Room for optimism at ETSU

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com


   JOHNSON CITY -- The record of the East Tennessee State football team the last few seasons has been similar to the amount of sunlight per day at the equator. It's been holding steady each year at around .500
   But this year, there seems to be a brighter outlook.
   The Bucs have gone 6-5 the last three seasons, which makes the first time the program has had three winning seasons in a row since it had four straight from 1952-1955.
   That's very good for a program that has suffered from budget woes in recent years and gets poor fan support. But now that they've done this for three years in a row, you would figure that the expectations would start to be raised.
   This should be the year that happens.
   The publication "Street and Smith's" has ranked the Buccaneers No. 8 in its Division 1-AA poll. They are ranked second among Southern Conference teams, one-notch behind No. 7 Appalachian State.
   The Bucs return almost their entire defense, and top-notch programs like Georgia Southern and Furman are suffering major graduation losses, and are facing coaching changes.
   All of this gives the Bucs hope for a Southern Conference title in 2002.
   The defense is good. Last year the defense was young, and the unit still kept the Bucs in a lot of games.
   Linebacker Mike Cornegay, tackle Travis Williams and defensive backs Gerald Sensabaugh and Tony Tiller all stood out for the Bucs last year. And they were all only freshmen and sophomores.
   If you don't count Ocasio Cofield, who was out with an injury most of last year, every starter on defense is back.
   The defense looks to be in good shape, but the key to this season will be whether or not the offense can get its act together.
   Last year was one of the worst offensive outputs in ETSU history. The passing game struggled, and the running game was non-existent.
   That looks to change a little bit this season. Last year's quarterback, former Science Hill standout Matt Wilhjelm, struggled as the team's signal caller.
   This year, Dashannon Gamble has made himself the early favorite to take the starting quarterback spot. Gamble did that by having a great spring game.
   Gamble has all the tools to succeed. He has a strong arm, and has great scrambling ability.
   Gamble probably would have been the quarterback last year, but he was academically ineligible.
   Also in the mix are Jatavis Sanders and Jason Davis. Both are Division I-A transfers, but they have struggled to find their niche so far in the ETSU offense.
   The running game's problem may be solved with Marcus Barnes joining the fray. Barnes had a fantastic speed, and is that breakaway type guy ETSU didn't have last year.
   Another guy that could see some action is former Dobyns-Bennett standout Adonis Johnson. Johnson was on the shelf last season due to academic woes, but should be eligible and could be an instant threat.
   The Bucs have nothing to worry about at wide receiver, as Cecil Moore and Tim Turner lead what is the Southern Conference's best receiving core.
   Moore will definitely want to have another big year. He is a legitimate pro-prospect that makes plays.
   Turner is very fast, but was not very involved in the offense last year. That however, should change this coming season.
   There will be a few new faces on the offensive line, but look for improvement this year.
   The talent is there to have a possible playoff season. This is the most talent that head coach Paul Hamilton has had since his first year as head coach.
   A 7-4 record is the best that ETSU has done under Hamilton, so winning championships have not been common in Johnson City during football season.
   But if there was ever a year it was going to happen, it just might be 2002.
   Tune back here in August.