VIDEO: Ken Sparks Press Conference
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman will look to hit rarefied air Thursday night when it opens the 2015 football season with the NAIA's University of the Cumberlands (1-0, 1-0 Mid-South Conference).
The Eagles can become the fifth Division II program with 600 all-time wins with a victory over the Patriots.
The Eagles have the fifth most wins among Division II programs all-time, behind Pittsburg State (681), Tuskegee (658), Hillsdale (612) and Central Oklahoma (602).
Standing in the way of reaching that plateau is a Patriot team that already has a game under its belt, upsetting a 16th-ranked Campbellsville Tiger club 27-24 on the Tigers' home turf.
While there is some benefit to getting gametape on a team before an opener, Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks said that the Patriots pulled out some unforeseen multiplicity on both sides of the ball that have made them even more difficult to prepare for.
"Even though what they line up in won't surprise us, because they have probably already lined up in it," Sparks, who begins his 36th season at Mossy Creek, said. "We just don't know what is going to be their main theme this ballgame about what they're going to do offensively and defensively. I'm sure when they look and see how many people we struggled to stop last year, and to see how we have a bunch of people gone off of that [defensive unit]. To have an inexperienced team with all the different looks they gave, it creates some interesting situations for us."
Quarterback Adam Craig is the Patriots' leader offensively. The now junior quarterback guided Cumberlands to the NAIA national title game as a freshman before breaking his leg midway through his sophomore season.
In the opener against Campbellsville, he connected on 6-of-9 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns to produce an other-worldly passer rating of 252. He also kept the Patriots turnover free.
"He led them to the national championship a couple years ago and then he got hurt and now he is back again," Sparks said. "He is their leader. There's no question about it. And they got some skilled people - they got some speed."
A ton of that speed comes from wideout Wendell Williams. A five-time All-American in track and field last year, Williams is the reigning NAIA national champion in the long jump and turned in a 10.36 100-meter dash time at nationals to finish fourth in the event.
In the Patriots' opener, he snagged a couple touchdown passes and brought a kickoff back for a score.
That speed makes it the more imperative for Sparks that Carosn-Newman's veteran secondary quickly gels with a youthful, or in Sparks' words, "exciting" defensive line.
"Well I think its key because if there's anywhere where you would want to have experienced players who have seen this or done that would be in the secondary," Sparks said. "At the same time, everything starts up front. On offense it starts up front. On defense it starts up front. If those guys aren't getting pressure on the passer then it's hard to cover, forever."
For the Eagles offensively, Carson-Newman will once more turn to De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) at quarterback. Thomas could potentially move from 10th to sixth on the school's all-time rushing touchdowns list if he finds the end zone three times (something that he's done four times in his career).
Thomas begins the season with 34 rushing touchdowns and has the potential to catch Buck Wakefield for the school's all-time rushing TD record (51).
Carson-Newman opens up on a Thursday night for a fourth consecutive year. In 2012 and 2013, the years were kind to Carson-Newman. The Eagles lit up Glenville State for more than 500 yards of total offense in a 56-46 shootout victory to give Ken Sparks his 300th win. Then in 2013, the Eagles pushed past the 500-yard mark for total offense again by slugging Wayne State 55-28.
In 2014, again, the Eagles surpassed 500 yards of total offense against Edinboro with 515 yards; however, the Fighting Scots held the Eagles under 50 points with a 38-24 C-N win. Carson-Newman has averaged 49.3 points and 551 yards of total offense in their last three Thursday night home openers.
Carson-Newman is 28-6-1 in season-opening games under Carson-Newman head football coach Ken Sparks.
Carson-Newman hasn't scored any less than 44 points in an opening day win since 2003 (a 21-14 win over Winston-Salem State) save for last year's 38-24 win over Edinboro. The only losses on opening day in the last decade game in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010 to Winona State. Carson-Newman has scored more than 70 once, more than 50 three other times. The Eagles have only failed to score less than 40 three times since 1999 in wins.
Sparks hopes the Eagles' will bring a complete game to the table Thursday night as they take the field in honor of a special woman.
Carson-Newman will play for Kathleen Graham, a 77-year-old woman whom Sparks met while undergoing cancer treatments.
"It's about as exciting as anything we have done in a long, long time because of the kind of lady that she is and the investment she has made in people's lives without knowing it, without saying it," Sparks said. "She is the kind of lady that when Jesus talked about many times about when people don't seem like they have big roles life but they impacted this world. That to me is Kathleen Graham because her little quiet spirit and her little depends on the Lord that shows up- that's not little, that's big."
Graham, who is battling lung cancer herself despite never having smoked a day in her life, hopes to be in attendance. Doctors and nurses from the Tennessee Cancer Center will also be in attendance.
Appalachian Electric Cooperative is the contest's game sponsor as the company celebrates 75 years of keeping the lights on by supplying the power for Burke-Tarr's lights for the Thursday night affair.
Coverage of the contest will be available on the Eagle Sports Network beginning with the AEC Tailgate Show at 6 p.m. on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live with a free high definition stream.