Issues being resolved in ETSU camp

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- In The cartoon "Peanuts," Lucy was always there to give advice for a five-cent deposit.
   The East Tennessee State Buccaneer football team has some question marks on offense, but ETSU head coach Paul Hamilton believes he can solve them without having to pay anybody.
   The Buccaneers are currently going through spring practice, and it seems to have gone a long way in answering some key question marks about the offense.
   If you remember last season, you probably noticed that the defense was way ahead of the offense. The defense made plays and kept the Bucs in a lot of games.
   It was also the defense that held Georgia Southern's offense in check, and forced four turnovers in the Buccaneers' 19-16 upset victory over the top-ranked Eagles.
   "I think our defense has proven what we have a chance to be as a unit," ETSU head coach Paul Hamilton said. "We're hoping to build on the success we've had."
   The defense should be solid once again, as almost everybody from last year is back. But if the Bucs are going to improve on their 6-5 campaign and become one of the elite teams in the Southern Conference, questions are going to have to be answered on the offensive side.
   The position that most ETSU fans are talking about is the quarterback spot. This one has been mired in controversy since Todd Wells left two seasons ago, and this year may be no exception.
   Jatavis Sanders, Dashannon Gamble and Jason Davis all had hopes of being the starter going into this season, and all three are still in the running.
   "All three of these guys have got a chance to be good players," Hamilton said. "It's a tough call because nobody has stepped up, and has been better than the other one."
   Sanders was the backup to Matt Wilhjelm last season, and was going to moved to receiver by the ETSU coaching staff. But Hamilton had a change of heart after last Friday's scrimmage at Indian Trail Middle School, and is still giving Sanders a look at the quarterback spot.
   Gamble is coming back after being declared academically ineligible last season, and hasn't taken a snap competitively in over two years.
   Davis was the third-string quarterback at Virginia Tech before transferring to ETSU in January. He is also lacking experience on the collegiate level.
   While it's still unclear who is going to be the quarterback, Hamilton believes some questions have been answered some on some of the other offensive positions.
   The Bucs struggled in the running game last year, but Hamilton speaks highly of tailback Marcus Barnes.
   Barnes, a Memphis area standout, was recruited as a track athlete. But Barnes showed a desire to play football, and could end up as the starting tailback.
   "He brings a lot of speed to the table," Hamilton said. "He has a chance to be a fine player. He's a very physical runner. No matter how hard he gets hit, he gets back up.
   The Bucs have some offensive linemen to replace, but Hamilton thinks a little experience will be what the new starters need.
   "Once the linemen gain experience, they'll be fine," Hamilton said.
   Mitch Hughes, Gary Rivers and Mark Dukes have all enjoyed fine spring's at offensive tackle, while Nathan Anderson, Jamie Owenby and Brock Pittman are having success at offensive guard.
   The Bucs will have to replace All-conference tight end Nick Hendrickson, but former Tennessee High standout Adam Morgan and Randy Grubb are high on Hamilton's list.
   "They have a chance to be good players," Hamilton said.
   The Bucs do have some holes to fill on the offensive side, but Hamilton thinks he has players who can step up.
   "We're cautiously optimistic," Hamilton said. "You just don't know how some positions are going to materialize. We should have a solid defense and
   offensive line."
   If the Bucs can answer the question marks, they could be a contender for the Southern Conference title. Unlike the past few years, it seems to be wide-open with Furman and Georgia Southern looking more vulnerable than they have been recently.
   "Beating some the better teams in the conference gives us confidence going into this season," Hamilton said. "We think we can be a strong factor in the race. We're going to work as hard as we can. We're looking forward to this football season, there's no question about it."
   ETSU NOTES
   * The Bucs will continue practice this week and next, with the spring game scheduled for April 6.
   * As you probably know, this year's spring game will be held at the Stone Castle in Bristol. That's because work is being done on Steve Spurrier Field, where the game is usually held.