Safe to play: EKU set to open season against ex-rival Marshall

EKU Athletics Photo

Eastern receiver Keyion Dixon celebrates a catch during a preseason scrimmage last month. The Colonels open the season Saturday at Marshall.

RICHMOND, Ky. (KT) — Eastern Kentucky University coach Walt Wells wasn’t satisfied when the Ohio Valley Conference told member schools they could play only four games this season. He wanted more and pieced together an eight-game schedule that begins this weekend.

“If you can play four, why can’t you play eight (games)? Why can’t you play 10 (games)?” Wells said earlier this week. “The Southeastern Conference is playing 10 (games) and their blood is the same as our guys’ blood. … I think our bubble is safe and I think our kids have bought into that. … I felt like it was safe for our kids to do and, if it became unsafe, we would have to make adjustments. So far, knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate that everything has been going in the right direction. We needed to play football in the fall. That’s what’s best for our team and our university and I don’t see how (playing football) can happen in the spring.”

The Colonels will open the season Saturday at Marshall in a 1 p.m. kickoff that will be televised nationally on ESPN. The two traditional FCS powerhouse programs met yearly from 1985-1992 and most recently two years ago when the Thundering Herd dealt Eastern a 32-16 setback in Huntington.

“They're a good football team,” Wells said. “They’ve got good depth, great players and they’re hungry. They’re ready to get back at it. They have a conference title they can play for still and I’m sure they’re looking forward to getting in there and getting after it and get ready to go. When they blow the whistle, it’s going to be 11-on-11 and we need to go out there and make sure we take advantage of every situation.”

Wells, a former assistant coach under Roy Kidd from 1997-2002 and later an assistant for one year under Dean Hood in 2015, spent the past two years as a quality control assistant under Mark Stoops at Kentucky.

Eastern finished 7-5 last season, while Marshall went 8-5 and lost to Central Florida in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl last December.

Wells said his squad gained “an appreciation for everything that we have and have been given and football” during the pandemic that began last March.

“When you’re around something and you’ve done it for a long time and even though you love it, you may take advantage of it," he said. “The absence (of football) from spring ball, to the grind of the workouts to the camaraderie in the locker room … little things like that. You take advantage of that when it’s the norm, but when it’s not the norm, you miss all of that.”

Wells said the biggest challenge during the pandemic was to get to know his team from top to bottom.

“That part of it has been the most difficult thing for me and for the kids,” he said. “We’ve got to build that trust in each other and I think through this camp period that we’ve had, we’ve had an opportunity to start that.”

Despite the uncertainly surrounding the season during fall camp, the players remained focused on the task at hand and trusted the staff’s judgment on a weekly basis.

“It was definitely stressful,” Eastern offensive lineman Tucker Schroeder said. “Coach Wells did a great job of keeping us prepared and he kept us updated. Anytime something happened, he kept us updated and we kept going through the protocols, rolling with the punches. Every week was different. … we trusted the process and we ended getting a great schedule. We couldn’t be more excited.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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