Yellow Jackets excited about fresh start
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New conference, new coaching staff, new scoreboard, new helmets - it's clear that West Virginia State is attempting to turn the page on a pretty dismal era of its football history.
The Yellow Jackets have gone 6-35 the last four years, including 4-28 in West Virginia Conference play.
But new head coach Jon Anderson and many of his young players weren't a part of those losses, and said there is nothing but excitement surrounding the program as camp continues into its second week.
"Everything is new and exciting," Anderson said. "We get a chance to really lay a foundation and we started doing it last spring. We have a chance to do it in the regular season this fall in a new conference that we're still learning about.
"The fact that we have new schemes and new coaches - it just shows that great things are going on here at West Virginia State."
Whether those great things lead to more great things on the field is yet to be seen, but Anderson said some of his few returnees are shining in practice.
Running back LeFloyd Phillips was the first name out of Anderson's mouth.
"Not too many of those guys made it all the way through and now he's set to graduate," Anderson said of the fifth-year senior. "He's a good running back. He's solid, he has good speed, and he's been consistently taking care of business on and off the field since we got here."
Anderson certainly brings the credentials to signal a possible turnaround is in the works as the Jackets and other WVC schools move to the Mountain East Conference.
As a coordinator at the University of Sioux Falls, Anderson helped the team win NAIA national titles in 2006, 2008, and 2009, rolling up 135 wins against just 26 losses in his time there.
It's hard to argue with that kind of success, so the transition was pretty smooth when it came time for Anderson to implement his own coaching style and methods of practice.
"The kids have done an outstanding job of buying in," Anderson said. "All the kids we inherited all winter and spring and were here this summer have done a great job. They understand what our expectations are and they're helping us teach the incoming kids.
"Guys have taken hold to how we will practice. We have up-tempo practices, but we protect each other as well. It's a competitive, intense atmosphere when we're getting after it, but they understand we've got to take care of each other because, come game time, we're the only ones we have."
Kirkland starts 3rd year at UC
As ever-changing as things are in Institute, Pat Kirkland's program at Charleston seems to be solidifying even further in this, his third year at the helm.
The Golden Eagles return eight of 11 starters on defense, and while the offense was hit hard with losses, primarily do-it-all running back Jordan Roberts, a lot of talent returns as well.
Enough so that UC earned the No. 2 spot in the preseason Mountain East poll.
Still, Kirkland said there are plenty of things his team is working to improve in camp.
"I'm glad we don't play this weekend, we need to practice," Kirkland said. "We're still trying to identify two things - one, how to practice with a sense of urgency. They're getting better, it just takes time with young players. We're also trying to get a feel for who are a couple of young guys who are coming in that can help us out this year."
That process should work itself out leading up to UC's opener at Shaw University on Sept. 7.
Another thing Kirkland hopes works out is the return of quarterback Maurice Leak, who's back for his senior season. Leak underwent knee surgery over the offseason and was just cleared a few weeks ago to practice, although he's been limited thus far in camp.
"We've been trying to slowly get him back in the mix of things," Kirkland said. "I hope [he's ready for the season opener] but there are no guarantees. He hasn't gone through a whole practice as of yet, but it hasn't been because he hasn't wanted to. I've had to say 'whoa' instead of 'giddy up' with him. Sometimes he still jumps in there behind my back."
Should Leak be unavailable, sophomore John Knox is the second option after he played in 10 games last season.
Knox actually threw for more yards (932-638) and rushed for more yards (427-164) than Leak as Leak dealt with injury problems most of the season.
Whichever QB gets most of the work early this year, he will be behind an inexperienced line with only one returning starter, and he will be throwing to a crop of new receivers.
But Kirkland said his team is putting in the time to try and get past those issues.
"We lost some guys in the offseason, but we've got to do a better job of throwing the football," Kirkland said. "That's been the biggest emphasis in camp."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, email@example.com, or follow him at twitter.com/Rpritt.