2019 Ohio Valley Conference spring outlook
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - Jacksonville State left the door in the Ohio Valley Conference open just enough last season that opponents could see the light inside.
While the Gamecocks captured a fifth straight outright title, their 36-game conference winning streak ended against Southeast Missouri and the title race was competitive into November.
It's a next year, of course, and Jacksonville State appears to be coming back stronger, so the rest of the OVC must reload as well.
Following is a look across the OVC with spring practices underway in college football:
HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth (first season; 95-59 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 3-5 OVC (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 14-April 11 (spring game is April 6)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: With Will Healy off to Charlotte, Hudspeth inherits an experienced team which just two years ago went 8-4 overall and 7-1 in the OVC. Everybody's adjusting to the new coaching staff, of course, but it's key for Hudspeth to replace three starters on both lines. Left tackle Kyle Anderton returns from injury after playing in only four games.
NOTABLE: Once again, the Governors have depth in the offensive skills positions, including quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall and running back Kentel Williams, the latter whom ranked third in the FCS in all-purpose yards per game. Defensive end Jaison Williams is a two-time All-OVC first-team selection.
HEAD COACH: Adam Cushing (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 3-8 overall, 3-5 OVC (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 20
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (3 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Cushing spent the last 15 seasons at Northwestern, so his offense figures to take on a multiple look like the Wildcats. They're looking for more playmakers after losing wide receiver Alexander Hollins and running back Isaiah Johnson.
NOTABLE: EIU only made the FCS playoffs once under former coach Kim Dameron (2015). There will be a lot of rebuilding on offense, but quarterback is a deep position with Scott Gilkey Jr., who made five starts in 2017, back to join Johnathan Brantley and Harry Woodbery, who combined for 27 touchdown passes last year.
HEAD COACH: Mark Elder (14-19, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 7-4 overall, 5-2 (3rd)
SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 27-April 6
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: With the graduation of three of the top four cornerbacks, the Colonels have to fill an immediate need. Conversely, they should be able to pass the ball well with quarterback Parker McKinney finishing the season strong and a lot of depth to sort out, including Oregon State transfer Conor Blount.
NOTABLE: With 50 of the 61 players on last season's final depth chart returning, the Colonels are highly optimistic heading into Elder's fourth season. It's more of where the tradition-rich program is accustomed to being. To be in contention for a playoff bid, they'll need to answer a tough road schedule.
HEAD COACH: John Grass (52-12, five seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 7-1 OVC (1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 11-April 18
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The OVC kingpin has to replace key players on the offensive (B.J. Autry and Tyler Scozzaro) and defensive (Randy Robinson and Connor Christian) lines.
NOTABLE: Even in a "down" season, the Gamecocks still finished with a No. 10 ranking. The offense could be the OVC's best, led by quarterback Zerrick Cooper and also returning leading rusher Jaelen Greene and wideouts Josh Pearson and Jamari Hester. Safety Marlon Bridges was first-team All-OVC despite not being at 100 percent last season. Kelvin Sigler was recently elevated to defensive coordinator.
HEAD COACH: Mitch Stewart (15-29, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 5-3 OVC (4th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 27
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Coming off the most successful season of the Stewart era, the Racers have to decide the direction at quarterback and whether redshirt sophomore Preston Rice, the backup to Drew Anderson last season, or somebody else will take over as the starter.
NOTABLE: Stewart earned a three-year contract extension after last season. Running back D.J. Penick, last year's leading rusher, transferred from the program, but the Racers can turn to Rodney Castille or Justin Conner, a junior college transfer who was injured in fall camp.
SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE
HEAD COACH: Tom Matukewicz (24-34, five seasons; 25-34 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 6-2 OVC (2nd)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 18-April 13
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (5 offense/10 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Not only did the offense lose running back Marquis Terry, the OVC offensive defensive player of the year, but also four starters on the line. Junior Mark Robinson and sophomore Zion Custis will share carries and Matukewicz made linemen a priority in the recruiting class.
NOTABLE: Unlike the offense, the defense is in good hands with 10 returning starters, led by 2018 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award winner Zach Hall at inside linebacker. The Redhawks notched their first FCS playoff triumph in their first winning season since 2010.
HEAD COACH: Rod Reed (53-47, nine seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-5 overall, 3-4 (5th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 11-April 6
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Who wasn't injured last season is a better question than who was injured - 28 players in only a nine-game season (there were two weather cancelations). Quarterbacks Demry Croft, Michael Hughes and Cameron Rosendahl all earned wins last season and will be seniors in 2019 (unless Croft pursues a medical redshirt for last year).
NOTABLE: The many injuries mean the Tigers have many experienced players, including leading rusher Te'Kendrick Robinson, leading receiver Chris Rowland and All-OVC cornerback Dajour Nesbeth. Christion Abercrombie, who continues to recover from a life-threatening brain injury suffered in a game last season, has visited campus and may return to classes this fall.
HEAD COACH: Dewayne Alexander (1-10, one season; 42-43 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 1-7 OVC (9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 5
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Golden Eagles will remain a young team and need to focus on improved execution in Alexander's second season. The youth movement includes quarterback Bailey Fisher, the OVC's freshman of the year. The senior losses include long-range kicker Nick Madonia, which is big.
NOTABLE: Inspiring linebacker Josh Poplar likely could have received an NCAA medical waiver for another season of eligibility, but didn't pursue it. The Golden Eagles could have used him after allowing 46.1 points per game, the second-lowest average in the FCS.
HEAD COACH: Jason Simpson (80-68, 13 seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 2-6 OVC (8th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 4
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The defense must be reworked following the loss of all three starting linebackers and three of the starters in the secondary.
NOTABLE: The Skyhawks had not finished below .500 in the OVC under Simpson until last season. No. 1 quarterback Dresser Winn will miss the bulk of spring practice due to a shoulder injury and hopes to make it back for the 2019 season. Joe Hudson stepped in for Winn down the stretch and returns as a fifth-year senior.
Updated March 4, 2019