As Charleston coach Pat Kirkland watches his team executing the systems he put in place this spring, he has one thought repeating in his mind - what a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, the Golden Eagles were just getting acclimated with first-year head coach Kirkland and vice versa. The transition took a bit longer than anyone would've probably hoped, as UC stumbled out to a 0-5 start before turning it around to the tune of a 5-1 mark down the stretch.
It's that late surge of momentum that Kirkland says his team is riding heading into tonight's spring game, which will begin at 7 p.m. at University of Charleston Stadium.
"The big thing is that last year at this time, I was still learning names," Kirkland said. "The guys were learning new schemes, a new coaching staff, and a new tempo. Now we're past that. We came in and started building from where we left off in the fall. It's been a much smoother transition and we are so much further ahead than where we were at this time last year."
Familiarity should be rampant in the Golden Eagles camp this year as the team lost just a handful of seniors from last season and return 16-of-22 starters.
Among those in the long list of returners are the vast majority of UC's skill players, including junior quarterback Maurice Leak and senior running back Jordan Roberts.
The duo spearheaded the best rushing attack in the West Virginia Conference last season. Roberts led the league with 1,430 yards (130 per game) on the ground while Leak added 575 rushing yards (52.3 per game), good enough for eighth-best.
Roberts also led the league in scoring (108 points), touchdowns (18), and all-purpose yardage (2,274).
But Roberts has been a non-participant in spring practice and won't go tonight as he has been sidelined with mononucleosis. Kirkland said his tailback would be fine by fall and could go tonight if it were a game, but the coaching staff has decided to shut him down.
The good side of that has been the emergence of sophomore running back C.J. Stallworth, who Kirkland said has been one of the most impressive players in the spring.
"I've been pleasantly surprised with C.J. Stallworth," Kirkland said. "He's kind of taken the reins over with Jordan out. He's just a big, physical, athletic kid. It was tough to evaluate him in the fall from day one because he was hurt in August. He never really got healthy unttil Week 7 or 8, and by then we were rolling and had things established. I'm really excited about him."
Leak, on the other hand, has been in the fold and will look to improve on his passing numbers from last season (1,295 yards, eight touchdowns, 11 interceptions).
"Every day he gets older and we get better," Kirkland said of Leak. "It's one more day to get into the film room. He's not a guy that yells and screams, but he leads by example. He knows the offense and he's our field general."