Following its second consecutive 6-5 season, the 2001 East Tennessee State football program is poised to join the elite of the Southern Conference and all of I-AA football.
"We have gained momentum during our back-to-back winning seasons," head coach Paul Hamilton said. "Our team and this entire program has progressed each year and we are very excited for the 2001 season."
To excel in the Southern Conference automatically ranks the Bucs among the nation's best. However, ETSU will need a consistent contribution from its veterans and a significant impact from its newcomers to flourish.
The Bucs' recent success and continued development of young players have born a sense of confidence with those involved in Buccaneer football.
Another exceptional recruiting class will enter the program in August with hopes of continuing the success last year's seniors fostered.
The 2000 senior class was one of the most successful in ETSU history. They earned a winning season in three of their four years, accomplishing the feat for the first time since the 1956 senior class.
Gone are five Southern Conference performers, including quarterback Todd Wells, the SoCon's all-time total offense leader.
Despite the loss of quality student-athletes, this year's squad may be the deepest since Coach Hamilton came to ETSU.
There are gaps to fill but, on both sides of the ball, ETSU has more depth than at any time during Hamilton's tenure.
"Our players are enthusiastic about the opportunities they have this year," Hamilton said. "Our talent level continues to grow but we still have to work hard to accomplish our ultimate goals."
For the last four years the Bucs have had an All-Star at the helm of their offense. One of the most prolific player in Southern Conference history, Todd Wells broke numerous records during his four-year career.
"With the graduation of Todd Wells," Hamilton said. "We have begun to realize how much his leadership and ability will be missed."
The quarterback position is critical to any team's success. Entering the 2001 season, the Bucs have two quality signal callers that gained the confidence of the coaching staff during spring practice. The one attribute they lack is experience.
Playing against the nation's stiffest competition can unnerve many athletes. The Bucs will depend on senior Matt Wilhjelm and junior Jatavis Sanders to lead the squad.
Wilhjelm has studied the ETSU system for four years under Hamilton's direction. He is a smart player that understands the game.
Sanders joins the Bucs after beginning his collegiate career at North Carolina State. A shifty option quarterback, this junior is exciting and can make plays under duress.
"How far this team progresses will depend on the quarterback position," Hamilton said. "In Matt and Jatavis, we have two players that can get the ball into the end zone."
Luckily for these inexperienced signal callers, they are surrounded by some of the most talented players in I-AA football.
Leading the ground attack is sophomore Corey Carter. A big, elusive back, Carter moves to tailback after starting last year at fullback.
The Greenwood, S.C., native gained 343 yards during his rookie season and led the team with nine touchdowns. He recorded his first 100-yard game against VMI.
"Corey is an outstanding football player that has the highest potential," Hamilton said. "He brings size and speed to the tailback position."
Sophomore Andrew Nuckolls is lightning quick and will play in the slot and behind the quarterback. He scored three touchdowns in the season finale, including a 62-yard touchdown pass in Wells' final collegiate attempt.
The Buccaneer coaching staff is also excited about freshman Ahmad Ashkar.
At the fullback position, junior Scott Carter is a powerful runner that constantly gains the extra yard. He is an exceptional blocker that is committed to the team concept.
Senior Jermaine Gamble and sophomore Nick Spearman will also see time at fullback.
Spearman spent last season as a quarterback.
The heart of the Buccaneer offense is the receiving corps, which ranks among the nation's finest.
The receivers are fast and dependable. They can spread the field and score on any play.
A 2000 NCAA All-America honorable mention, Cecil Moore led the Bucs with 58 receptions and 883 receiving yards last fall.
With NFL size and sure hands, Moore is an All-America candidate again this season.
"Cecil is one of the most outstanding receivers in I-AA football," Hamilton said. "We must get him the ball."
After missing last season, junior Charvin Clark returns as one of the most athletic Bucs. He is extremely fast and has the ability to lose cover corners.
Sophomore Tim Turner also provides incredible speed and is a dangerous deep threat. He caught three touchdown passes in his collegiate debut, at Liberty.
Perhaps the Bucs' best receiver during the spring season was junior Mike Rader. A dependable receiver, Rader is valuable because of his downfield blocking skills.
Senior Kareem Coffin also provides imposing speed from the backfield or the outside.
At the tight end position, senior Nick Hendrickson is a three-year starter. He combines good speed with outstanding hands.
Senior Allen Johnson and sophomore Robby Hardt are strong blockers. Johnson will be used in short yardage situations.
The offensive line, as a group, may be the most formidable in recent history. Not only is this group talented, but it has loads of experience.
"This may be the best front we've had since I came to ETSU," Hamilton said. "They are an established group."
Senior Chip Pearson has been a starter every year of his distinguished career. He and senior Mike Martin are quality tackles.
Junior Zach Fussell or Curtis Price and sophomore Mitch Hughes will also see time at tackle. Fussell is a I-A transfer while Hughes has developed into a quality lineman.
At the guard position, senior Josh Kerr and junior Leon Buchanan have been around the program for years and can be dominating.
Kerr is tough in the trenches. Buchanan was slated to start last year before missing the entire season with a foot injury.
Junior Lonnie Nettles started every game at center last season and should improve throughout this campaign.
Senior Rhett Landram played in all 11 games last season, spelling Nettles at center. He will battle Nettles for the starting center position.
The bad news is that eight of 11 defensive starters from last year are gone. The good news is their replacements are gifted athletes that have unlimited potential.
"We lost some defensive players that started for a number of years," Hamilton said. "We have not found all the answers yet, but I do know they will have to grow up very quickly."
Although untested, this year's defense contains very athletic and determined players at every position.
Playing in a run-oriented league like the Southern Conference demands a lot from the defensive line. With the best running backs and offensive linemen I-AA football has to offer, the defensive line is vital to the defensive effort.
Fortunately for the Bucs, the 2001 defensive line is the best group at ETSU in a long time. Not only are the starters talented but their backups are experienced.
"We have outstanding depth on the defensive line with six or seven guys that can rotate in," Hamilton said. "They continue to get bigger and stronger every year."
Sophomores Brandon Calton and Travis Williams were very solid last year and have improved throughout the offseason.
Calton ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles last year, seven for loss. Williams was right behind Calton with 46 stops, eight for loss.
"Brandon should ben an impact player on defense," Hamilton said. "His size, strength and speed are very impressive. Williams is one of the hardest-working players on this team."
Working inside on the defensive line is nose guard Bill Fells. After redshirting last season, Fells has outstanding feet and developed during the spring.
Those players that will rotate into the defensive line are an accomplished group. Senior Andrew Simmons, along with juniors Kai Schreckenburg, Frank Hopper and Mark Dukes and sophomore Chad Hyder have all started during their career.
All four of the starters from last fall's linebacking corps are gone. However, the Bucs possess solid, talented players that are ready to assume the starting role.
On the inside, sophomore Mike Cornegay has emerged as one of the team's best linebackers.
"Cornegay has been very impressive," Hamilton said. "His outstanding speed and great instincts fit the mold of our past linebackers."
Also on the inside is sophomore Andrew Foerster, one of the most aggressive Bucs.
Junior Justin Reinier will assume a starting role when he steps onto the field. After playing his first two seasons at Los Angeles Valley College, Reinier brings high expectations.
Battling for a starting spot are sophomores Keith Davis and Bobby Guarino. Guarino saw extended action last year and should play a lot this fall.
The Bucs are very confident with one outside linebacker position. Freshman Scott Brumet moves to the outside after practicing at tight end last season.
Junior Brad Stubbs played well last season before missing time because of injury.
The other outside linebacking position is wide open. North Carolina transfer Marco Bryant missed all of spring practice because of a shoulder injury but has the potential to be outstanding.
He will be challenged by freshman Lamar Beam and junior college transfer Marlo Vinson.
This fall's secondary may contain the best athletes of the team. It is a young squad that will have to develop throughout the season.
Leading the cast is senior Ocasio Cofield. An All-America candidate, Cofield ranked fifth on the team in tackles last season (82), his first after transferring from Kansas.
"Cofield is an imposing defensive player," Hamilton said. "He is one of the best tacklers ever at ETSU."
Sophomore Montreal Harkley is a tall, athletic safety that covers the field.
"Harkley played a great deal of football for us last year," Hamilton said. "He has size and speed."
The cornerbacks will be very young, but very agile. Sophomore Tony Tiller moves to the corner after spending last season as a wide receiver.
The other corner will be freshman Allen Davis, perhaps the best pure athlete on the entire squad.
Junior Kerrick Sanders will solidify the outside and contribute immediately. Kerrick is the brother of quarterback Jatavis Sanders, and also transferred from N.C. State.
Coach Hamilton is very confident about this year's special teams as all the starters return.
"We are excited about our special teams' experience," Hamilton said. "I will be disappointed if this isn't one of our stronger areas."
Senior Con Chellis matured as a kicker last year and has All-Southern Conference potential. He will be accountable for big kicks this year.
Sophomore Aaron Bass improved throughout his first season. His 78-yard boot at Liberty ranks as one of the longest in program history.
Perhaps the strongest leg on the team, sophomore Scott Salmons will handle the kickoffs.
Senior Adam Howell will once again be the long snapper, while junior Mike Rader is the holder.
Returning kicks will also be handled by veterans. Senior Kareem Coffin and Andrew Nuckolls are dangerous because of their speed. They are both aggressive when searching for open field.
Tony Tiller takes over the punt return duties from Keyandre Fenn. Tiller is an exceptional athlete with sure hands.