Eastern Kentucky readies for football life in the ASUN Conference

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Stability has eluded the Eastern Kentucky football program in recent years.

EKU parted ways with former head coach Mark Elder in November 2019 after a 7-5 season, hiring former University of Kentucky quality control assistant Walt Wells — twice a former assistant coach at EKU — to take over the Colonels program in December 2019, just months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States.

What followed was a challenging 2020 offseason as the pandemic restricted the ability for Wells’ team to bond and for coaches to implement plays and schemes.

Then permanent change came, as EKU split from the Ohio Valley Conference’s spring football plans and opted to play as an independent in the fall. EKU Athletics Director Matt Roan then led the Colonels’ complete move out of the OVC — which EKU was a founding member of in 1948 — and into the ASUN Conference, which is sponsoring football for the first time.

This period of change led to Wells seeking guidance from his coaching mentors.

“It really helped me understand, as a new head coach, don’t be afraid to seek advice from your peers,” Wells said during ASUN Conference Media Day, held virtually July 28. “To talk to Mark (Stoops), to talk to Butch (Jones), who was at Alabama at that time, and to talk to other people throughout the profession that I had worked with coming up and just find out what they were doing and how they were handling situations so that we could be on the cutting edge of it.”

“It gave you good faith in the people that you worked with that they’re still going to help you.”

EKU now looks to build its foundation again in a new football conference.

This begins with the ASUN-WAC Challenge, a scheduling alliance between the ASUN Conference and the Western Athletic Conference that will allow for seven combined schools to be eligible for automatic qualification into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The challenge features Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin from the WAC and Central Arkansas, EKU and Jacksonville State from the ASUN.

The ASUN-WAC Challenge will use a single, round-robin format with each school playing three home and three road games. EKU’s final six regular-season games will comprise the challenge, beginning with a home game Oct. 9 against Abilene Christian.

The unique format allows EKU to play a marquee game Nov. 13, when the Colonels will travel to Huntsville, Texas, to play defending FCS national champion Sam Houston State.

“I think it’s made it a little bit more exciting for us as players to know that we’re going to have the opportunity to do something that we’ve never done here before,” junior safety Daulson Fitzpatrick said during ASUN Media Day.

“We love it. I mean, we’re not going down there to lose, we’re going down there to win a football game,” Dakota Allen, a redshirt junior who shifted from quarterback to tight end this offseason, said. “I know we’re super excited about our team and where we’re going.”

How far the Colonels can go largely depends on the health of redshirt sophomore quarterback Parker McKinney, who started the final two games in 2018, seven games in 2019 and the first six games of 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury to his right throwing shoulder.

Wells said that upon recovering from the injury, McKinney has improved his accuracy and anticipation under center.

“Last year it was kind of just the base stuff, because obviously we weren’t together. We were just trying to get into the most basic stuff for our offense that we could,” McKinney told the Herald-Leader. “This year they’re (the coaches) definitely expanding and adding different things in.”

In 19 total games at EKU, McKinney has completed 273 of his 465 pass attempts for 3,337 yards, with 23 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. McKinney has also averaged more than eight rushing attempts per game for his college career.

“He’s a quiet by nature young man, but he’s learning to use his personality and put it into his leadership in a way that he can affect people,” Wells said.

Another EKU player with the goal of improving leadership is redshirt junior linebacker Matthew Jackson, who was named an FCS All-America Second Team selection last season and an FCS Preseason All-America Third Team selection last month.

The Nashville native led the Colonels with 79 tackles in eight games last season, and said he wants to display an improved ability to play in one-on-one pass coverage this season.

“My biggest thing is probably letting them (younger players) know their role and letting them understand their role,” Jackson told the Herald-Leader. “The more you understand your role, the more you can play fast, play hard and play for one another on the team.”

These recent, long-lasting changes to EKU football were made with the goal of bringing football success back to Richmond.

EKU hasn’t made the FCS playoffs since 2014 and hasn’t won a postseason game since 1994.

Eastern Kentucky University football coach Walt Wells, bottom row center right, poses with linebacker Matthew Jackson (33) during a team picture during media day at Roy Kidd Stadium in Richmond, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Jackson was named to the FCS All-America Second Team after the 2020 season, and was an FCS Preseason All-America Third Team selection ahead of the 2021 season.
Eastern Kentucky University football coach Walt Wells, bottom row center right, poses with linebacker Matthew Jackson (33) during a team picture during media day at Roy Kidd Stadium in Richmond, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Jackson was named to the FCS All-America Second Team after the 2020 season, and was an FCS Preseason All-America Third Team selection ahead of the 2021 season.

Scouting report

Head coach: Walt Wells (second season).

Last season: 3-6 overall, played as an independent.

Returning starters: 17 (six on offense, nine on defense and two specialists).

Outlook: Change is the story at Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels’ first season playing in the ASUN Conference comes in Wells’ second season as head coach, but his first season occurred during what hopefully was the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, a situation that limited team cohesion and scheme installation with a new coaching staff.

Team bonding and a deeper playbook means we will get a better feel for what Wells’ EKU program can offer in the 2021 season, not to mention the existence of a more traditional schedule. EKU played nine total games in 2020, but three of them were road contests against FBS teams. The Colonels have just one game against an FBS team this season.

Question marks: Pivotal to Eastern Kentucky’s success will be health at quarterback, which was a problem last season. McKinney will be the team’s starter again to begin 2021. Allen, who filled in at quarterback in EKU’s most memorable game of 2020 — a last-second win over a ranked Central Arkansas team — shifted to tight end this offseason and will look to add size to the Colonels passing attack.

Wells also said during EKU’s media day in August that the team will begin the season with a running back by committee setup. This rotation will include Purdue transfer Da’Joun Hewitt and second-year freshman Jeriah Hightower, who led the state of Kentucky in rushing as a high school senior at Madisonville in 2019.

Game of the year: The penultimate game of the 2021 season sees EKU travel to Huntsville, Texas, to play Sam Houston State, the defending FCS national champions. The game could hold major implications for which school wins the ASUN-WAC Challenge and receives automatic qualification into the FCS playoffs.

2021 EKU football schedule

Home games in all capital letters. Kickoff times and TV details to be announced later, unless noted.

Sept. 4: At Western Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPN Plus

Sept. 11: At Louisville, 7 p.m., ACC Network Extra

Sept. 18: INDIANA ST., 7 p.m., ESPN Plus

Sept. 25: AUSTIN PEAY, 3 p.m., ESPN Plus

Oct. 2: TARLETON ST., 3 p.m., ESPN Plus

Oct. 9: ABILENE CHRISTIAN, 6 p.m., ESPN Plus

Oct. 16: At Central Arkansas, 5 p.m.

Oct. 30: LAMAR, 2 p.m., ESPN Plus

Nov. 6: At Stephen F. Austin, 5 p.m.

Nov. 13: At Sam Houston St., 1 p.m.

Nov. 20: JACKSONVILLE ST., 2 p.m., ESPN Plus