As Urbana University prepares for Thursday night’s season opener at West Liberty (W. Va.) University, the start of football season emits a breath a fresh air for the Blue Knights after numerous positive changes surrounding the program.
UU will roll into West Family Stadium for the 7 p.m. Mountain East Conference matchup donning new Under Armour uniforms, new coaching staff under Tyler Haines and a fresh aura of confidence among a group of highly-skilled veterans and athletic newcomers.
Along with a renovated UU Stadium featuring lights and new turf, the third season under Haines should prove invigorating for the UU campus and community.
“Obviously, the guys are excited about the brand new uniforms, brand new turf and the lights,” Haines said. “Dr. [Christopher] Washington and Larry Cox have done a great job for our program. There is a lot of excitement from the alumni and community.
“Heading into the first game, we really are working to come together as a team. We have had two big recruiting classes, so this senior group, even though it is small, has flourished in the transition and bought into what we are doing. I like the direction they are leading us.”
West Liberty leads the all-time series 6-1.
In last year’s meeting, UU scored on its second possession to lead 8-0 after the first quarter. However, West Liberty responded with 21 unanswered points and outgained the Blue Knights 407-128 in total offense.
UU’s only victory over the Hilltoppers happened in the inaugural season of the MEC four years ago, as former standout wide receiver (and current assistant coach) Joe Webb hauled down three touchdowns.
UU, which was picked to finish 11th in the MEC preseason poll, features nearly 60 newcomers and 33 letterwinners returning from last year’s squad that finished 3-8 overall (2-8 MEC). There are 20 players listed as upperclassmen, including seven seniors and 13 juniors who will be relied upon heavily both on-and-off the field.
Six starters on offense are back for Coach Haines, who serves as the unit’s play-caller.
Leading the way is All-Region and All-MEC selection Trevon Saunders in his senior season at wide receiver. In 2016, the Columbus native set a UU record for touchdown receptions (15) while leading the team with career highs in receptions (66), receiving yards (961) and all-purpose yards (1,631).
Saunders is on pace to break the school record for touchdown grabs and currently ranks eighth among active career leaders in NCAA Division II with 24 TD receptions.
Fellow Columbus native and senior quarterback Tajuan Green also returns for his fifth-year senior season. Green earned the starting job last year out of preseason camp, and despite missing a few games due to injury, he led the Blue Knights in passing (1,433 yards, 13 TDs, 7 INT) while being responsible for 18 total touchdowns.
With Green back, the Blue Knights have stability behind center after each of the previous three seasons featured at least three different starters. Sophomore-transfer Eddie Stockett, a former Akron commit, is listed second on the depth chart.
The wide receivers unit could be one of the most talented in the league. Along with Saunders, junior Shemar Hooks and sophomore Rodell Rahmaan are consistent big-play threats with both showing flashes during camp. Rahmaan, who was an all-state track star, showed off his athleticism by playing 10 games last season at defensive back. Three freshmen could also make an impact at the wide-out positions, including Tony Buckley, Philip Dozier (redshirt) and Logan Zerkle.
In the backfield, a committee of running backs will compete for carries. Junior Trey McFadden returns after leading the Blue Knights in carries (91) and rushing yards (292) with two touchdowns. Sophomore Maurice Warren Jr., sophomore DarSean Watts (1 TD in 2016), redshirt-freshman Ja’Vahri Portis (2 TDs in 2016) and freshman David Hickey are also in the mix.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Stacey Hairston, the Blue Knights have switched to a 4-3 base and are poised for a big year with eight starters returning.
The most experience returns up front with senior Clayton Bullard, junior Isaiah Turner, sophomore Onajai Davenport and transfer-sophomore Mikal Toliver. Bullard (11 sacks) and Turner have started every game during their career while Davenport burst onto the scene with two sacks last year. Rotating in at the defensive line will be sophomore Jamari Collins, junior Dominic Painter, freshman Dylan Hartley and freshman Brian Zimmerman.
At linebacker, All-MEC honoree and senior Josh Dillard has recovered from an injury suffered near the end of last season. He will start in the middle after leading the team with 10.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and three forced fumbles to go with two sacks in 2016. Sophomore Duray Hall is the team’s leading returning tackler (90 total) and starts at the weak side while redshirt-freshman Jalen Spears will start at the strong side position.
In the backfield, three starters return with senior Andre Cliff (137 career tackles, 3 interceptions) at strong safety and sophomores Roman Sneed and Sherman Watson at the corner positions. Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Fuller is marked as the starter at free safety. Sophomore Chris Richardson will see playing time as well at both safety positions.
West Liberty was slotted sixth in the MEC preseason poll after going 4-7 overall (4-6 MEC) a year ago.