As part of A Sea of Blue’s football coverage leading up to Saturday’s in-state showdown against Eastern Kentucky at Kroger Field (still weird), I had a quick Q&A session with Nathan Hutchinson, sports editor of the Richmond Register.
He knows EKU football like few else, and was kind enough to give me some of his time on the phone so that our readers can learn more about the Colonels from an insider’s perspective.
Eastern Kentucky is coming off a down year after going 3-8, but is looking to build upon a new foundation of talent in head coach Mark Elder’s second season helming the program. They lost on the road to Western Kentucky, 17-31, in their season opener.
Q: Not a lot of people are giving the Colonels a chance despite nearly beating the Cats in Commonwealth a couple of seasons ago. What position groups or players do you think match up well, or even favorably, against Kentucky this Saturday?
A: Eastern has had a tremendous turnover in the roster since that team. I think the strength is that they have players back on defense and were able to limit a really high-powered Western Kentucky offense last week to 31 points (WKU averaged 45.5 points per game last year to lead the FBS) and only 364 yards (well below last season’s 523 yard average). The linebackers are pretty good and the secondary is pretty good; they are the strength of this Eastern team, probably. A lot of the inexperience is on the offensive side of the ball.
Q: The EKU defense is a group that struggled last year but is bringing back experience in the form of seven returning starters like you said. How do you think they’ll try to find success against the Kentucky offense?
A: Coach Elder talked in the press conference Tuesday that the size is the biggest thing. Kentucky’s defense is obviously much bigger than Eastern’s, whose defense is built more upon speed, with smaller and craftier kinds of guys. That’s what they kind of want their defense to be – flying around, relying more on their athleticism. Being an FCS team they just don't have the size of a high major FBS team like Kentucky. They’ll try to rotate a lot of guys in.
Q: So do you think they’ll be looking to make some splash plays on the defensive side with their athleticism?
A: Well, they only came up with one turnover last week. There’s not a lot of flash back there but a more solid brand of play. Two years ago they had (second round NFL draft pick) Noah Spence when they came to play Kentucky. They don't have any high-profile guys like that this time but it’s a solid core, a blue-collar lunchpail type of group. Fifth year senior Jeffrey Canaday is a solid linebacker, along with All-Conference defensive end Aaron Patrick. They’ll get in there and battle.
Q: EKU had a lot of success throwing the football last weekend in the form of 320 yards and 2 touchdowns from UConn transfer Tim Boyle in 46 attempts. Do you see Coach Elder airing it out another 40+ times again or trying his hand at a more balanced offensive approach?
A: I think they kind of went with what worked and Boyle was really impressive. He hadn't played a game in almost two years and he performed really well. At UConn, he played against good teams like Louisville and Cincinnati, so he didn't look overwhelmed. Of course, when you get down 17-0 you're probably going to try to open it up anyway. But they're going to try to run the ball; their top running back from last year, Ethan Thomas, didn't play in that game against Western because of a nagging injury.
I assume they'll try to run it more (EKU gained 67 rushing yards in 22 attempts against WKU), but if you look at a lot of these FBS/FCS matchups, you're best bet is trying to get some big plays down the field by throwing the ball. They’ll go with what works, but if they get down I’m sure they'll start to air it out like last weekend.
(Quarterback) Boyle looked great, though. He played poised, confident, and was not overwhelmed by the situation. I’m sure he’ll be a bit of the same this week.
Q: In one of your articles on the Richmond Register, you wrote that the aforementioned running back Ethan Thomas (OVC All-Newcomer as a freshman) was banged up much of last year and is looking to have a big junior season for the Colonels. Considering the injury that kept him out against Western, does he play Saturday?
A: Coach Elder said he would play. They do have the two transfers in Jason Lewis (Arizona State) and L.J. Scott (Louisville) that got the majority of the carries, but once they got down 17-0 and abandoned the run it was hard to get a good look at them. I think it was a knee or an ankle that kept Thomas out, but they stay kind of secret about injuries around here.
Q: You have to think that'll make a pretty big difference for them. That’s probably one of the reasons they didn't have as much success running the ball against Western, you'd say?
A: Yeah, probably. But the two transfers are both really good players, too. They had one long drive in the first half mixing in runs with short passes over the middle that helped boost Boyle’s confidence. It got them thinking “hey, we can do this.” They didn't turn the ball over in the game. They definitely can’t turn it over against Kentucky.
Q: There’s a lot of new faces on the EKU roster after bringing in about a dozen transfers and over forty freshman (not to mention a top 15 rated class in the FCS). It seems that in his second year Elder is bringing in high level players and transfers from big time schools, like you said in Louisville and Arizona State. Where is this program headed in the next few years under the leadership of Coach Elder?
A: Well, like I said there has been a ridiculous amount of turnover. Almost half of the players on the roster weren't here last year. There is only 20 kids left on the roster from when Coach (Dean) Hood was here, and that was only about 18 months ago. They didn't take a ton of transfers. A lot of schools at this level will take anybody. You can look at Jacksonville State’s roster and it’ll have 20 SEC transfers on it. They took a few, but I think they prefer to build this thing from the bottom up, get these freshman in here and build it that way. 3-8 was obviously the worst year they’ve had in a long time, and it’s going to take a while to build it back up, maybe another few years. He kept his entire staff in place, nobody jumped off the ship. He’s optimistic and they're doing a lot of new renovating at the stadium. It may take a couple years until they are back competing for Ohio Valley championships, but they want to do it from the ground up; bring in talented freshman and bring them into their culture. They didn't go for the quick fix, taking 20 transfers and just plugging them in. With two national championship banners hanging up, the old school fans were very disappointed in going 3-8 last year. But the staff is committed and I think they have the right attitude. They’re headed in the right direction, I’d say.
I want to sincerely thank Nathan for doing the Q&A with me. He does really great work covering both EKU and high school sports, and I strongly encourage you to read his stuff at the Richmond Register’s sports column and to follow them on Twitter. Do it!