Ohio Valley Conference spring football primer
(STATS) - New coaches always bring energy to a team.
In the Ohio Valley Conference, the feeling is widespread.
Longtime power Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay have first-year coaches. It brings the number of new coaches since 2014 to seven of out of nine OVC programs.
Change has worked well at Jacksonville State, which in coach John Grass' first two seasons is a combined 23-4, including 16-0 in the OVC, with a first appearance in the FCS championship game last season.
But the stakes are raised all across the conference. No OVC team won a playoff game from 2000 to 2012, but Jacksonville State (five), Eastern Illinois (one) and Tennessee State (one) have combined on seven in the last three seasons.
Following is a look across the Ohio Valley Conference with spring practices getting underway:
2015 Records: 0-11 overall, 0-8 OVC (9th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 16
Storyline: New coach Will Healy, who arrived from Chattanooga's successful program, is trying to end Austin Peay's struggles, as the Governors went 1-34 over former coach Kirby Cannon's three seasons. Healy's staff must believe Austin Peay can improve quickly because there are a number of players who saw action early in their careers. The Governors are expected to return 10 starters on each side of the ball, although quarterback Trey Taylor is the one offensive loss. Mickey Macius, who redshirted last season, led the only win during Cannon's tenure in 2014. Linebacker Benedict Louis has the opportunity to replace Adam Noble, the defensive starter not returning. The Governors have to increase their pass rush and improve on third downs both offensively and defensively.
2015 Records: 7-5 overall, 7-1 OVC (2nd)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 23
Storyline: With a blowout loss to Northern Iowa in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, the Panthers have dropped their last nine games out of conference. While winning an OVC title remains their long-term goal, the Panthers want to avoid the 0-3 starts of the first two seasons under coach Kim Dameron. The Panthers are seeking to replace seven starters on defense, including three first-team All-OVC selections - tackle Dino Fanti, the conference's co-defensive player of the year, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and safety Jourdan Wickliffe. They have nine returning starters on offense, but they must fill the quarterback spot from transfers Mitch Kimble (Syracuse) and Bud Martin (FIU) or last year's backup Austin Green. With 98 penalties last season, the Panthers didn't play with enough discipline.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-3 OVC (4th)
Spring Practices: March 7-April 16
Storyline: EKU has one losing season in the last 43 years, but the Colonels didn't win a playoff game (in three appearances) during coach Dean Hood's eight seasons and he was replaced by Mark Elder, who had been on the FBS level the last 11 years. The Colonels hope Elder can help them move to the FBS in the coming years (no FBS invite exists at this point). His first squad is rebuilding its defense after losing eight starters. Defensive end Aaron Patrick hopes to emerge after playing behind All-American Noah Spence last season. The offensive line is always strong, but there's turnover there. Still, Bennie Coney figures to be one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS and running back Ethan Thomas was excellent as a freshman until he was injured. If you are counting, Devin Borders returns as a senior with 12 blocked kicks in his career - five shy of the FCS record.
2015 Records: 13-2 overall, 8-0 OVC (1st)
Spring Practices: March 2-April 9
Storyline: The Gamecocks are coming off a national runner-up finish to North Dakota State, but it's been a rough offseason for All-America quarterback Eli Jenkins, who was arrested (although his case could be dismissed) and had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder (he should be back for summer camp). In his absence, Jayse Pruitt, Will Pyburn and Dalton Etheridge, who also plays for the JSU baseball team, are sharing much of the spring work. Significant graduation losses will be tempered if the NCAA grants a sixth season of eligibility to running backs Miles Jones and Josh Clemons and defensive end LaMichael Fanning. Regardless of how it shakes out, the Gamecocks are losing more than half their starters as well as punter Hamish MacInnes. With three starters gone from the secondary, coach John Grass' staff is clearly putting focus there this spring.
2015 Records: 3-8 overall, 2-6 OVC (7th)
Spring Practices: April 5-29
Storyline: Although the Racers have one of the best passers in the FCS in KD Humphries, they lost four key wide receivers, including Paul Rice and Jeremy Harness after they combined for 149 receptions last year. Tight end Jesse Blackburn returns off a big season, but second-year coach Mitch Stewart needs to develop some receivers on the perimeter. The offensive situation will worsen if running back Roman Clay doesn't return from his offseason suspension following burglary charges. It was nice that the offense averaged 466.1 yards and 30.5 points per game, but the defense surrendered 497.5 and 37.2, so the Racers need a lot of improvement. The defense will gain from the return of safety Toby Omli after his junior season was cut short by an ACL injury.
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-4 OVC (5th)
Spring Practices: March 21-April 22
Storyline: Tom Matukewicz's veteran team could pull an upset or two this year, as it did in his first season of 2014. Last year's plus-10 in turnovers didn't match the team's record, so the season could have been so much more. When DeMichael Jackson returns from an ACL tear, he and Tremane McCullough will form one of the better running back tandems in the FCS. Quarterback Dante Vandeven, the 2015 OVC freshman of the year, needs a new top target with Paul McRoberts going off to the NFL, but new coordinator Jon Wiemers' offense should be strong with eight returning starters. The defense has to toughen up in the red zone after the Redhawks suffered four losses by a combined 14 points. Senior inside linebacker Roper Garrett has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons and among eight returning defensive starters.
2015 Records: 4-6 overall, 1-6 OVC (8th)
Spring Practices: March 21-April 16
Storyline: Coach Rod Reed began a youth movement last season and it pays a dividend with the return of 16 starters (seven on offense and nine on defense). The Tigers go back to 11 games and the first half of the schedule is rugged, although they won't face Jacksonville State this season. Impressive quarterback O'Shay Ackerman-Carter will be limited in spring practices, but the Tigers will still look to add depth behind standout Patrick Smith in their receiving corps. Running back Erick Evans finished strong last season for an offense that is usually successful when it has a consistent run game. First-team All-OVC defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko is a handful for opposing offenses, but the Tigers are still seeking a better pass rush.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-5 OVC (6th)
Spring Practices: March 15-April 19 (spring game is April 14)
Storyline: Former Temple offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, who has succeeded Watson Brown as Tech's coach, has impressed people in the program. Justin Rascati has come over from UT Martin as offensive coordinator and Shawn Quinn will try to do for the Eagles defense what he did as Western Carolina's coordinator. The Eagles went through a lot of quarterback change with Jared Davis, Colby Brown and then Brock McCoin, who converted from wide receiver, but it should be a solid position this year. The defense was ravaged for 490.5 yards and 35.9 points per game last season and must replace highly productive linebackers Tra'Darius Goff and Jay Rudwall.
2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 6-2 OVC (3rd)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 21
Storyline: Having gone 51-28 in OVC games over his first 10 seasons, coach Jason Simpson faces an important spring because the Skyhawks return only four starters on offense and five on defense. They will have a new quarterback after 2½ years behind Jarod Neal. Troy Cook, the backup as a sophomore last season after he transferred from Florida State, hopes to win the No. 1 job. Big wideout Caylon Weathers (6-foot-4, 207 pounds) will be the go-to player on offense. The Skyhawks have to replace all five starters in the secondary. They also will make ball security a priority in the spring, having gone minus-9 in turnovers last season. Not participating this season is running back Ladevin Fair, who suffered a torn ACL in the final game of 2015.