BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Every new season presents its own set of questions and new challenges, and such is the case for the Union College football team.
The biggest change for the Bulldogs is who is running things on the sidelines. For the first time in over a decade, Union has a new head coach in Zak Willis.
Excited about his first season in Barbourville, Willis is pleased with what he has seen so far from the Bulldogs.
"We might not be as talented as some teams in the conference, but the kids have fully embraced our approach and our way of doing things. They've done everything we've asked of them," said Willis, who is 55-37 in nine seasons as a head coach. "They've worked really hard."
Union will open the season on Aug. 28 at NCAA FCS Murray State (Ky.) and will not play its first home game until Sept. 20 when Cumberlands (Ky.) comes to town.
Willis takes over a team which was a mere points away from a winning record in 2013 as three of Union's losses were by a total of six points. As it was, the Bulldogs finished last season 3-8 overall and 2-4 in the Mid-South Conference East.
"With the heart and determination this team has shown me in practice," Willis said, "it's my hope that will help keep in some games we shouldn't be in and give us the edge in games against teams that are equal to us."
Union returns a number of its skills players on offense but did lose a couple of offensive linemen to graduation, including All-MSC East Second Team selection Nick Garofalo. Still, Union has a good bit of experience returning to the trenches in seniors Andy Flynn and Drew Elliott, juniors Steven Bailes and Mike Livingston and sophomore Ty Robinson. All five saw significant action in 2013 and are expected to man a starting spot as the season opens.
The Bulldog front five will lead the way for an offense which has the potential to be explosive on the ground and through the air.
Union ranked 23rd in the NAIA in total rushing offense (2,068 yards) and 37th in both total pass offense (2,127 yards) and total offensive yards per game (381.4). Yet, the Bulldogs only ranked fourth, sixth and eighth in those same categories within the Mid-South Conference.
In the backfield, Union returns three players who combined to rush for more than 1,900 yards and 10 touchdowns. Leonard Dixon led the team with 925 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 179 carries. In all, he posted six 100-yard games last season, including three during the first three games of the year.
Helping him out were senior Brian Clark and sophomore quarterback Chandler Whittlesey. Clark averaged 6.2 yards per carry as he galloped 531 yards on 85 attempts, scoring once. Whittlesey, meanwhile, scampered 430 yards on 100 carries with two touchdowns.
Sophomore Zack Martin proved to be a solid short-yardage fullback last season, pushing his way to 70 yards and two scores on 20 rushes.
Whittlesey gets the nod as the starter under center. He began last season sharing time with Jon Combs, but once Combs went down with an injury, Whittlesey became the lone signal-caller. In addition to his rushing prowess, Whittlesey threw for 1,363 yards and 14 touchdowns in completing 91-of-182 passes with six interceptions.
The main target for Whittlesey will be senior Domonique Jefferson, who was first team all-conference last season and is a preseason NAIA All-American selection. The 6-foot-3, 201-pound wideout ranked only 70th in the nation in receptions with 41, but Jefferson was 17th in total receiving yards with 897 – two shy of the school record. For his career, Jefferson ranks seventh in receptions (95), third in receiving yards (1,734) and second in receiving touchdowns (20) in program history.
Other targets include Tyler Ross and Diquan Jefferson as well as newcomers Kyle Keplinger and D.J. Reynolds. Ross has big play potential out of the slot position, but he missed much of 2013 with an injury. Ross and Jefferson combined to haul in 9 passes for 169 yards and two scores last season.
Defense is a big question mark for the Bulldogs as they lost a lot of experience and talent from last year's squad. Union will us a 4-3 scheme for the most part, switching things up with a 3-3 formation on passing situations.
The front line will likely be young and inexperienced with newcomers battling for the starting spots. Willis said the linebacker corps will be the key to holding the defense together.
Of the projected starters for the defensive line, only sophomore Shane Akers was on the team. In six games, he made 10 total tackles including four solo stops. Akers will play one defensive end spot with freshman Andrew White occupying the other. Freshman Kenton Moody is slotted to start at defensive tackle with sophomore Ricky Miles will be the nose guard.
Also helping out on the defensive line will be Collin Buckner, Tucker Lewis, John Hill and James Tripp, who is moving over after playing on the offensive line the past three year.
Junior linebacker Jake Johnston is the team's top returning tackler, having made 78 stops last season. Penciled in at strong linebacker, he will look to be the leader on defense. Newcomers Adam Hooper and Zach Lewis are in line to fill the other starting spots at linebacker. Hooper is a transfer from the University of Georgia with Lewis coming in from Antelope Valley Junior College.
The Bulldog secondary took a big hit and will have to play a number of new faces. Curtis Yates returns as the most experienced defensive back, playing in all 11 games last season and making 56 tackles with one interception and four breakups.
"The key for us on defense is making sure we tackle people on the edges and not give up the big play," said Willis. "If we do that, we will give our offense every opportunity to help us win the game."
Alex Sigmon is back for his sophomore season and will handle the punting and placekicking duties, while newcomer Jonathan Watson will help out with the kickoffs. Watson was a four-year member of the Union men's soccer team.
Sigmon earned All-MSC East Second Team honors and finished the year ranked in the top 35 in the NAIA in five statistical categories last year including 22nd in total field goals (9) and 26th in total scoring for a kicker (56). In addition to the nine field goals he made, Sigmon was 31-of-33 on PATs and averaged 35.7 yards per punt, tallying 2,395 total yards on 67 punts.
Keplinger will help return both punts and kickoffs, while newcomer Jalen Ashby is penciled in to assist with the kickoff duties as well. Ross could also return punts, a task he has done in seasons past. In 2011, he returned eight kicks for 123 yards with a long of 28 yards.
The schedule is not too kind for the Bulldogs in 2014, as they will play their first 10-game slate since the 2009 campaign. Since 2003, this is only the third time Union has scheduled to play less than 11 games in the regular season.
Union also has only four games, the fewest since 2006 when it also played four contests at Burch/Nau Field.
The Bulldogs open the year with back-to-back road games at Murray State (Aug. 28) and Faulkner (Ala.) (Sept. 13) before returning home for their MSC East opener against Cumberlands (Sept. 20). The Cumberlands game will also be the first game ever played under the lights at Burch/Nau Field.
Following a second bye week to end September, Union has a busy October with road dates at Reinhardt (Ga.) (Oct. 4) and Kentucky Christian (Oct. 25) sandwiching home games with Cumberland (Tenn.) (Oct. 11) and Bluefield (Va.) (Oct. 18). The Bulldogs will play at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) and Georgetown (Ky.) on Nov. 1 and 8, respectively. Union closes out the season on Nov. 15 at home against Pikevile (Ky.).