JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — The 2011 Carson-Newman College football team was unveiled Wednesday morning at the team's annual media day event inside Burke-Tarr Stadium. Head coach Ken Sparks begins his 32nd season in command of the Eagles in a rare position, that of underdog.
Carson-Newman was picked to finish second in the South Atlantic Conference preseason coach's poll. Last year's team finished 7-4, but missed the playoffs, was not in the SAC title race at the end of the season.
"Even though we won seven ballgames, it was still not very good," Sparks said at his opening press conference. "I feel like we had a lot of failures last year. I had to dismiss more guys off the football team last year than I ever have since I've been here. But I think this bunch is going to get it done."
This group of players has already been through the wringer, having trained with the U.S. Navy Seals for two days to open camp. Sparks and his coaches have also stressed the "Carson-Newman Way," of building a man first and a football player second.
"We're trying to work from inside out with them (the players)," Sparks said. "Not only do they get equipped in their plan for life, we have them set some short-term goals and how they're going to accomplish them. If we don't let football tell us something about life, then it doesn't help much."
The Eagles return all but two starters from last year's offensive unit, but one vacant position, that of quarterback, has become the hottest battle of camp. The four-way contest between junior Brandon Haywood, sophomores Johnny Foster and Jason Brown and redshirt freshman Philip Juhlin began in spring practice and has yet to sort itself out.
"They're all four competing," Sparks said. "Sometimes one of them will look like he's the answer and then other times it looks like we'll need six months before we're ready to play a ballgame, but we're making progress. Some of them are talented, but they've got to get all in."
In the post-media day scrimmage, both Foster and Brown led scoring drives with the first-team offense against the first-team defense. Foster ran a two-minute drill for a score. Brown ran the regular offense, scampering in from five yards out.
Running back Nate Inman led the C-N offense in impressive fashion during the scrimmage. Inman was almost too effective, breaking three big runs and gaining more than 200 yards in just six carries. The first team All-SAC selection broke one run from his own three and at midfield, Sparks blew the play dead, saving Inman the final 50 yards to the goalline.
Freshmen Andy Hibbett and Chris Sensabaugh both saw snaps with the first team, with Hibbett looking particularly impressive running between the tackles.
At wide receiver, Marcus Huie and Drew Rice both made key receptions to keep the chains moving on third downs. Rice also hauled in a short TD pass from Juhlin.
Defensively, the Eagles return players at every position with game experience, most having started at least one or more games.
Junior Issac Kinley played strong safety on third downs last season and should keep a physical presence in the defensive backfield. Justin Hicks played early last season at strong safety and should start this season. Tarvin Jones and Oliver Davis have locked down the starting cornerback positions and were both All-SAC preseason selections.
The linebackers will be quick and experienced, with starter Ryan Helton back for his fourth straight season. Jarell Emanuel and Jonathan Sites both started multiple games last year and are speedy linebackers that can cover, blitz and tackle.
Defensive coordinator Mike Clowney is excited to have a veteran group of defenders after starting multiple freshmen in 2010.
"We've got a lot of kids that have played a lot of reps," Clowney said. "It's good to have some guys that know the system and have an idea where to go. We've been able to move along practice. Things are going faster and are becoming more crisp. Hopefully we can advance and get better than we were last year."
In Wednesday's scrimmage, the defense shined as well. Zeke Andrews and Alabama A&M transfer Larry Lumpkin both shot into the backfield for sacks, Andrews picking up a safety.
Freshman punter Charles Rhea stepped in for the departed Chris Jones, currently with the Dallas Cowboys, to show off his punting skills. Rhea sent one 41 yards and on another, pinned the offense inside the 13 yard-line.
"He (Ray) has been a great surprise," Sparks said. "We thought he'd be pretty good coming out of high school in Georgia and he hasn't disappointed. He doesn't have the leg that Chris had yet, but he will before he gets out of here."
The Eagles will scrimmage again on Friday morning in Burke-Tarr Stadium at 9 a.m., before spending the afternoon as a 170-man moving crew by helping Carson-Newman students move into the dorms.
Carson-Newman opens its season Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. on the road at Glenville State for the first meeting between the two teams.