BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Union College is hoping 2008 was the dawning of a new era for Bulldog football.
The Bulldogs had a breakthrough season in posting a 9-3 overall record and making its first-ever appearance in the NAIA Football Championship Series last year. It has been over a decade since Union recorded back-to-back winning seasons, which is what they will be looking to do in 2009.
With the majority of last year's starters back, the prospects for another winning season look promising.
"The fact that we've got a big nucleus returning is obviously beneficial for us," said Union head coach Tommy Reid. "A lot these guys went through last year, and they got a good taste of what it's like to win and to make the postseason."
The offseason has been different for the Bulldogs. After ending last season ranked No. 10 in the NAIA, Union will enter the 2009 campaign as the 10th-ranked team in the nation.
"There's been a different air about the team," Reid said. "Our kids have had a great work ethic and attitude. Winning has definitely created a change for the better."
Although the Bulldogs lost only four starters on defense, those four were All-Mid-South Conference East First Team selections. Yet, Reid believes this year's defense could be better despite the losses.
"We definitely did take a hit on defense," the Bulldog coach said. "We lost a lot, but with the kids we've got coming back and coming in, we feel we could be better. I have no doubt that they will produce right away for us."
Even though Union is entering the season ranked No. 10, Reid says that piece of recognition means very little in the grand scheme of things.
"The message that we're getting out to the team is that it doesn't matter where you are at the beginning of the season. It's where you finish the year is what matters," Reid said.
"We need to take it one week at a time, one game at a time," he continued. "Right now, we're not looking any further past than UVa-Wise."
The Bulldogs open the season at home on Sept. 5 against Mid-South Conference East foe UVa-Wise. Game time is set for 1:30 p.m.
Last season, the question most were asking was "How was Union going to fill the void at quarterback left by Joey Waters?" Fans and opponents alike quickly found out that the answer was and is Mike Brinkley (Anthony, Fla.).
As a red-shirt freshman, Brinkley promptly established himself as the Bulldog signal-caller as he tossed a school-record 32 touchdown passes in 2008. In addition, he tied the single-game record with five scoring passes while completing 192-of-343 passes for 2,611 yards.
"We don't talk with Mike about numbers. We don't expect him to throw for so many yards or touchdowns," said Reid. "What we want him to do is manage the game, run our offense and control the clock."
Brinkley showed the ability to direct the troops during intense situations. After halftime, Union held the ball over two minutes more than it did during the first half. The Bulldogs averaged 14:07 of possession time in the opening half and upped it to 16:08 during the second half.
"If we get in a bind and our backs are against the wall, Mike's smart enough to get us out of it," said Reid.
Sophomore Bryant Thomas (Cincinnati, Ohio) saw limited action last year and is penciled in as the backup quarterback.
Terence Pollock (Orange Park, Fla.) was the story out of the backfield for Union in 2008. All the 5-foot-10, 225-pound workhorse did was rush for a program-record 1,331 yards and 11 touchdowns on 234 carries.
Now imagine Pollock teamed up with three other quality tailbacks, and you've got a four-headed monster for defenses to deal with.
Senior Antonio Drane (Louisville, Ky.) ran for 51 yards on 21 rushes last season, while newcomers Peanut Manns (Ocala, Fla.) and Rob Brown (Daytona, Fla.) will join the stable.
"This is one of our deeper positions," commented Reid. "All are very capable of handling the load, and all four have a little different running style."
Pollock is also closing in on the career rushing record. With 2,704 career rushing yards, he needs just 151 away to break the program mark.
At fullback, senior Ben Kelly (Cold Spring, Ky.) rushed for 136 yards on 44 carries and hauled in 32 passes for 211 more yards. For his career, he rushed for only 366 yards, but he ranks 12th on the all-time receptions list with 72 catches for 611 yards.
"Ben catches the ball well, blocks well and obviously runs the ball well," said Reid. "He's always done what we've asked of him, and he's always produced for us."
Sophomores Tim Coffey (Russell Springs, Ky.) and Chandler Priest (Loganville, Ga.) will also see time at fullback. The duo combined for 37 rushing yards in 2008.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Despite losing the team's top two receivers from the 2008 squad, Reid feels very good about the Bulldog receiving corps.
Junior Rolando Dyer (Lawrenceville, Ga.) and sophomore Demetrius Hicks (Frankfort, Ky.) will serve as the primary outside receives with junior P.J. Burrowes (Middlesboro, Ky.) moving to the inside slot position. Dyer hauled in 29 passes for 518 yards and eight touchdowns last year, while Burrowes pulled down 24 balls for 408 yards and three scores. Hicks helped out with 11 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
Helping on the outside patterns will be Tim Dandy (Ocala, Fla.) and Cornelius Mackey (Ocala, Fla.), while Sean Mackey (Reddick, Fla.), Demetrius Davis (Marietta, Ga.) and Darrnell Worthy (Bakersfield, Calif.) will back on the inside slot positions.
"We won't miss a beat with whoever is out there to catch the ball," said Reid. "The hard thing is going to be keeping everyone happy with the amount of balls thrown their way."
At 6-foot-5, 244 pounds, Worthy will also see time as a tight end.
At one angle, the offensive line appears to be a strong point for the Bulldogs. After all, Union returns four starters including two-time All-MSC East First Team selection Quintin Borders (Lexington, Ky.).
However, depth is an issue up front for the Bulldogs.
"We have a good offensive line. They are very talented and strong," Reid said. "But we do not have a lot of depth at those positions, so staying healthy is crucial for us."
Borders will line up at left tackle with All-MSC East honorable mention Brock Evans (Maryville, Tenn.) next to him at left guard. J.D. Conley (Ashland, Ky.) will play at center, while Joe Mullinax (Canton, Ga.) and Steven Rodriguez (Kissimmee, Fla.) will man right guard and right tackle, respectively.
Backing up at the guard positions will be Jonathan Shipley (New Tazewell, Tenn.) and Michael Market (Sebree, Ky.) with Anthony Davis (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Nick Garofalo (Peachtree City, Ga.) seeing time at tackle.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is one of the deepest positions for the Bulldogs.
Still utilizing the 3-3 defense, Reid feels the team can go three and four players deep at all three defensive line slots without suffering any dip in talent.
"It's good to have a lot of guys to be able to use at these positions because we feel like it would wear on opposing offenses if we're able to constantly run in fresh and able bodies," said Reid.
At the strong side defensive end spot, Jason Hammontree (Greenback, Tenn.) and Michael Gold (Baltimore, Ohio) will share time. Last season, the duo combined for 51 tackles, 8.0 tackles for a loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks.
The nose guard position will see a rotation of newcomer Keiosha Jones (Venice, Calif.), Willie Oliver (Raiford, Fla.) and senior Arthur Johnson (New Smyrna Beach, Fla.). Johnson recorded 38 total stops with 6.5 tackles for a loss in 2008.
At the weak side defensive end position, sophomore Quentin Penn (Powder Springs, Ga.) will fight for playing time with newcomers Elisee Pompilus (Malden, Mass.), Kenny Mackey (Kennesaw, Ga.), Keith Parker (Carlisle, Ky.) and Tyler Harbin (Pineville, Ky.). Penn tallied 27 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks last season.
There will be a lot of fresh faces in the linebacking corps this season as graduated its three starting linebackers from a year ago. Still, this is a deep position despite the losses, Reid noted.
"We're excited about our defensive front. We've got so much depth and ability that it really gives us some flexibility in what we can do," the coach added. "In the past, if we had a kid get hurt, we were scrambling to try to fill that hole. That shouldn't be the case this year."
Senior Kyle Sasser (Lakeland, Fla.) will be joined by newcomers Brad Fulton (Maryville, Tenn.) and William Roundtree (Ocala, Fla.) at one outside linebacker spot. Sasser was a red-shirt last season but has 78 career tackles.
In the middle will be newcomers Denzel Hinton (Rock Hill, S.C.), Zach Eagler (Florence, Ky.) and Jordan Gilliam (Somerset, Ky.).
At the other outside linebacker position, Marcus McGinnis (Louisville, Ky.), Chris Bethel (Allensville, Ohio) and Daniel Moody (New Castle, Ky.) will share time. McGinnis notched 20 tackles with 3.5 going for a loss in 2008, while Moody had six stops. Bethel was the backup quarterback last season.
The secondary welcomes back a couple of highly experienced players, but the majority of the defensive backs are new.
Seniors Josh Littleton (Waverly Hall, Ga.) and Jeremy Agbomi (Cincinnati, Ohio) have been regular contributors for three years and are coming of career years. Littleton registered 41 total stops with one interception and seven pass deflections, while Agbomi recorded 47 tackles with two picks and two pass breakups.
Littleton is penciled in at strong safety with Chris Pinnock (Cincinnati, Ohio) backing him up, while Agbomi will be the bandit safety with junior Lee Miles (Ross, Ohio) next in line. Miles posted 23 tackles in 2008.
At free safety, sophomore Jacob Crothers (Fort Thomas, Ky.) appears to be the favorite. The 5-foot-11, 161-pounder made 12 tackles and had one interception last season. Freshman Armondo Thomas (Cincinnati, Ohio) could also see time at free safety.
Senior Khambrel Simpkins (Lauderhill, Fla.) and junior Terry Young (Orange Park, Fla.) are slated to get the starting nods at cornerback. Simpkins had 26 stops and five pass deflections in 2008, while Young registered 49 tackles and one interception. Josh Nixon (Pensacola, Fla.), Armond Smith (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and Robert Brown (Daytona, Fla.) will serve as their backups.
The kicking duties are very much up in the air. Sophomore Chad Boyington (Stockbridge, Ga.) handled the punting duties in 2008, averaging 33.1 yards per punt with along of 68 yards. He did pin opponents inside the 20-yard line on 15 of his 52 punts and had four punts of 50 yards or longer.
Freshman Corey Niebel (Gray, Ky.) is also vying for the punting job.
Boyington is also up for the place-kicking position along with freshman Jordan West (Tifton, Ga.).
Twin brothers Rob and Robert Brown are among six players who could help out in the return game. Demetrius Davis, Armond Smith, Sean Mackey and Rolando Dyer are also among the number of players who could be used to return punts and kickoffs. Dyer returned four kicks last year for a total of 78 yards and has a career kick return average of 18.8 yards.
For the first time in four years, the Bulldogs will play a 10-game schedule. The schedule features six Mid-South Conference East contests, three games versus MSC West foes and a game at NCAA Division I Southeastern Louisiana University.
Union will play two Thursday night games and a total of three night games. Also, the Bulldogs will have only four home dates with the remaining six on the road.