Locked and Loaded: Union expecting big things in 2018

Published 5:01 pm Friday, August 24, 2018

BARBOURVILLE — Primed and ready, the Union College football team seeks to go to the next level as it prepares to open the 2018 season on Thursday.

After back-to-back five-win seasons, the Bulldogs appeared poised to challenge for the Mid-South Conference (MSC) Appalachian Division title as they return a host of key contributors.

“Traditionally, in our conference, the team that consistently retains players is usually the best,” said head coach Andre Linn. “And when I took over (as head coach), that is something that we set as a goal.”

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Linn, who is beginning his second full year as Union’s top dog, owns an overall record of 6-6 after the Bulldogs went 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the MSC Appalachian Division in 2017.

The season kicked off with the program’s first-ever Thursday night home game as the Bulldogs host Cincinnati Christian University (Ohio).

Union returns a wealth of talent at the skill positions, especially at wide receiver and in the backfield. The Bulldogs racked up 4,775 yards in total offense, setting a program record for highest yards-per-game average (477.5). Four players – Tyler Toombs, Darian Patterson, Bradley Elkins and Izayah Riettie, were responsible for 55.6 percent of the offense as they combined for 2,655 yards in total offense.

Toombs posted crazy numbers in 2017, racking up a school-record 949 receiving yards on only 29 catches for an NAIA-best 32.7 yards-per-reception average. He also found the end zone 10 times.

Patterson was good at helping stretch the field for Union as he averaged 19.8 yards per catch, hauling in 26 passes for 515 yards and nine touchdowns.

Having one threat to stretch the field is a plus, but having two like the Bulldogs do in Toombs and Patterson, is a big advantage.

“Teams can’t figure out which route you’re going to run,” Linn said of the all-conference team selections. “It makes it easier in certain situations to be able to run the ball because defenses have to play off the line because of the threat of us going deep (with Toombs and Patterson).”

Two of the beneficiaries of the ability to stretch the field are Elkins and Riettie. Elkins finished second on the team in receptions with 27, turning in 251 yards and three touchdowns. In the 2017 season finale, the senior wideout became the 15th player in program history to amass 80 career receptions.

Meanwhile, Riettie amassed 934 yards in total offense as he rushed for 735 yards on 139 carries and caught 23 passes for 199 yards. He tallied a total of 10 touchdowns with nine coming on the ground, and the Lakeland, Florida native averaged 5.3 yards per rushing attempt.

“He’s going to have more touches than he’s had in the past,” Linn said of the tailback. “I expect more out of him, and we’re going to rely heavily on him.”

Helping out in the receiving corps will be Jermaine Buchannon, Dalton Edwards, Matt Atkins and Ke’Yondre Bledsoe. In the backfield, Linn noted that T.K. Hill, along with several freshmen, is battling for playing time.

While the receiving and running game remains pretty much intact from last season, Union is having to turn to a new signal-caller for 2018 following Alex Bell’s graduation. Bell posted one of the program’s best seasons in the pocket with 2,521 yards passing and 26 passing touchdowns in earning first-team all-conference honors.

Union will likely turn to Kendrick Furness to lead the charge. He is the lone quarterback on the roster to have taken any in-game snaps. Furness threw for 243 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-35 passing last season.

Also vying for playing time in the pocket are sophomore Connor Marchionda and freshmen Lamontay Carr and Earl Wells.

Protecting Furness will be an experienced group of linemen. Jordan Mason is getting the nod at center with Chandler Love at right guard and Zach Shinn at right tackle. The trio has started a combined 40-plus games. On the left side, Bryan Binford is the early favorite at guard with Jared Sims at tackle.

On the other side of the ball, there will be a mixture of youth and experience leading the way for the Bulldogs on the defensive line.

Seniors Justice Bishop and Tyler Wright will anchor the line at the defensive end slots. Bishop tallied 68 total tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss and 5.0 sacks, both of which led Union. Wright is still relatively new to the defensive line as he spent much of his first three seasons at linebacker. However, the defense appeared to receive a boost when he moved to end halfway through 2017 as he ended with 30 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, and 3.0 sacks.

“When we moved Tyler to defensive end, things started to really improve for us on defense,” Linn said. “It’s all about getting more speed on the field.

“Tyler and Justice, they are the leaders of the defensive line. They are integral in getting the young guys to understand how important it is to be in the right spot, make sure you’re not trying to do too much,” the Bulldog coach added.

At defensive tackle, Union will look to Justin Davis and Xeric Griffin to lead the way.

Anthony Kelsey and Dallas Baxter are being asked to take the lead at linebacker. The duo finished in the top five in tackles at 49 and 45, respectively. Linn noted Kelsey is a great communicator, making sure the entire defense is aware of what is going on. Baxter has played in every game of his career, starting all but one.

The Bulldogs return a lot of experience in the secondary with Aron Hawkins and Triquece Ware returning as the cornerbacks. Ware logged 44 tackles and picked off one pass last season, while Hawkins made 28 stops and recovered two fumbles.

At free safety, Seth Nichols is back for his senior year, while junior Kasuan Wall will take the lead at strong safety. Nichols picked off two passes and registered 33 tackles last season, while Wall had 29 tackles and one fumble recovery.

Terran Cox and Jay Brown will also be called upon to help out in the secondary.

On special teams, freshman Seth Burke is being asked to handle both the punting and placekicking duties with Elkins also a possibility at punter. Cody Petero will serve as the long snapper for the second year in a row.

Elkins will also return punts with Buchannon, Nichols and Toombs the likely candidates for kickoff returns.

Union is picked to finish fifth in the MSC Appalachian Division, which is shaping up to be very competitive per the usual. Reinhardt University is the odds-on favorite as it won the division in going 6-0 in league play and 13-1 overall and advancing to the NAIA Football Championship Series title game.

Bluefield College is tabbed to finish second with University of Pikeville and University of the Cumberlands third and fourth, respectively. After Union, Point University and St. Andrews University round out the list.

Linn is confident the Bulldogs can finish better than where they are predicted to be, but he knows the road is not easy.

“It’s going to be a dogfight the whole way throughout the season,” he said. “We have to come in prepared and ready to play each and every week. There are no easy games in this division.”