Our 2012 Season Preview is previewing every team in the league, starting with my pick at the bottom, Austin Peay.
When Austin Peay reentered the Ohio Valley Conference in 2007, they started off with a bang, finishing 7-4 in Rick Christophel‘s first season at the helm of the Governors. Since then, Austin Peay’s has been an afterthought in the OVC, yet to finish another season at or above .500.
In recent years in the OVC, we’ve seen that fortunes can change in a year. In his 6th season, Christophel has to be feeling some pressure to raise the program out of the doldrums of the conference, if only to save his job.
This year he starts at the bottom: a near unanimous pick among coaches and athletic directors to finish last in the conference.
No one expected Austin Peay to come straight into the conference back in 2007 and win it first thing. The league is too competitive for that. But many feel the team has had enough time to be a competitor. Is this the year? They have a lot to overcome.
Let’s start with the bad, or in other words, the reason the Governors were picked 9th. One of their top offensive threats, RB Ryan White, who led the Govs in carries for four straight years and ends his career second in all time rushing yards at Austin Peay, has graduated. His likely replacement is an oft-injured, yet extremely talented back, Wesley Kitts.
Quarterback Jake Ryan is returning as a 5th year senior, but is coming off a league high 16 interceptions. He was the only quarterback with at least 100 attempts to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. (14, and 5 were in the first 2 games) Unsurprisingly, he completed just 52% of his passes, last among the same group of quarterback.
“He’s got to learn to take care of the football,” Christophel said of his quarterback. That might have been the understatement of OVC Media Day.
A lot of coaches mentioned how the OVC was a “quarterbacks league” this year, because every team save one, SEMO, was returning a quarterback this season. Ryan is widely considered to be the bottom of those returning signal callers.
Painting an even worse picture, the Governors were the only team to average fewer than 20 points a game a year ago.
It may seem like I’m kicking a Gov while it’s down, and to a point that’s true. But there is reason to believe that at least one of those two areas mentioned above could get better this season.
Ryan could have one of the better receiving corps in the OVC, lead by All-OVC selection Devin Stark, and possibly Tremond Robinson, a 6’1″ receiver that is returning for the first time since injury sidelined him during last year’s fall camp.
“It feels too good (to be back),” Robinson told Luke Thompson of the Leaf-Chronicle, “I just can’t wait. You hear them calling my name. It’s been a long time coming.” Robinson is a redshirt freshman, who has been dropped to fourth-string in early practice, according to Thompson, but has been as high as second-string.
Austin Peay led the league in time of possession last year thanks in part to White’s success, and to Ryan’s struggles…and if he begins throwing picks again, this year there will be a lot of pressure on the Governors’ backs.
Kitts has great upside in the backfield, averaging 5.7 yards per rush as a backup in 2011. But what numbers will he have as the featured back? And can he stay healthy, especially if he gets near White’s 236 rushing attempts last season, 2nd highest in the league. His backup will likely be Redshirt sophomore Ean Pemberton, who ran for 107 yards on 16 carries in the Red-White scrimmage earlier this fall.
“If one of us was to go down, we’ve got faith in the next person to step up,” Pemberton told Thompson. “We’re not down on each other. We’re lifting each other as much as we can.”
The kicking game is one of those areas in which the stats lie. According to Austin Peay Sports information, Stephen Stansell hit just 12 field goals in 18 attempts, which isn’t a good percentage. But the stalled offense often led Stansell to challenging field goals, which he made the most of by hitting 3 from beyond 50-yards. As a result, Stansell was named to the CFPA Placekicker Watch list.
In 2011, Austin Peay finished near the bottom of the league in every offensive statistic imaginable. They have the pieces at the skill positions that could lead to more success this year, but you also get the feeling those same players could lead to another disastrous one. Austin Peay’s offense should improve, but will it improve enough?
Austin Peay’s defense was marginally better than their offense last year, which isn’t exactly a compliment. But it’s hard not to get a feeling that some of the defensive woes were caused by the offense’s inability to move the ball. In fact, they didn’t finish last in hardly any defensive categories as a squad, yet still managed to allow almost double the number of points they scored on offense.
But their defense wasn’t great either, with the secondary getting more of the blame than the front four, at least from me. Austin Peay allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt, the worst the league, and 20 touchdown passes.
One reason why: their secondary was led by 2 sophomores.
“We’re building a foundation from the bottom up,” Christophel said, “and that’s what we said we were going to do when we came here.”
Sheldon Wade and Steven Ragin, both in the top 15 in the league in passes broken up, are back and year stronger and wiser, as is fellow sophomore strong safety EnRiques Perry, who led the team in sacks (although in the interest of full disclosure, that number was 2. Which really just brings up another problem on defense.)
Austin Peay also has a solid anchor in senior DB Antwuan Majors, who led the team in tackles last year (88) and has 168 in his past two seasons.
The loss of Amius Smith to graduation aside, there’s a lot of upside in this defense that brings back 9 starters. This side of the ball should be improved, but against the caliber of quarterbacks in the OVC this year, having a weakness against the pass isn’t what you want from your defense.
Unless you’re playing EKU…who Austin Peay beat last year, and are 2-2 against over the past 4. Go figure.
So what are the expectations in Clarksville?
“It’s always win an OVC championship,” Ryan said at OVC Media Day.
You might want to pick a more realistic goal…
For a team that’s hasn’t won an OVC Championship since returning to the league, has a 6-game conference losing streak heading into this season, and just got picked dead last, saying your goal is to win an OVC championship is simply unrealistic.
Austin Peay did bring 93 players into camp his year, the most under Christophel, and do have senior leadership on both sides of the ball. But it’s rare when a team that didn’t finish last the year before does this badly in a preseason poll.
Sure, it’s just a poll, and ultimately doesn’t matter. But it is telling of this school status in the conference, which is to say non-existent.
“We’ve got to earn the respect of the conference,” Christophel said.
He’s right. That 7-4 season the first year in the league is but a distant memory.
Prediction: 2-9 (9th)
Quote to leave you with:
“This year, I think we’ve got more guys that want to win. I think in the past we had guys there to play, and there to eat and to get their degree, and I think football came second.”
-Jake Ryan, APSU Quarterback