Kyle Anderton, Austin Peay **
DL – Randy Robinson, Jacksonville State **
DL – Jaison Williams, Austin Peay *
DL – Aaron Patrick, Eastern Kentucky
DL – Kenney Wooten, Murray State
DL – Tim Collins, Tennessee Tech
LB – Zach Hall, Southeast Missouri **
LB – James Gilleylen, UT Martin **
LB – Gunnar Scholato, Austin Peay *
DB – Vincent Sellers, Tennessee State **
DB – Marlon Bridges, Jacksonville State *
DB – Mark Williams, Eastern Illinois
DB – Dajour Nesbeth, Tennessee State
K – Cade Stinnett, Jacksonville State **
K – Gabriel Vicente, Murray State **
P – Nick Madonia, Tennessee Tech **
RS – LJ Scott, Eastern Kentucky **
RS – Peyton Logan, UT Martin **
* – 1st team All-OVC team in 2017
** – 2nd team All-OVC team in 2017