The 2001 spring season may be the most important version since fourth-year head coach Paul Hamilton arrived in Johnson City. This spring, like every spring, the Bucs coaching staff must decide how to fill voids left by graduating seniors. However, this time some questions loom very prominently over Buccaneer camp.
Gone is the most prolific offensive player in -- not only ETSU football -- but in Southern Conference history. Quarterback Todd Wells, a four-year starter for the Bucs, leaves a legacy tough to match. A 2000 honorable mention All-America, Wells is the Southern Conferences all-time total offense leader after accounting for 8,711 yards in 43 career games. The 1997 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Wells holds several ETSU records, including single-season passing yards (2,624 in 2000). Who will fill his shoes is perhaps the hottest questions surrounding the Tri-Cities these days.
Not only is the offensive catalyst gone, but six defensive starters have exhausted their eligibility. Bookend corners Denario Smalls and Keyandre Fenn, nose guard David Johnson, inside linebackers Rahim El Amin and Cory Bolden, safety Keydrick Gordon and outside linebacker Russ Lindgren have left behind powerful expectations for their replacements.
I expect this spring to be very competitive throughout our entire team, Hamilton said. I am very encouraged by the amount of enthusiasm and optimism heading into practice. There hasnt been this much excitement in a long time.
Hamilton knows this spring will be vitally important in teaching the system and improving players that didnt gain much game experience last season. With the addition of a top-notch recruiting class, the talent to win is here. The challenge lies in aligning the pieces of the puzzle for ETSUs third consecutive winning season.
The following is a position-by-position analysis of the 2001 Buccaneer squad heading into the spring season:
Over the last four years there was one name synonomous with ETSU football: Todd Wells. A starter since his freshman season, Wells delighted Buc fans with a blend of running and passing that troubled all the defenses he faced. Against VMI last season, he became the first quarterback in program history to throw for more than 200 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in a single game.
For the first time in his ETSU career, head coach Paul Hamilton must look to another face to call the signals. Last seasons backup, senior Matt Wilhjelm, is a steady player that understands the offense. Redshirt freshman Dashannon Gamble is a confident, athletic general that turned heads on the practice field last season. Entering the program this season, and immediately competing for the starting nod, is junior Jatavis Sanders. Sanders played his first two seasons at N.C. State before transferring last year.
It will be a top priority to establish our starting quarterback for next fall, Hamilton said. I am very pleased with the way Wilhjelm has progressed both mentally and physically. Gamble is a strong competitor with quick feet and a strong arm. I am enthused about Sanders athleticism. He has been around major college football and understands what it takes to win.
The continued development of sophomore Corey Carter should make the Bucs a dangerous ground team. A shifty runner with deceptive speed, Carter moves from a fullback position to the tailback spot. Adding lightning quick speed from the backfield is sophomore Andrew Nuckolls. In the season finale against Charleston Southern, Nuckolls gained 51 yards on six carries and scored three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing). The Bucs will also look to senior Kareem Coffin for production.
Returning at the fullback spot is junior Scott Carter. Carter was slowed by injuries last season but should return to his pounding ways. Former quarterback Nick Spearman has bulked up in the offseason and will see time at fullback.
Corey Carter can be as good as he wants to be, Hamilton said. Nuckolls will be exciting to watch this spring and the return of Scott Carter will solidify our running efforts.
One area this team wont have to worry about is the wide-out position. Despite the loss of dependable Corey Martin, the Bucs have a formidable receiving corps that might be the best in the league.
Leading the group is Cecil Moore. An All-Southern Conference performer, Moore led the Bucs in receiving -- 58 catches, 883 yards and seven touchdowns -- last fall. His most outstanding game of the season came at Chattanooga with 12 receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
Speedster Charvin Clark returns to the program after missing last season for academic reasons. He hopes to improve on an already successful career. Sophomore Tim Turner and junior Mike Rader will also battle for starting spots.
At tight end, senior Nick Hendrickson looks to reestablish himself as a possession receiver to complement his blocking. Allen Johnson will also see time at tight end.
The wide receiver position is one of the strengths of this football team, Hamilton said. Moore has the capability to be one of the top receivers in I-AA football. All of the other members of this corps will also contribute.
Four of the five starters from last years offensive line return for this season. The only regular lost is left guard Victor Hooks who earned All-Southern Conference honors last fall. In addition to all the experience, Leon Buchanan returns after missing last season with a foot injury.
With the emergence of Jeff Pierce, Chip Pearson moves back to his more familiar tackle spot. Senior Josh Kerr moves to guard to fill the vacancy. Zach Fussell will also see time on the offensive line.
Our offensive line has a lot of maturity, Hamilton said. We have moved some of our younger, more athletic players to the offensive line to bolster the group.
This spring will help form the linebacking position, but may not finalize the starting job because of a strong class joining the team this fall. Junior college transfers and talented rookies are on the horizon, but for now Hamilton and his staff must conentrate on making a solid group more experienced and ready for game situations.
All-Southern Conference inside linebackers Rahim El Amin and Cory Bolden have left quite a gap. Returning players Mike Cornegay, Andrew Foerster and Bobby Guarino showed promise in limited reps last fall. They will battle with incoming players next fall, but during the spring they will see the majority of time.
The outside linebacking corps will also be unsettled. Lee Neisz may earn another year of eligibility because of a medical hardship from two seasons ago. Brad Stubbs saw extensive action last year and will continue to develop his strength and speed.
Helping on the outside will be two players moved from the offensive side of the ball. Sophomores Robby Hardt and Scott Brumet are tall players that have the agility to stop the run and defend the pass in the flat.
North Carolina transfer Marco Bryant will get a long look on the outside. He has not recovered fully from shoulder surgery and it may be awhile before he is 100 percent.
Our challenge during the spring is to build depth at the linebacker position, Hamilton said. We may not be able to distinguish starters because of our signees.
Similar to the linebacking corps, the secondary is young and inexperienced The exception is All-Conference strong safety Ocasio Cofield. A tall, imposing defensive back, Cofield can dominate a game from the secondary.
The free safety position will be one of the best contests this spring. Montreal Harkley and Troy Carter both played well last season and are poised to assume the starting role.
Last season, ETSU had perhaps the best cornerback-combo in the Southern Conferece. Denario Smalls and Keyandre Fenn were three-year starters that shutdown the oppositions passing attack. This year, two players with no game experience will begin spring practice at the top of the depth chart.
Perhaps the best athlete on the team, Allen Davis joins the squad after missing last season for academic reasons. He is a tall corner with exceptional range. On the other corner will be sophomore Tony Tiller. An incredible athlete, Tiller spent last season as one of the Bucs most dangerous receivers. Hamilton has not ruled out the possibility of Tiller playing on both sides of the ball.
We are very young in the defensive secondary, Hamilton said. Going against some of the best receivers in the Southern Conference everyday in practice will help these players develop.
Two of the Bucs top freshman last season were defensive linemen, Travis Williams and Brandon Calton. Williams is one of the strongest players ever to participate in Buc football. Calton has a nose for the ball and is very athletic for his size.
Kai Shreckenberg, Andrew Simmons and Frank Hopper have started numerous games during their careers. They are experienced, talented players, that allow the coaching staff to rotate with confidence. Mark Dukes will also be a factor after fully recovering from a knee injury he suffered two years ago.
Bill Fells will see time as a redshirt freshman. Sophomore Chad Hyder moves to the defensive side of the ball after spending last season as an offensive lineman.
We have more depth at the defensive line position this year than I have ever had at ETSU, Hamilton said. We finally have the size on the defensive front that we want.
ETSU enjoys a luxury not often encountered in collegiate football -- all of the kickers from last years squad return for the spring. Place kicker Con Chellis has continued to develop and should enjoy a stellar senior season.
Punter Aaron Bass progressed throughout his rookie campaign. Adam Howell returns for his third year as the long snapper. One of the best kick returners in the SoCon, sophomore Andrew Nuckolls will wreak havic on opposing kick coverage.
With everybody coming back I see nothing but progress in our special teams, Hamilton said. Having Adam Howell back as our long snapper helps me sleep at night.