By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – All the weeks of grit, work and sweat have culminated in this. As the coin is flipped and the first ball is kicked off, the season will have begun for the Tennessee Tech football team as the Golden Eagles host Western Illinois on Thursday night.
The game is scheduled for a 6:04 p.m. kickoff.
The biggest question mark, however, is the wealth of young players for the Tech squad – many who were not even on the roster a year ago as the Golden Eagles finished 5-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference, 5-6 overall.
And with a Football Championship Subdivision No. 25-ranked team like the Leathernecks coming in, the Golden Eagles will certainly be tested.
Tech's strength, on paper, is definitely the defense with eight starters standing as juniors or seniors, while the sophomore starters – Clay Davis, Aderick Moore and Shannon Fayne – saw significant action last season.
The Golden Eagles' defensive front of Tim Collins, Anthony Akers, Mike Cain and Joe Robertson does provide plenty of experience and size, while Davis and Deven Sullivan proved to be great play-stoppers last season, finishing 2016 close to the top of the tackle charts.
In the secondary, Josh Cunningham moves over to boundary corner after playing wide receiver and has been impressive in camp. A.J. Flemister is set to have a breakout year at field corner, while Deontay Wilson and Fayne should provide valuable protection at the safeties.
On offense, however, five starters are sophomores or freshmen. Up front, Tech has three of its three linemen at sophomore class or younger, with junior Myles Douglas and senior Jarred Dorton providing the upperclassman leadership.
At quarterback, it's been a tough battle in camp, but it could be between Rutgers graduate transfer Hayden Rettig and sophomore Andre Sale for time behind center. However, whoever ends up on the field will have plenty of weapons as senior Dontez Byrd, junior Darrius Stafford, junior Alex Carling and several others could provide a veritable arsenal along the passing routes.
In the backfield, preseason all-OVC rusher Yeedee Thaenrat will try to build on his Tech freshman-best season last year, but will have some depth behind him with sophomores Andrew Goldsmith and Rodrick Napper.
On special teams, junior Nick Madonia – on the 2017 Mitchell Award watchlist for top kicker – will try to write his name in the Tech record books again after a special season that saw him kick the program's longest field goal with a 57-yarder at Tennessee State last season.
SETTING THE STAGE
This is the first meeting between Tennessee Tech and Western Illinois … The Golden Eagles are 43-47-5 all-time on Opening Day, including winning five of their last six season openers at home … Tech lost last season's opener 21-7 to Wofford … The Golden Eagles have not lost back-to-back season openers since 2010-11, falling on the road at Arkansas and Iowa … Tech has not lost back-to-back opening day games at home since 1996 and 1997 (Appalachian State and Chattanooga).
Sophomore running back Yeedee Thaenrat was named to the preseason all-Ohio Valley Conference team. He rushed for a freshman-record 707 yards on 159 carries with six touchdowns. He averaged 64.3 yards per game last season. His longest run was a 61-yard carry at Tennessee State. Thaenrat, a Philadelphia product, finished the season with two 100-yard games, rushing for 164 against TSU and 118 against Murray State.
FILLING THE SHOES
With the medical situation for junior linebacker Josh Poplar, a new Golden Eagle linebacker will be looking to break out this season. Poplar ended 2016 with a team-high 105 tackles (9.5 per game) with 3.5 for-loss, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown.
However, there are several players who could make an impact. Elliott Normand, Deontay Wilson, Clay Davis and Deven Sullivan were the next four highest tacklers on the team, combining for 272 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 12.5 TFLs, one forced fumbles, four interceptions and nine pass breakups.
BYRD THE WORD
Senior Dontez Byrd was a force last season, recording the best single-season receiving numbers in program history as he caught 74 passes for 933 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 6.7 catches and 84.8 yards per game as he finished second-team all-OVC a year ago.
SCOUTING THE FIGHTING LEATHERNECKS
Western Illinois finished 6-5 last season, including a 3-5 record in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. They defeated Eastern Illinois 38-21 in their season opener. WIU enters this season with a No. 25-ranking in the STATS Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll.
Last season, Steve McShane rushed for 917 yards and eight touchdowns on 182 carries, Sean McGuire passed for 2,914 yards and 20 touchdowns on 230-396-12 passing, and Lance Lenoir caught 76 passes for 1,093 yards and seven scores last season. Brett Taylor led the defense with 134 tackles, 8.5 for-loss, with four sacks and an interception. Of the four, only Lenoir is not on the 2017 roster.
Cookeville fans will recognize two names on the Fighting Leathernecks' roster. Redshirt freshman Victavious Johnson played two seasons as a Cookeville Cavalier for former Golden Eagle quarterback Jimmy Maynord, rushing for 1,922 yards and 26 touchdowns as he earned Tennessee Sports Writers Association all-state nods as a junior and senior.
Also on the WIU coaching staff is former Tech coach Doug Malone, who was the offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2005, then served as the interim head coach for the Golden Eagles in 2006 as head coach Mike Hennigan took a medical leave. Malone is currently the co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach for WIU.
For fans that can't be at the game, the contest will be aired locally on 98.5 KISS FM with Roger Ealey and Dylan Vazzano providing the call for the Golden Eagle Sports Network, as well as on WCTE and the OVC Digital Network with Tim Scruggs and Sam Brooks providing coverage.
Live stats will also be available on TTUsports.com.
The 98.5 KISS FM Tailgate Park will open at 3 p.m.
Special events for Thursday night's season opener includes First Tennessee Bank Poster Night, Communiversity Night and the annual Running of the Freshmen.
Season tickets for Tennessee Tech football are still on sale. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office or log on to TTUsports.com to order yours today.