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Sanders' Bucs about to get to work

Joe Avento • Aug 3, 2018 at 8:01 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Randy Sanders’ first preseason camp as a college football head coach begins Friday, and his East Tennessee State team has less than a month before opening with a home game against Mars Hill on Sept. 1.

In the coming weeks, Sanders and his new staff will try to figure out how to improve on the team’s 4-7 record of last season. The Bucs were 2-6 in the tough Southern Conference and pundits apparently don’t expect them to be any better, picking them to finish eighth in the nine-team league.

At this time last year, Sanders was Florida State’s offensive coordinator facing the task of trying to solve Alabama’s defense in the first game. Now he’s running the show for a Football Championship Subdivision team, and his offensive expertise is expected to breathe some life into an ETSU offense that had become predictable and stagnant.

Some things to watch as the Bucs prepare for the coming season:

RUSHING GAME

With the hope that Sanders’ arrival will signal an exciting passing attack, keep in mind that teams do have to run the ball to be successful. One-dimensional offenses are easier to stop.

ETSU had no ground game last year and that surely will be a point of emphasis when camp starts. Only three FCS teams gained fewer yards per carry last year. The Bucs averaged 2.07 yards per rush, better than only Stetson (1.8), Lafayette (1.67) and Mississippi Valley State (-.38).

If the rushing attack is that limited again, one of two things can happen. ETSU can either suffer the consequences like it did last year or change the game plan to hide the deficiency.

Sanders has said he won’t make his team try to do something it can’t, so if running the ball continues to be a problem, we could expect to see more passing.

HELP ON THE HORIZON?

Obviously the offensive line will have to improve for the running game to get better. But there seems to be hope on the horizon in Quay Holmes, a redshirt freshman running back.

Holmes, at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, looked good in the spring. He’s physical and elusive and adds an element to the offense the team hasn’t seen since the program was resurrected.

Whether he can perform against opposing teams like he did in intrasquad action will be the big question.

QUARTERBACK BATTLE

When we last saw the team in action during the spring, two quarterbacks — incumbent Austin Herink and Temple transfer Logan Marchi — were battling for the starting job. Both looked capable at times during the spring. Neither outshone the other to the point of being the odds-on favorite to seize the starting position.

Herink has had three seasons at the helm and has been a solid starter, performing well when given time to throw.

Marchi’s body of work, although smaller, is impressive. In one of his seven starts for Temple, he threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame.

It’ll be interesting to see how this battle materializes over the next few weeks. With Sanders’ track record of developing quarterbacks, this could become a position of strength regardless of who is starting.

DEFENSE CAN’T REST

With a solid front seven, the defense has a chance to be one of the team’s strongest points.

ETSU ranked third in the Southern Conference in total yards allowed last season, giving up 345.8 yards per game. Even though they ranked eighth in scoring defense at 28.5 points per game allowed, the Bucs allowed just about a touchdown more per game than Samford, which led the league by allowing 22.2 points a game.

Junior defensive end Nasir Player has been touted as the top NFL prospect on the ETSU roster.

EXPECTATIONS

If they get better at a couple of positions and find the right answer to some of these questions, the Bucs have a chance to do much better than the eighth-place finish predicted for them.

Regardless of the win and loss total, they should be fun to watch.

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