Practice took place inside the Mini-Dome, which was the home for the Bucs for 26 years and the site of the program’s last game to date, a 16-13 victory over The Citadel on November 22, 2003.
Offensive lineman Matt Brewer liked how the first practice for the Sept. 3 season-opener against Kennesaw State had that tie-in to the past
“We’ve learned a lot about the history of ETSU football from the coaches who have been here in the past,” Brewer said. “Coach (Billy) Taylor, coach (Mike) Rader and coach (Erik) Losey, they have all taught us a lot about the history of this program and what it was like being here.”
Head coach Carl Torbush pointed out that the new season is just 28 days away and Thursday’s practice was the first step in an evaluation process over the next two weeks where the coaches will see which players are going to be productive.
He added so much has happened in the two years since it was announced that football would be returning to ETSU.
There has been a coaching staff assembled, a new weight room constructed, plans for a new football stadium and a game scheduled with the University of Tennessee. Most important, there are 95 players on the roster and Torbush has seen a transformation in many of them.
“It was interesting to see the improvement that the guys we had last year had made,” Torbush said. “A lot of it had to do with (trainer) Al Johnson and his strength and conditioning program. We look like a college football team now. We have some good looking men on the offensive line, the defensive line and the skill guys. You can also see we had an outstanding recruiting year with the athleticism we have now.”
One old football adage, that the defense is usually ahead of the offense early on, proved true in the first practice.
There were some good moments for the offense including a long pass completion in the end zone from Nick Sexton to Hank Black. But, there were also three interceptions returned for a touchdown, including two by Daren Ardis.
“I’ve been in this business a long time and I can never remember the offense being ahead of the defense the first week or two of practice,” Torbush said. “They had four or five interceptions. Daren Ardis obviously caught my eye. He had three interceptions, two pass break-ups and two returns for touchdowns. We’re excited about the possibilities that he’s got.”
Paul Leveritt, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound lineman who was one of those players who got bigger and stronger in the offseason, likes the style of play which defensive line coach Scott Brummett encourages.
“I think we’re a little more aggressive than the offense to be honest,” Leveritt said. “We pushed each other during the offseason. As a defense, we hold each other accountable and make sure we give 100 percent every play. I think coach Brummett has a lot to do with that with the way he pushes us on and off the field.”
While the players wore helmets, but not pads for the first practice, offensive lineman Patrick McCall said it was good to be back on the football field. As a redshirt freshman, he hasn’t played in an official game since suiting up for Knox Catholic High School in 2013.
“It feels good to run through the plays and refresh what we learned in the fall and in the spring,” he said. “It was good to just have a good practice. It was pretty humid inside the Dome.”
The team will be outside at Kermit Tipton Stadium for that season-opener which sold out the same day when tickets went on sale.
Cody Cornelius, another redshirt freshman, said there is a buzz surrounding ETSU football right now. He added much of the credit has to go to Torbush, who has previously served as a head coach at North Carolina and Louisiana Tech, and has been a defensive coordinator for three different SEC schools — Alabama, Mississippi and Mississippi State.
“He is extremely qualified,” Cornelius said. “You hear our athletic staff and administration talk about how qualified our coaching staff is and how lucky we are to have them, to have coaches with the kind of experience they have.”
Torbush was grateful to have the support of other experienced coaches at practice. Steve Forbes and Brittney Ezell, the men’s and women’s basketball coaches, attended the first practice as did golf coach Fred Warren.
“I know all of them personally and they love sports No. 1,” Torbush said. “But, I think they love ETSU even more so than that. We’ve got a very, very close-knit athletic department and coaching staff where there’s no jealousy at all. We support each other, we’re behind each other and we’re all friends in a personal setting as well as an athletic setting.”