After 12-year hiatus, ETSU football returns

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(STATS) - Twelve years later, East Tennessee State will finally get the chance to extend its two-game winning streak.

The Buccaneers will make their return to FCS football Thursday night, hosting Kennesaw State in the school's first game since 2003. The kickoff at sold-out Kermit Tipton Stadium will mark a new beginning, but also the end of a long journey dating back to March 2013 - when the university's student government approved a student fee for athletic funding.

"It's been over 700 days since we started this process," said Carl Torbush, the former North Carolina head coach who was one of the first pieces of ETSU's football puzzle put into place when he was hired in June 2013. "For football to be back, I think it says a lot about where we are as a university, where we are as an athletic department and where we are as a brand new football team.

"It's an exciting time right now."

Torbush, who had stints as an assistant at Alabama, Texas A&M, Carson-Newman, Mississippi State, Kansas and Liberty prior to taking over the Bucs, has spent the past two years recruiting, and ETSU will be the lone FCS independent this year before joining the Southern Conference in 2016. After an initial signing class of 47 in 2014, the roster is dominated by freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores. In fact, defensive back Tavian Lott, wide receiver Chad Pritchard and offensive lineman Sammy Hall are the team's only upperclassmen.

There's also a sprinkling of transfers, with running back Falon Lee's three carries for minus-8 yards with Miami of Ohio in 2013 standing out as one of the few players with game experience.

"When the lights come on, we need to see who's going to be a moth," redshirt freshman linebacker Dylan Weigel said. "We need to see who is going to attract to the lights. There are players who come out and play well under those circumstances. We are going to see a lot of players who come out and shine under the lights."

For the most part, ETSU did not have much of a gridiron history prior to the program being disbanded due to financial difficulties following a 16-13 victory over The Citadel on Nov. 22, 2003. It reached the quarterfinals of the 1996 Division I-AA playoffs in its only postseason appearance and upset then-No. 1 Georgia Southern in 2001. It's hallmark season was 1969, when it beat Terry Bradshaw-led Louisiana Tech in the Grantland Rice Bowl to cap a 10-0-1 campaign.

The future looks promising for the Buccaneers. They will move into a new on-campus stadium for the 2017 season, and they have star-power alumni leading the fundraising push in country music chart-topper Kenny Chesney and ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith. The coffers will get a boost the following year with a game at Neyland Stadium against Tennessee of the mighty SEC.

Right now, though, Torbush is focused on the present, just trying to play winning football. That formula doesn't change, regardless of history or experience.

"Playing the first game at ETSU or wherever else I have been, I believe the first game will be determined by which team makes the least mistakes," Torbush said. "We feel very strongly offensively that if we can either get first downs, score or kick that we have a good chance to win. Defensively, we don't want to give up big plays ... if we are able to do that, then we will have a chance to be competitive going into the fourth quarter.

"We want to make sure going late into the fourth quarter that we have a chance to win."

To many ETSU fans, students and alumni, they already have.

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