The 30th season of Urbana University football begins Thursday night when the Blue Knights travel to Glenville State in the MEC Game of the Week. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at I.L. & Sue Morris Stadium in Glenville, West Virginia.
“Looking toward Glenville, they’re a very, very good football team,” UU head coach Tyler Haines said. “They lost a lot of seniors especially on the offensive side of the ball, but they’re not in a rebuilding phase at all. They’re more in a reloading phase.”
UU is coming off a 2-9 season and will build upon the foundation put in place Haines’ first year. UU fell to Glenville 49-0 in Haines’ first game of his coaching career a year ago.
“We are more prepared this year than we were last year, there’s no question about that,” said Haines. “From a staff standpoint or a player standpoint we’re much better. We expect to go out there and execute, and do our job.”
The Blue Knight roster features 86 student-athletes, including 42 returners, 13 returning starters and 11 seniors. The squad will be led by captains Andre Cliff, Andrew Garland, Dereck Givens, Josh Dillard and Trevon Saunders.
“We’ve had multiple competitions at multiple positions,” Haines said. “We’ve kind of narrowed those down and we have decided who is going to be starting for us.”
UU’s offense should be much improved after experiencing growing pains in 2015. Last season, the Blue Knights ranked 11th in the MEC for total offense with 287.2 yards per game.
The strength of the unit lies up front in four returning starters, including All-MEC performer Garland. The senior leads UU with 25 career starts and will switch from left guard to left tackle this year. Junior Doug Hardin returns at center, Brandon Lewis at right tackle, and Devan Pankey will shift to right guard. Sophomore Nick Bittinger will fill the gap at left guard.
The backfield raises the biggest question mark for the Blue Knights as two quarterbacks and three running backs will touch the field.
At quarterback, redshirt junior Tajuan Green and graduate transfer Marcus Graham are battling out for the starting nod heading into Thursday night’s contest.
Green burst onto the scene at the end of last season by throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions, including three scores at national runner-up Shepherd during his first start. He made his first appearance in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame College in Week 10, marching UU down the field with a touchdown on his first drive.
Defensively, UU returns seven starters but will face a huge task in replacing All-American linebacker D’Gary Wallace (now coaching for UU) and All-MEC linebacker Kevin Chapple.
A heavy dose of experienced juniors and seven returning starters will carry a defense that ranked sixth in the MEC for total defense in 2015.
Clayton Bullard, Isaiah Turner and Dominic Painter will battle in the trenches. Bullard is the team’s leading returning tackler and combined with Turner for 16 tackles for loss in 2015.
At inside linebacker, Dillard inherits the leadership role after starting every game last year. He’ll move into the middle and will be joined by redshirt freshman Duray Hall. Senior Logan Smith and freshman Jalen Spears provide depth at the position.
Returning starters also include senior Carlton Rematt and senior Zach Severance at outside linebacker, along with junior Andre Cliff at free safety and sophomore Jemiah McNeal at strong corner. Cliff transitioned from cornerback after tying for the team lead with two interceptions last year.
Junior Dereck Givens, who has impressed through preseason with his size and speed, will take over the weakside corner position.
UU returns the entire specialist group from last season. Junior Ross Snodgrass will continue to hold the place-kicking duties while sophomore Brandon Purk is the team’s punter. In 2015, Purk averaged just under 40 yards per kick and landed eight punts inside the 20. Senior Cody King returns at long snapper and Pelfrey will serve as the holder on kick attempts.