Steering away from the conference expansion talk for a second, here’s the second part of the Austin Peay opponent preview. If you missed the first part Friday, you can read it here.
To the questions …
AB: What kind of tandem can quarterback Jake Ryan and wide receiver Devin Stark be? And can Ryan continue to make the same kind of strides he did from his sophomore to junior year?
LT: “This will be the fourth year playing together, so they should both know each other’s capabilities and tendencies by now. At 6-3, 206, Stark is a guy that can beat you deep and climb the ladder to win jump balls, like he did on an impressive touchdown catch over a well-positioned but helpless defensive back in the spring game. The biggest knock on him is probably his hands, which aren’t always as sure as coach Rick Christophel would like them to be on his No. 1 receiver.
“Ryan is out to prove that he’s the guy who threw eight touchdowns to two interceptions in his first three league games last season – including a win against co-league champs Eastern Kentucky – rather than the one who had just three touchdowns to eight interceptions in his other three full OVC games. In his defense, he was only at about 70 percent in those last two games because of a knee injury that forced him to miss two and half games. To really get to the next level, Ryan will have to make smarter decisions and find a way to hit the open deep receivers he consistently missed this spring.”
AB: How will the Governors go about replacing second-team All-Ohio Valley Conference running back Ryan White? Did missing most of the spring because of a hamstring issue have a big effect on Wes Kitts’ presumed hold on the position?
LT: “The Govs don’t have anyone with the power/speed combination of White, but they do have a powerful, freight-train type back in 240-pound Reco Williams and an elusive, quick back in 5-3 (not a typo) Ean Pemberton, who provided several highlights while rushing for more than 100 yards in the spring game. Both of those guys took full advantage of some unexpected opportunities to show their value this spring. The most balanced runner, however, is still Kitts, and he definitely still enters the fall as No. 1 on the depth chart. But his injury this spring will only heighten the nagging questions about the durability of the compact, well-built 6-0, 211-pound senior.”
AB: What are the biggest areas of improvement for a defense that ranked 104th in the Football Championship Subdivision last year after giving up over 400 yards a game?
“I hate to use coachspeak here, but the most valuable addition to this defense is probably experience, as it comes back pretty much intact with the exception of Amius Smith, who will be tough to replace at strong safety. The defense does have a couple of X-factors in cornerback J.J. Rutledge and defensive end Malcolm Goines. Rutledge, a hometown kid who went to Navy for a semester before deciding military life wasn’t for him, may be the fastest player on the team. Goines is a juco transfer who figures to get a shot at contributing immediately, and he told me he’s working hard this offseason with the goal of getting ‘two sacks against Virginia Tech.’ Dream big.”
AB: Safety Antwaun Majors, last year’s leading tackler, seems poised for a big season. Is that the consensus around the team? And who else might have a big year on defense?
LT: “It’s never hard to find Majors on the football field, and not just because of his long, Ricky Williams-esque dreadlocks. The senior free safety is the unquestioned leader of the defense on and off the field, and no one is more active. He said all spring that what the defense really needs is more big plays, and he delivered in the spring game when he intercepted a tipped pass and took it back about 80 yards for the touchdown. He’s the top candidate to be the play-maker the team so desperately needs, but linebackers Darrick Dillard and Josh Carroll are also worth watching, while defensive end Earnest Smith is probably the best player on the defensive line.”
AB: Austin Peay hasn’t won a conference title since 1977 and has had two winning seasons since 1985 (one, a 7-4 mark in 2007, under current head coach Rick Christophel). Where do the Governors fit in the Ohio Valley Conference discussion this season?
LT: “This is a program that only just returned to scholarship football in 2006, so Christophel and his staff would probably be among the first to tell you that they’re still in rebuilding mode, where the most important thing is improvement from year to year. It’s hard to see Austin Peay rising up out of the lower third in the league, though the Govs have pulled off some surprises in Christophel’s tenure. His gameplan revolves around old-fashioned power football and shortening the game – the Govs led the OVC in T.O.P. last year despite finishing near the bottom in every significant offensive and defensive category. It’s a strategy that occasionally works for a team that faces superior talent most of the time it takes the field.”
Final thoughts: Virginia Tech should win this game and win it big. Austin Peay isn’t just an FCS team. It’s a pretty low-level FCS team, one that just recently began playing teams from the FBS regularly.
You never say never, because the James Madison game is still fresh in peoples’ minds from a few years ago. And coming off five days rest again because of the Labor Day night game against Georgia Tech will make for a short week, but the Hokies should be plenty wary of any kind of letdown after what happened a few years ago. Expect this one to be a comfortable win.