Bucs draw lighter task after difficult opener

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Paul Hamilton shook his head the moment the question was asked.
   Division II squad Mars Hill comes to Johnson City to face East Tennessee State Saturday night in Memorial Center, and the Buccaneer head football coach assured the reporter who asked if this was a team that the Bucs were supposed to beat and if he had to motivate them to play the Lions that there would be no looking ahead.
   "I don't see me having to do a lot of win one for the gippers," Hamilton said. "I don't see me having to talk about who we're playing and what's at stake. And I go back to the commitment this team had in the off-season. Our football team wants to have a successful season. I really believe this team understands the importance of each week, regardless of who we're playing. You don't hear them talking about the game down the road."
   The Bucs seem focused on the task at hand, going up against Mars Hill.
   Last week on tobacco road might have had something to do with that.
   ETSU lost last Saturday night to N.C. State, a team that is ranked No. 21 in the Division 1-A, by a score of 34-0. That's definitely nothing to be ashamed of, but the Bucs are still hungry for that first victory of the season.
   "I think it can be a learning experience for us," Hamilton said. "But the bottom line is, you don't want to learn to get beat, you want to win. We're not proud of the fact that we didn't go over there and get that thing done and win.
   "Our kids have bounced back and regrouped very well. They're enthused about playing this weekend."
   The Buccaneers have to be enthused about the way they played on defense last Saturday night despite the lopsided score. ETSU had to stop the Wolfpack all night long in their own territory.
   Tony Tiller also showed why he is an All-American with an interception of Phillip Rivers that had to be as good of a pick that you're going to find anywhere in college football.
   Hamilton was extremely thrilled with the defense against N.C. State, and is expecting even bigger things out of the unit this week.
   "You have to be proud of our defense," Hamilton said. "They were in some terrible situations. Yet they were able to keep them out of the end zone, and even the drives that they had, they weren't long drives against us. I was pleased with their effort and with some of the things they did, but we can get a lot better over there on defense. But I saw positives there."
   There were a lot of positives on the defense, but the offense is still trying to find its niche going into the game with Mars Hill.
   The Bucs had just 81 yards of total offense against the Wolfpack, and three Buccaneer quarterbacks combined for a 1-of-14 effort.
   Dashannon Gamble started the N.C. State game and Jatavis Sanders took most of the snaps, but Hamilton has hinted that Jason Davis will be the starter this week.
   Whoever the quarterback is will have to try to get NFL prospect Cecil Moore more involved in the offense. Moore failed to catch a football last week, and actually dropped a couple of passes.
   Hamilton is wanting that to change against the Lions.
   "We've got to get the ball in his hands," Hamilton said. "We've got to complete passes."
   It looks like Hamilton has decided to go with Gavin Varner at tailback.
   It had been by committee between Varner, Marcus Barnes and Mando Miller, but none of them were that effective Saturday night.
   The offense will have to contend with a player on this week that some pro scouts flat out love.
   Khalid Abdullah is as good of a linebacker as the Bucs will see all year long, and Hamilton is aware of that.
   "He's an outstanding player," Hamilton said. "This guy is a legitimate Division I type football player. He's got outstanding speed, good size and makes plays all over the field. He's certainly a guy that we're concerned about. I can understand people coming to watch him play, because he is a heck of a defensive football player.
   Mars Hill, a program that plays in the South Atlantic Conference with nationally ranked teams like Tusculum and Carson-Newman, is one that scares Hamilton.
   "Last year in their conference, they were very competitive," Hamilton said. "They had a good football season, and they were close to winning a lot of football games last season. They've got the majority of their players back from last year's team. I think they're a very experienced football team watching them play on tape from the game last Saturday (A 41-6 triumph over UVA-Wise). There's no question they're going to come in here very motivated and enthused about playing."
   Kickoff is at 6 p.m.
   ETSU NOTES:
   * Walk-on kicker Braye Walters recently came on campus, and is all of a sudden battling for the place-kicking job. It's still a close race between Walters and Scott Salmons, but Walters is handling the kickoffs.
   * Reserve tight end Adam Cranford will get to see some old friends this week. The former Johnson County standout started his college career at Mars Hill before heading to ETSU.