In a week filled with NAIA schools, and FBS giants, Eastern Kentucky is defying the norm by hitting the road to face an opponent in the same division.
Although they’re quite used to opening on the road: This will mark the eighth time in the last nine seasons that EKU has opened its schedule away from Richmond. The lone exception was one year ago when the Colonels defeated Robert Morris at Roy Kidd Stadium, 38-6. In that contest, quarterback Jared McClain threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more.
This year, we’re wondering if he’ll even play. Among the major storylines is the battle between McClain and Cincinnati transfer Bennie Coney to start under center. Last season, McClain hit 56% of his passes, and threw for 1,535 yards and 13 touchdowns in a 6-6 campaign for the Colonels. The numbers were good enough to rank McClain third in yards — but most of the teams behind him used two quarterbacks, either by design or through injury. EKU’s offense was in the middle of the league, and the bottom third in passing.
Coney is almost certainly the quarterback of the future of in Richmond. A redshirt sophomore, Coney played limited action in three games last year for the Bearcats, but it was clear he wasn’t going to battle for a starting role this year, and likely not at all at that level. The question is: is that future now, or does McClain get to prove his mettle as a senior. Earlier this week, EKU head coach Dean Hood says it will be a game day decision.
Of course, we’re really looking to see who will win the cornerback battle, between that guy, and that other guy. All joking aside, there are some real questions about the Colonels defense. Only four of tonight’s projected starters were in the starting line-up in last year’s opener against Robert Morris. Senior DB Brandon Stanley is the team’s active leader in career tackles with 154 stops. Junior DL Marquise Piton ranks second with 56 tackles. Hood remarked earlier this year at OVC Media Day he didn’t feel last year’s defense was quick enough, and that he’s made changes to correct that problem.
EKU’s opponent, Robert Morris, is coming off a 5-6 year, but they’re picked to finish third in the NEC this year. They return 10 starters from last year’s team. RMU also claimed four spots on the preseason All-NEC squad, led by senior defensive back Antwan Eddie earning honors at two separate positions — including punt returner.
Whichever quarterback wins the starting role will be challenged by RMU’s defense: The Colonials ranked second in the NEC in pass defense last year, holding opponents under 53% completion percentage and picking off 16 passes. While they were fifth in rush defense, they only allowed 4.0 yards per rush last season, which would have ranked in the top half of the OVC.
The QB will have one of the OVC’s top targets in Devin Borders. The 2013 OVC Freshman of the Year finished last season with team highs in receptions (34), receiving yards (509) and touchdown catches (6). Borders also led the nation with five blocked kicks one year ago.
But the NEC isn’t the OVC — especially the OVC of 2013. There’s wasn’t a high-powered offense anywhere in the NEC last year, and Robert Morris looked completely outclassed in Richmond on opening week.
A lot can change in a year. EKU’s hoping a lot’s changed in their favor.