BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
It's been a long while since quarterback Bo Cordell was slinging footballs all over the place for the Tusculum football team, but the junior signal-caller, who sat out most of last season with an injury, will be back in the lineup Saturday as the Pioneers open the 2012 campaign.
The Pioneers make a 378-mile trek to Ohio to take on Urbana University for the season lid-lifter. Kickoff is set for noon.
With only six seniors on the roster, Head Coach Frankie DeBusk will have a lot of new faces on the field when the Pioneers run up against the Urbana Blue Knights Saturday. But it's a good feeling for the coaching staff to know that Cordell is back on the field.
"His maturity, his presence on the field just makes us better," DeBusk said of Cordell. "He's comfortable out there. He's a senior in the classroom (he'll graduate in May), but he's a junior on the football field."
An Ohio native (Cincinnati), a lot of family and friends are expected to be in attendance at Urbana to watch Cordell.
"Urbana will be waiting on him, because they recruited him, too," DeBusk smiled.
Despite the absence of seniors, DeBusk feels good about the leadership that has been shown by the team during fall camp.
"We've got great leadership in Bo (on offense) and (Brian) Alexander on defense," he said. "It's as good as we've had in my 15 years here at Tusculum."
Leadership will be needed. It's no secret that Tusculum likes to throw the football as they have been the South Atlantic Conference's most potent aerial attack in each of the last five seasons, ranking among the top 15 in the country in each of those years. But 80 percent of the receptions last year are gone, leaving a receiving corps that is "athletic, but new," DeBusk said.
Former quarterback Kyle Dickey has been moved to one starting receiver slot, with junior Xzanvion Smith and redshirt freshman Ken Funnye holding down the other two spots. They'll get their chances to make plays, and so will Wes Powell, a 6-10 sophomore tight end who showed promise in his freshman year and provides quite an imposing target for a quarterback.
"He and Bo are good friends," DeBusk said of Powell. "They spent a lot of time this summer working on the passing game."
Tusculum will have a new look on the other side of the football as incoming defensive coordinator Mike Iezzi has installed a 3-4 defense, a change from the eight-man front alignment the Pioneers have utilized for most of the past decade.
Brian Marshall, a senior, and sophomore Chad Blakely have been bracketed at the running back position to start the season. Marshall has been the team's leading rusher in each of the past two campaigns. Sophomore B.J. Spradlin, a Greeneville High product, played in every game last season as a true freshman and has showed plenty of spark.
The offensive line has size and depth, led by preseason All-SAC tackle senior Israel Pickens (6-4, 305).
"Last year wasn't the type of year we expect at Tusculum College," DeBusk said of the 3-8 record. "Defensively we took our lumps. We've concentrated on high school players coming in and helping us the past couple of years, but now those people are juniors and seniors. They know it's time for them to step up."
Linebacker Alexander earned preseason All-SAC honors after leading the Pioneers with 90 tackles in 2011.
On the defensive front, senior Desmond Raiford (6-3, 275, Sr.) has emerged as the leader, finishing with 30 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks a year ago. Raiford is a year removed after earning All-Conference accolades at West Hills College.
Senior Luke Harris (6-1, 210) will lead a talented secondary that finished second in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 140.6 yards per game.
The Tusculum special teams are solid, with three Preseason All-Conference honorees on it, including both its punter (junior Andy Rosetti), and placekicker (sophomore Logan Cornelius), along with a three-time All-SAC representative at long snapper (senior Skylar West).
Urbana, this week's opponent, came to Pioneer Park two years ago to take on the Pioneers. They return 19 starters from an 8-3 campaign in 2011.
"They were one of the top 15 rushing teams in the country last year," DeBusk said, "and their quarterback (DJ Mendenall) is one of the best that we will face this season."
Pleased with the way that fall camp has progressed, DeBusk feels his Pioneers are ready for a real game.
"I feel like we're ahead of where we usually are at this stage of the season," he said. "But that first game is always nerve-wracking."