BARBOURVILLE — Progress is a process. It takes time to build a masterpiece, but head coach Zak Willis believes the Union College football team is on building something memorable.
“We’re excited about where we’re headed. We just need to get out on to the field,” Willis said. “The word is ‘cautiously optimistic.’ We know we’re better than we were, but with the conference we play in, you can improve but your record may not improve much.”
The Bulldogs went 1-9 overall and 1-5 in the Mid-South Conference East Division last year in Willis’ first season at the helm.
The season will kick off the season on Saturday against Warner University (Florida) at Williamson Stadium. Game time is set for 1:30 p.m.
Union showed flashes of greatness, especially on offense, but keeping the opponents out of the end zone proved to be a challenge. Union averaged 30.5 points per game but surrendered 50.6 points per game.
Contributing to Union’s struggles last season were the youth and inexperience. The Bulldogs were forced to play a high number of underclassmen. Union is still young with only nine seniors on the roster this season, but the team is far from inexperienced.
“We’re obviously going to be very young; we’ve got very few seniors. But this team seems to be really smart, got a lot of good kids on the team, trying to do things the right way,” Willis said. “It’s just going to take time to build the program like we want it, but we’ve set a foundation that can be really good.”
The Bulldog offense put up respectable numbers last year. In addition to scoring 305 total points, Union averaged 391.9 yards per game as it gained 2,314 through the air and 1,605 on the ground.
Junior quarterback Chandler Whittlesey will once again lead the team from the pocket. A season ago, Whittlesey tallied 2,420 yards in total offense (2,009 passing and 411 rushing). Completing 134-of-252 passes, he threw for 16 touchdowns while running for seven more scores. Whittlesey ranked 10th in the NAIA in total yards per game (268.9), 17th in passing yards per game (223.2), 23rd in total offensive yards (2,420) and 31st in total passing yards (2,009).
“This is his team. There is no doubt about that,” Willis said of his signal-caller. “Chandler is a very unique person. He’s very spiritual and a good Christian kid, who is a tremendous competitor and is almost a perfectionist. He can do some incredible things, but it’s his character that sets him apart.”
Looking to protect Whittlesey will be a stout offensive line, which has an average height and weight of 6-foot-4 and 301 pounds.
Three seniors will anchor the line for the Bulldogs with Steven Bailes at left tackle, Mike Livingston at left guard, and Cliff Burns at right tackle. A transfer from Western Kentucky, this is Burns’ first season as a Bulldog. Sophomore Kermit Gibbs will snap the ball at center.
The final starting stop at left guard is still up for grabs, Willis noted, but freshman Colt Bedenbaugh currently has the edge with sophomore William Collier close behind.
In the backfield, LaVance Anderson is back for another season after surprising everyone with his performance last year. Anderson spent two seasons roaming centerfield for the Union baseball team before hitting the gridiron for the first time since high school last season. The 6-foot, 229-pound back led the team with 644 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 151 yards.
Backing him up will be red-shirt freshman Keith Neal and senior Garfield Dandridge. Willis added freshman Zach Cozad could see some time as well.
Zack Martin is back for his junior campaign at fullback. A solid blocking back, Martin can pound out the extra yard when needed. In 17 career games, he has 97 yards rushing on 30 attempts with two touchdowns.
“Really happy with how we were running the ball in the scrimmage. And as you know, if you have a great running game, your passing game is even more explosive,” said Willis.
One of the biggest question marks is who will Whittlesey be throwing the ball to. The Bulldogs lost a number of their top receivers, but they do return senior Kyle Keplinger. In his first season at Union, Keplinger hauled in 26 passes for 489 yards and seven touchdowns.
Union also returns Jalen Ashby, Decorwyn Dunnaway and D.J. Reynolds, but the trio combined to haul in a combined five passes for 45 yards. Ashby, though, showed his brilliance returning kicks last season in compiling 636 yards and two touchdowns on 28 kickoff returns.
Willis added the team will look to freshmen Brad Elkins, Kevin Eichelberger and Darian Patterson for help at wide receiver.
“They are very talented and extremely smart. Their development will be key to how well our passing game goes,” the Bulldog coach noted.
Union’s offensive attack will be largely based on how well the defense is playing. For example, the Bulldogs were one of the top teams in the nation last year in fourth-down conversions as they were 15-of-25 (60 percent) in those situations. Yet, Willis noted going for it on fourth down was out of necessity the majority of the time.
“We knew we couldn’t stop anyone defensively because we had so much attrition,” Willis added. “This year, hopefully, we can be a little more conservative on offense because our defense can stop people.”
But until the defense has proven itself, expect the Bulldogs to run the football and mix in some play-action passes to control the tempo and clock.
There are still a lot of unknowns with the Bulldog defense as numerous new faces populate the depth chart. Yet, Willis likes what he has seen from the defense thus far in camp.
“We’re really optimistic, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “We are nowhere near we want to be, but we’re a lot better than we were.”
A pair of junior college transfers will headline the defensive line. Josh Rocker and Serge Vita will man the defensive end positions. Rocker is a red-shirt sophomore coming from Iowa Central College, while Vita is a junior from Pasadena City College (California).
Backing them up will be juniors Derrick Greene and John Hill. Greene played in nine games last season and compiled 21 total stops with 2.0 going for a loss of 7 yards, while Hill notched 30 total tackles with 3.5 for a loss and 2.0 sacks.
At defensive tackle will be red-shirt freshman Charles Wilkins with Harley Goins, a converted offensive lineman, backing him up.
Senior Josh Kulp is penciled in to start at nose guard with freshman Chris Helton backing him up. Kulp saw action in seven games in 2014, amassing 14 tackles.
Union returns its top two leading tacklers in senior Jake Johnston and sophomore Jake Averhart. Johnston, the team’s middle linebacker, posted 101 total tackles in 2014 – tying him for 11th most by a Bulldog in a season. Averhart followed with 79 stops.
The duo will be joined by freshman Dallas Baxter.
Backing those three up will be DeShay Averhart, Ryan Coleman and Jerrian Gilmore. Only Coleman saw action last season, appearing in five games and recording four tackles.
In the secondary, Doug Jeter and Juwel Laguerre are the team’s starting cornerbacks. Sixth on the team in tackles, Jeter posted 40 total sops with 2.0 for a loss and 1.0 sack to go with two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Laguerre appeared in only two games last season.
Will Reynolds will be the strong safety with Curtis Yates being the free safety. In 2014, Reynolds had 31 total tackles with Yates helping out with 13.
Willis added that sophomore Kenneth Cauley and freshmen Desmond Leak, Jackson Tipton and Seth Nichols will see significant time in the secondary as well.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can get in there and play for us,” Willis said of the depth of the defense. “They are still young, but we are happy with the foundation that’s been laid. We just have to build on it.”
Special teams looks to be a solid component of the Bulldogs’ arsenal with Keplinger and Jeter tabbed to return punts while Ashby and Laguerre will handle the kickoff duties. Keplinger averaged 9.8 yards per punt return last season, and Ashby averaged 22.7 yards per kick return and earned MSC Special Teams Player of the Week honors once.
Alex Sigmon will once again take care of the placekicking responsibilities. A junior, Sigmon has made 13 career field goals and is 59-of-67 on PATs. Freshman Bradley Boone will handle the punting duties.
After the season opener on Saturday, Union will have an open week before diving into the MSC competition. The Bulldogs will host Campbellsville University on Sept. 19 before opening MSC East play at University of the Cumberlands on Sept. 26.
The remaining dates at Williamson Stadium include Oct. 3 against Lindsey Wilson College, Oct. 24 versus Kentucky Christian University and Nov. 7 against Bluefield College (Virginia). Homecoming is set for Oct. 24.
Union will hit the road on Oct. 10 to play Bethel University (Tennessee), Oct. 17 to visit Georgetown College, Oct. 31 to take on University of Pikeville and Nov. 14 to close out the season at Faulkner University (Alabama).