Sanders, ETSU’s new head coach, was brought in to take the program to the next level after Carl Torbush got things started after the school brought the program back following a 12-year hiatus.
It all starts at 7:30 p.m. at Greene Stadium.
“It definitely feels more real than it did eight or nine months ago,” said Sanders, who was hired in mid-December. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
The Bucs went 4-7 last year and, with what is expected to be a very stiff defense leading the way, they’re hoping for quite a bit of improvement.
Starting against Mars Hill, an NCAA Division II team, should be a good start, especially with Tennessee on the horizon next week.
“I tell our team, it doesn’t matter what the name on the jersey is,” Sanders said. “We have to prepare for each team the same. Hopefully, we can take a mature approach, and whether it’s Mars Hill, Tennessee, VMI, Furman or whoever is next on our schedule, we have to get ourselves prepared to play the best game we can play. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Mars Hill, which plays in the South Atlantic Conference, is coming off a 3-7 season.
“Offensively, they're a similar style to us, so I think that helps our defensive preparation,” Sanders said.
The ETSU defense was ranked third in the Southern Conference in yards allowed last year and has stalwarts such as linebacker Dylan Weigel and defensive end Nasir Player back for another year.
“Our expectation is to be No. 1 this season,” defensive tackle Chris Bouyer said. “At practice, we emphasize that during our drills. We have turnover drills and we really emphasize getting to the football. We are just trying to do what Coach Sanders said: Play like our hair is on fire.
“Everybody trusts each other. We really trust the people behind us, and they trust what is in front of them.”
The Bucs will be featuring a new quarterback. Temple transfer Logan Marchi takes over for Austin Herink, who started every game for the past three seasons. Herink, a senior, will be the backup.
Redshirt freshman running back Quay Holmes is expected to help improve what was a dismal running game last season. Holmes’ production, of course, will be determined by the play of the offensive line, which was much maligned over the past two seasons.
The team has been working hard installing Sanders’ offense and this will be the first time it’s tested against a real opponent.
“Offensively, we are understanding much more about what we're trying to accomplish, how we’re trying to do things, what I expect, what the staff wants and how we want it to look,” Sanders said.