BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The 2007 Union College football season did not get off to a storybook beginning; however, the Bulldogs closed out the year with a fairytale ending. Union will open the 2008 season Saturday at Lambuth (Tenn.) University at 1 p.m. Eastern.
After opening the season 0-5, Union closed the year winning four of its final six games in posting a 4-7 overall record and a 2-3 Mid-South Conference East mark. But the icing on the cake came in the season finale with a 28-21 victory at then-No. 17 Georgetown (Ky.) College, snapping a 23-game losing streak to the Tigers.
As the Bulldogs gear up for the 2008 campaign, head coach Tommy Reid is looking to capitalize on the momentum the team created at the end of last season.
"We feel real good about the way we ended last season and that excitement just carried over into the offseason," said Reid. "Hopefully, that will carry over into this season.
"We have a huge class coming in, and we're looking forward to getting back on the field."
Union returns a number of players at the skill positions, and the defense, which was a young corps in 2007, now has a year of experience under its belt and looks to be stronger. However, there are two glaring absences from last year's squad - quarterback Joey Waters and middle linebacker Patrick O'Neal.
Waters had a career year for the Bulldogs in 2007, setting the single-season records for completions (253), attempts (422), yards (3,216) and touchdowns (27) in being named the Mid-South East Offensive Player of the Year. He had six games, and five in a row, in which he threw for more than 300 yards in a game.
Against West Virginia Tech, Waters set the single-game passing yards record with 518 yards in a 50-13 romp. He finished his career at Union as the all-time leading passer with 7,880 yards and 66 career passing touchdowns and owns or shares 11 program records.
Meanwhile, O'Neal was the Bulldogs' leading tackler the past four seasons, capping his career with 143 stops in 2007. A three-time First Team All-Conference selection, O'Neal finished his career second on the all-time tackles list with 390. Twice in 2007, he matched the single-game mark for tackles with 20 - first against University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) and then versus Georgetown.
Filling those gaps could present a challenge for the Bulldogs, yet Reid is confident in the returning players' abilities to lead the way in pursuit of a successful 2008 campaign.
"We have a number of players that saw some playing time last year, and that can be beneficial for us as we prepare for the upcoming season," said Reid.
For the first time in four years, the Bulldogs will have someone new calling signals under center. And replacing a guy who threw for over 7,800 yards and 66 touchdowns won't be easy.
Union has four players vying for the starting job, but three are newcomers.
"It's going to be interesting to see how things shake out," said Reid. "Each of the four brings something different, but we've got to find the guy that makes great decisions, takes care of the football and can lead the team up and down the field."
Abdul Gure (Scottdale, Ga.) is the lone returning quarterback. A junior, Gure has not seen much time under center, having appeared in four games and completing 8-of-18 passes for 65 yards.
Also battling for the starting gig are Mike Brinkley (Anthony, Fla.), Bryant Thomas (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Chris Bethel (Allensville, Ohio), all of whom are red-shirt freshmen.
Brinkley was able to participate in spring practice, and Reid said he "felt like (Brinkley) was further along after the spring.
"But that's come and gone," added the Bulldog coach. "What's going to matter is the preseason."
Even though Union will have a new quarterback in 2008, Reid said the team will not deviate very much on what it wants to do offensively.
"We're not changing our offensively philosophy," he said. "We might have to alter a few things depending on who takes over at quarterback and what they're comfortable in doing."
Whoever winds up being the quarterback, he will have a talented group of receivers to throw to.
Leading the way is senior Kyle Callahan (Covington, Ky.), who hauled in 60 passes for 816 yards and eight touchdowns last season in earning a First Team All-MSC East nod. Having split time between being a quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back during his first two years at Union, Callahan has 76 career receptions to rank him 11th all-time.
P.J. Burrowes (Middlesboro, Ky.) and Rolando Dyer (Lawrenceburg, Ga.) also return for their sophomore seasons. Both played in eight games with Burrowes catching 19 balls for 351 yards and three scores, while Dyer had eight receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
"I really feel like (Burrowes and Dyer) really came on in the later half of their freshmen year," said Reid.
Reid added that the team has a good class of wide receivers coming in and that the position should be the most talented on the squad.
Union returns its starting tandem in juniors Terence Pollock (Orange Park, Fla.) and Ben Kelly (Cold Springs, Ky.).
Pollock rushed for 718 yards and three scores on 178 carries, averaging 4.0 yards per rush. He ranks sixth in program history with 1,373 career rushing yards. A two-time First Team All-MSC East selection, Pollock also caught 18 passes for 164 yards and two more scores.
Kelly, meanwhile, ran for just 149 yards and two touchdowns. But he was also very effective in the passing game as he hauled in 34 passes for 317 yards.
"He's a great blocker, runs well and catches the ball out of the backfield and out of the slot," Reid said of Kelly, who earned a Second Team All-MSC East honor. "He's probably our best all-around player, kind of like a utility player in baseball."
Junior Antonio Drane (Louisville, Ky.) also returns after rushing for 210 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries.
On one side, the Bulldog offensive line looks to be the best it has been in years. However, there remain some question marks.
Union returns First Team All-MSC East performer Quintin Borders (Lexington, Ky.) at left tackle and Brock Evans (Maryville, Tenn.) at left guard. Yet, the rest of the line is far from being set.
Complicating matters is the fact that J.D. Conley (Ashland, Ky.) is injured and might not be able to return until October at the earliest. Conley started the bulk of the 2007 season at center, but now Joe Mullinax (Canton, Ga.) and Cain Sams (Pineville, Ky.) will vie for the position.
"We're limited in experience on the offensive line. We're going to have to count on a lot of new faces," said Reid.
If not at center, Mullinax could start at right guard.
Despite the loss of Colby Wilson to graduation, the Bulldogs return an experienced group on the defensive line.
Junior Arthur Johnson (New Smyrna Beach, Fla.) started all 11 games last season and recorded 29 tackles with 1.5 for a loss and one sack.
"Arthur really started to come on toward the end of the (2007) season," said Reid.
Also back is senior Patrick Burke (Erlanger, Ky.), who played in five games and made 13 tackles. In addition, junior Michael Gold (Baltimore, Ohio) has found a home on the defensive line after starting out at tight end. He recorded seven tackles in five games last year.
Reid added that a number of other players could see time on the line, including Jason Hammontree (Greenback, Tenn.), Michael Culver (Williamsburg, Ky.), Quentin Penn (Daytona Beach, Fla.), Zach Glascock (Camden, Ind.) and Timmy Goodin (Pineville, Ky.).
Although it has lost the services of O'Neal, Union returns a veteran linebacking corps.
Seniors Marekus Smith (Lithonia, Ga.) and Depaul Peyton (Lexington, Ky.) started every game last season and were among the team's leaders in tackles. Smith recorded 76 stops and a team-best 12.0 tackles for a loss. He also had 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Peyton, meanwhile, had 45 tackles, 3.0 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
Junior Josh Presley (Sweetwater, Tenn.) is another option for the Bulldogs at linebacker. In nine games, Presley had 25 stops - two of which went for a loss, and one sack.
While Union returns experience at linebacker, the area expertise resides at the outside linebacking positions and not at middle linebacker.
"We feel very comfortable in our returning players at the outside positions," said Reid. "They've done well for us over the years. But with O'Neal graduating, it's left us a big hole in the middle."
The Bulldog secondary is as solid as it has been in years with the return of juniors Ty Harris (Monroe, Ga.), Josh Littleton (Waverly Hall, Ga.) and Jeremy Agbomi (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore Terry Young (Orange Park, Fla.).
"We return a lot of experience in the secondary," said Reid. "Those four have made a lot of plays for us over the past couple years."
Harris and Littleton have been mainstays for the Bulldog defense since arriving on campus, while Young made his presence felt last season as a freshman. Harris recorded 45 tackles, had three interceptions and broke up 10 other passes. Littleton had 36 stops and two picks, while Young racked up 65 tackles and had one interception.
Agbomi had a breakout year in 2007 with 45 tackles, four of which going for a loss. He broke up eight passes and recovered two fumbles.
Littleton has also been a big factor on special teams with three career blocked kicks to his credit.
Sophomore Larry Taylor (Frankfort, Ky.), a converted running back, will provide depth at the corner positions, while Lee Miles (Ross, Ohio) can land a starting safety spot. Miles started the 2007 season as a running back, netting 40 yards on 17 carries. However, he moved to the secondary during the year and posted 21 tackles and forced one fumble.
Special teams are a real area of concern for Reid. Union struggled returning punts and kicks last season, and the team will be turning to a new place-kicker and punter for the third year in a row.
Several players could get a shot at returning kicks in 2008, including Dyer, Pollock, and Callahan. Late in the season, Pollock showed he could hold his own return kicks, averaging 26.6 yards per return.
However, as a team, the Bulldogs averaged just 19.4 yards per kickoff return and 7.7 yards per punt return.
From 2003-05, the Bulldogs relied on Jason Buster to handle all the kicking duties. However, Union has had to break in a new kicker the past two seasons and will have to again in 2008.
Newcomers Jacob Appleby (Harvest, Ala.) and Chad Boyington (Stockbridge, Ga.) will compete for the positions.
The Bulldogs will have to find a new long snapper as well. Wilson had held the job for four years but has now graduated.
"Colby (Wilson) did a good job for us as the long snapper. We never had to worry about the kicking game in that regard the past four years," said Reid. "Long snapping is such a small part of the game, but if overlooked, it can really hurt you."
Once again, the Mid-South Conference has undergone a measure of change. This season, there are 13 teams competing in two divisions with the addition of Faulkner (Ala.) University, which will be in the West Division.
The other big change has Campbellsville (Ky.) University switching divisions as it will join Union, Cumberlands, Georgetown, West Virginia Tech, UVa-Wise and Pikeville (Ky.) College in the East.
With the divisions having unequal numbers, teams will play an unequal number of games within the conference with some playing eight and others nine. Union, though, will play a total of 10 games versus Mid-South squads as it and Lambuth (Tenn.) University will meet in the season opener. Still, only the games within the division will count in the standings toward the conference championship.
Georgetown and Bethel (Tenn.) College are projected to win their respective divisions, according to the preseason coaches poll.
Union will play an 11-game slate for the second year in a row and for the fifth time in program history.
The Bulldogs will open up on the road Sept. 6 at Lambuth before returning home for a Sept. 13 date against Malone (Ohio) College. In all, Union will play six home games and five road dates. The Bulldogs will have one night game on Thursday, Oct. 23, at Shorter (Ga.) College.
Union will open its MSC East slate on Sept. 27 when Georgetown comes to Barbourville.