BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The 2011 Union Bulldogs are looking to pick up right where they left off and make a push for another postseason run.
After starting the season 2-3, Union closed out the 2010 campaign by winning five of six games to finish the year 7-4 overall and tied for second in the Mid-South Conference West with a 4-2 mark. The 2010 season was the second in three years the Bulldogs posted a winning record. In addition, Union tied a program record with 20 wins over a three-year span.
Having picked up votes in the preseason poll to place Union just outside the NAIA Top 25, head coach Tommy Reid certainly hopes the momentum from last season carries over into the new year.
"At this point (in the preseason), I feel better about how our team has bonded and come together than where we were last year," said Reid, who is in his 11th season as the Bulldogs' head man. "We've got plenty of experience coming back, and the freshman and transfers we have coming in have bonded well."
Duplicating last year's success will be a tall order as the Bulldogs shattered numerous offensive records. Union averaged 40.0 points per game and set program marks for most rushing yards (2,904), most touchdowns (61), most rushing touchdowns (33) and most first downs (249).
The school-record 440 points the Bulldogs scored in 2010 eclipsed the previous record by 71 points, needing one fewer game to do so.
Union returns a number of key components to last year's squad, but it lost a couple big pieces as well. Gone from the offensive line is Quintin Borders, who was only a four-time All-Conference First Team selection, a two-time AFCA NAIA All-American and the 2009 MSC East Offensive Player of the Year. Also gone is running back Armond Smith, who exploded for a school-record 1,376 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and 17 total touchdowns in capturing the 2010 MSC West Offensive Player of the Year award.
Despite the huge holes to fill, the Bulldogs have plenty of experience returning, starting with senior quarterback Mike Brinkley (Anthony, Fla.). Compared to his first two seasons, Brinkley's numbers were down during his junior campaign. Still, he threw for 2,186 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 55.7 percent of his passes and throwing only eight interceptions.
Brinkley is already the only player in Bulldog history to record three 2,000-yard passing seasons and he lays claim to three program records. And by season's end, he could very well add at least three more program records to his résumé.
"We have big expectations from him, not only from a numbers standpoint but also from a leadership role," Reid said. "If he plays well, we play well."
The Bulldog signal-caller will have an experienced and skilled receiving corps to throw to, one that has Reid excited about the possibilities.
"This is probably as talented of group (of receivers) there has ever been here," he said. "We've got good size and speed, and we're fairly deep at all four positions."
One of the targets Brinkley will be gunning for is senior wide receiver Demetrius Hicks (Frankfort, Ky.). Last season, the 6-foot-1, 169-pounder hauled in 26 balls for 641 yards and five touchdowns. He recorded back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and had another game in which he racked up 92 receiving yards. His 24.7 yards per catch led the team.
With 52 career receptions, Hicks is 9 away from cracking the top 20 on the all-time receiving list and 40 from the top 10.
Returning for his senior season is Rolando Dyer (Lawrenceville, Ga.). The 6-footer missed last season and only played in four games in 2009. However, during the 2008 campaign, he hauled in 29 passes for 518 yards and eight touchdowns. Dyer has 50 career passes for 868 yards and 11 scores.
Reid said William McGarvey (Dallas, Ga.) has been "steady" for the Bulldogs the past two seasons in primarily a backup role. Now, McGarvey will have the chance to show what he can do as one of the starters. Last season, he caught 17 passes for 121 yards.
With the losses of Smith and Terence Pollock, who rushed for 528 yards last year in four games before suffering a season-ending injury;from the Bulldog backfield, it would be easy to turn into a pass-oriented offense. Reid insists the philosophy of a balanced attack has not changed.
"We're going to be as balanced offensively as we can be," he said. "But we've still got to figure out what our strengths are and what defenses give us."
Junior Rob Brown (Daytona, Fla.) is Union's most experienced tailback returning. He was second on the team in rushing last year with 558 yards and four touchdowns. Brown, who is only 62 yards away from becoming the 11th player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in a career, is also a solid receiver with 27 career receptions for 385 yards and two scores to his credit.
"They are much like our O-line for us," Reid said. "There's not a lot of glory for it."
In 2010, Priest had his best season to date with 86 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He only has 132 career rushing yards, but he brings so much more to the team than what the numbers indicate.
"Chandler's been a workhorse for us," Reid said. "He's not going to have the stats, but he's been a valuable member of the team throughout his time here."
Reid added that Sapcut is much improved this year and should see plenty of time in the backfield.
Although Union lost two-time All-American Borders, the Bulldogs return an experienced offensive line with seniors Steven Rodriguez (Kissimmee, Fla.) and Anthony Davis (Cincinnati, Ohio) leading the way. Rodriguez has been a three-year starter with Davis starting for the better part of two seasons but seeing lots of action all three seasons.
Juniors Jonathan Shipley (Tazewell, Tenn.) and Nick Garofalo (Peachtree City, Ga.) have been solid contributors on the line during their first two seasons, and Jeremy Baker (West Palm Beach, Fla.) has crossed over from defensive line to now protect the ball.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were in the middle of the pack statistically in the MSC, ranking fifth in total defense (allowing 378.8 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (allowing 30.3 points per game). However, Union led the MSC and ranked 11th in the NAIA in passing defense, surrendering only 153.0 yards per game. The Bulldogs also ranked second in the league in sacks per game with 1.9.
The Bulldog defense had moments of brilliance as well, recording one shutout and holding opponents to 15 or fewer points three times on the year. Union also held opponents to under 350 yards in total offense five times and fewer than 300 yards three times.
And the Union front six will be loaded with talent, speed and experience.
Continuing to run the 3-3-5 defense, the Bulldogs return a solid group on the defensive line and at linebacker. Upfront, C.J. Hunnicutt (Bradenton, Fla.), Seth Jones (Greensburg, Ky.) and James McKinney (Louisville, Ky.) lead the way. Hunnicutt is looking to bounce back after getting to play in only three games last season due to an injury. In those three games, he had 12 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a half sack. Jones saw action in six games but had just five tackles and one tackle for a loss. McKinney, meanwhile, played in all 11 games and recorded 33 tackles, had two passes deflections and one blocked kick.
"We have a number of guys we can turn to so we can hopefully keep fresh bodies in the game and wear down the opponents," said Reid. "And if need be, we should have no problems going to a four-man front in certain situations."
At linebacker, leading the attack will be preseason All-American Zach Eagler (Florence, Ky.), William Roundtree (Ocala, Fla.) and Darrin Greene (Cherrylog, Ga.). Eagler is coming of a stellar sophomore campaign in which he led the Bulldogs with 86 total tackles. He also had 3.5 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery, which he returned 71 yards for a touchdown.
Roundtree didn't make it past the first game last year before suffering a season-ending injury. He recorded three tackles against Campbellsville in the season opener but left the game with an injury. As a junior, Roundtree notched 54 total tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. He returned one pick for 42 yards and touchdown.
Greene saw action in all 11 games last season, tallying 31 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, a sack, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
The secondary is a cause for some concern for Reid. While he has confidence in the starting five, he readily admits he is concerned about the depth.
Bert Brown (Daytona, Fla.) is back for his junior season. The 5-foot-10, 163-pound defensive back tallied 53 total tackles in 2010 with 3.0 stops for a loss. Brown also had two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 12 pass breakups and a blocked kick. Senior Jacob Crothers (Fort Thomas, Ky.) has proven to be a steady contributor during his four-year career, racking up 84 total tackles, eight pass deflections and two interceptions.
Also helping out in the secondary will be Josh Nixon (Pensacola, Fla.), Marquis Oliver (Pensacola, Fla.), Jontrel Colbert (Dublin, Ga.), Juan McKinney (St. Petersburg, Fla.) and Pedro Pinckney (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Chad Boyington (Stockbridge, Ga.) is back for his senior season as punter. He averaged 33.9 yards per punt a year ago and also handled the kickoff and place-kicking duties as well. In all, he scored a total of 50 points as he was 6-for-7 on field-goal attempts and 32-of-39 on PATs. Helping out with some of the kicking duties will be newcomers Steve Loverso (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.) and Jon Shaw (Merseyside, England), both of whom have an extensive soccer background.
Colbert will return punts, while Bert and Rob Brown will return kickoffs.
Despite the strong finish last season, the Bulldogs are picked to finish fifth in the MSC West. Cumberlands (Ky.) and Cumberland (Tenn.) are the favorites with Shorter (Ga.) and Bethel (Tenn.) just ahead of Union.
Union's two conference losses were to Cumberlands (35-21) and Cumberland (29-18) and both were on the road. This season, the two favorites come to Barbourville. Union also posted its first-ever win at Shorter with a 37-31 decision, and the Bulldogs gave up 55 points to Bethel but scored 84 points of their own in route to a wild 29-point victory.
The Bulldogs open the season with three of their first four games on the road. Union's lone home game in September is against Kentucky Christian on Sept. 10, and the Bulldogs will also face NCAA FCS UT-Martin on Sept. 15.
On Oct. 1, Union will open MSC West play at home against Cumberlands in the annual Brass Lantern game.