BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - A new season always brings hope and optimism as well as a few questions. All of those run in abundance for the 2013 Union football team.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 4-7 campaign and a 1-4 Mid-South Conference East mark. In spite of the losing record, Union was highly competitive, going 3-2 in games decided by four or fewer points.
Union returns a number of skill players on offense as well as a first team all-conference linebacker on defense, but the Bulldogs have to replace the program's all-time passing leader and seven starters on defense.
"There are a lot of things we're going to have to find out in the first game that we can't find out in practice or in a scrimmage," said Union head coach Tommy Reid.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs don't have the luxury of easing into the season. Not only does Union open up with a MSC East contest, but it's also against NAIA preseason No. 8 and long-time rival Cumberlands (Ky.). Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. Saturday in Williamsburg, Ky. (Click here for the game notes for this contest.)
In 2012, Union averaged 338.2 yards and 22.0 points per game. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball well but struggled at times in the red zone. Union went 25-for-35 inside the opponent's 20-yard line, tallying 144 points. For the season, Union scored 242 total points.
Gone from last year's squad is quarterback Mike Brinkley, who finished as the program's all-time leader in a career passing yards (9,212) and touchdowns (94). Filling those shoes will be a tall order, but it's one the coaching staff feels red-shirt sophomore Jon Combs can handle. A solid signal-caller in high school, it's been two years though since Combs saw regular action under center.
"Our biggest question mark is we've only had 30-40 snaps with Combs at quarterback (in college)," said Reid. "We liked what he was able to do in high school, but it's been two years since then. "
Combs saw action in five games last year, completing 12-of-22 passes for 75 yards with one interception. Despite the limited game-time action, Reid is pleased with what he's seen out of the young quarterback.
"We really like how he's handled himself since he's been here," the Bulldog coach said. "We feel confident about his ability and understanding to run our offense. Now he's just got to get out there and do it."
True freshman Chandler Whittlesey is penciled in as Combs' backup.
Combs will have a highly experienced receiving corps to throw to as eight of the team's top 12 receivers are back.
"Wide receiver is definitely our strongest and deepest position," Reid said.
Junior Domonique Jefferson led the team with 31 receptions for 500 yards and six touchdowns. Calling him one of the better players in the conference, Reid said Jefferson has a great ability to stretch the field.
Junior Tyler Ross might not strike fear in defenses with his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame, but Reid labeled him as the team's "strongest receiver." Willing to do whatever is asked of him, Ross will block for other receivers and running backs or run steady, strong routes. He hauled in 20 passes for 366 yards. Ross scored one touchdown, but he showed his breakout ability as he covered 84 yards on the play.
Levi Wilson is back for his junior and has proven to be a good possession receiver. He caught four passes for 22 yards in 2012. Sophomore Diquan Jefferson returns after averaging 18.5 yards per catch last season. He pulled down eight passes for 148 yards. Senior Deron Hicks led all receivers with a 21.7 yards-per-reception average as he caught nine balls for 195 yards and a touchdown.
Another returning leading receiver is running back Leonard Dixon, who collected 12 receptions for 75 yards. However, he will do the majority of his damage carrying the ball from the backfield. As the Bulldogs' backup in 2012, Dixon rushed for 562 yards and four touchdowns on 104 carries.
"Leonard is a complete back," said Reid. "He's got the speed to make a long run and the toughness to get the short yards. Plus, he's got the hands to catch the ball out of the backfield and pass block when needed."
Dixon recorded two 100-yard games with a season-best 157 yards in the 60-59, season-ending win over Pikeville (Ky.).
Junior Brian Clark will also see time at tailback. Last season, he ran for 117 yards on 35 carries.
At fullback, senior Cody Sapcut will share time with newcomer Zach Martin.
"Cody's been steady throughout his career," Reid said. "He doesn't have the stats to show for it, but that's partly because of what we ask our fullbacks to do. He does a good job and does whatever we ask of him."
Sapcut ran the ball six times for 22 yards and touchdown and had one catch for 11 yards in 2012.
Upfront the Bulldogs return a lot of experience on the offensive line. Senior Nick Garofalo is back after missing much of the 2012 campaign with an injury. Versatile enough to play any of the positions, Garofalo is the leader of the offensive line. Senior Jose Avina returns for his second season with the Bulldogs. At 6-foot, 258 pounds, Avina is lighter than most offensive linemen, but Reid said, "he really knows how to get into position and get the job done."
Junior Andy Flynn brings a couple of years of experience with him as he started every game last year. Junior Drew Elliott will see time at center, while sophomore Steven Bailes will play at right tackle.
Defensively, Union will once again rely on a three-man front and use from three to five linebackers depending on the situation. The Bulldogs nose guards and defensive linemen historically have not registered a lot of numbers, but Reid said that is not because they aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing.
"We've had a lot of first team all-conference middle linebackers here at Union, and that's because of what we ask our nose guards to do," Reid said. "Our defensive linemen do a good job in occupying and taking out the opposing offensive linemen to allow our linebackers to make the play."
Senior Seth Jones will lead the way at nose guard. In 2012, he recorded 39 total tackles with 5.5 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks. Jones also forced one fumble. Backing him up will be junior Alex Leborn, who made nine stops in limited action last season.
Reid said the defensive ends are "young and inexperienced," and the Bulldogs will use a rotation of five players at those spots. Tucker Lewis, Derrick Greene, Tyler Priest, Demetrius King and John Hill will all spend time at end this season.
Senior Ryan Shipley headlines the linebacking corps as he is coming off a first team all-conference season. He led Union with 83 total tackles and had 6.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
At outside linebacker will be sophomore Jake Johnston and junior Brandon Carr. Johnston was the first sub off the bench for the Bulldogs last season as he notched 24 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Carr, a transfer, is one of the best athletes on defense, according to Reid. "He has good speed and is a very savvy player," the coach added.
At the strike and bandit positions, Curtis Yates, Chris Pinnock, Marquis Oliver and Russell Henry will share time. Pinnock saw action in nine games last season and recorded 46 tackles with 5.5 going for a loss. He also had 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Henry made three total tackles in limited action last year, while Oliver is back after missing the 2012. He has 11 career tackles in eight games played.
Unlike the past few seasons, the secondary will be young and inexperienced. Sophomores Darius Thomas and Tre Hightower will split time at free safety. Hightower saw limited action in 2012, recording six tackles with two pass deflections.
At corner, Michael Lowder and Alonzo Collins will man the left side, while Veashawn Springs and Xavier Wyche will man the right side. Collins had 12 tackles with one pass breakup last season, and Wyche registered 18 total stops.
"Defensively, we don't have a ton of experience coming back," Reid said. "We've only got four kids on defense who have had a significant amount of snaps."
Union had a solid return game in 2012, averaging 11.9 yards per punt returns and 20.7 per kick return. Hicks and Ross are slated to return punts this season, while Collins and Diquan Jefferson will handle kickoffs. Of the four, only Collins returned any kicks at all last season, returning 11 kicks for 209 yards for a 19.0 average.
Handling the kickoffs and place-kicking duties will be freshman Alex Sigmon, while Shipley is penciled in as the team's punter.
Picked to finish fifth in the MSC East, Reid acknowledges the gauntlet that is the conference schedule.
"There are no easy games, especially when you've got two preseason NAIA top 10 teams in your division," he said. "You can't afford to look ahead on the schedule; just focus on the opponent for the week."
After opening with Cumberlands, Union does not play another MSC East contest until Oct. 19 when it travels to Bluefield (Va.). The Bulldogs close out the 2013 slate with five MSC East games in a row. Union faces four teams which are ranked or received votes in the NAIA Preseason Poll. In addition to Cumberlands which is eighth, the Bulldogs will play No. 25 Cumberland (Tenn.) on Oct. 12, Kentucky Christian which received votes on Oct. 26, and No. 6 Georgetown (Ky.) on Nov. 9.
The Bulldogs' home opener is Sept. 14 against Faulkner (Ala.).