Eastern Kentucky ranks No. 21 in HERO Sports’ FCS Preseason Top 25.
The Colonels finished 7-5 overall last year, losing 52-41 to Gardner-Webb in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Here’s a look at this year’s EKU football squad.
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Returning 2022 FCS All-Conference Players (3)
QB Parker McKinney
OL Payton Collins
TE Lucas Raber (2022 All-Pioneer at Davidson)
Players In 2023 FCS Positional Rankings (1)
Transfer Portal Movement
Transfers Lost To The FBS (2)
Jayden Higgins (WR) to Iowa State
John Blunt Jr. (DB) to Texas State
Transfers Lost To The FCS (2)
DJ Boney (QB) to Florida A&M
Matthew Ballentine (DB) to San Diego
Transfers Coming In From The FBS (5)
Antonio Gaines (OL), Charlotte
Tony Davis (DB), Duke
Kyle Kelly (LB), Ohio
Dequan Stanley (WR), USF
Jackson Hensley (WR), Wake Forest
Transfers Coming In From The FCS (7)
Lucas Raber (TE), Davidson
Marvion Field (DL), Elon
Rodney Wright (DL), ETSU
Franky West (DB), Illinois State
Jalen Burbage (WR), Lehigh
Kyler Edwards (OL), Bethune-Cookman
Hunter Brown (TE), Saint Francis
EKU’s 2022 offense ranked No. 11 in FCS scoring, averaging 36.2 points per game. The passing attack averaged an impressive 329.7 yards per game, which was No. 3 in the subdivision.
Returning from that unit are the star quarterback, the No. 1 wide receiver, the No. 1 running back, and five offensive line starters.
The Colonels got great news this offseason when QB Parker McKinney decided to return for a sixth season, turning down FBS NIL offers. He is already EKU’s career leader in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, and attempts. Last year, McKinney went 315/459 (69%) passing for 3,956 yards, 33 touchdowns, and eight interceptions while rushing for 354 yards and eight TDs.
He was named the ASUN Co-Offensive Player of the Year, earned All-American Third Team honors from Stats Perform, and finished 12th in voting for the Walter Payton Award.
In McKinney’s college career, he has thrown for 9,718 yards, 74 touchdowns, and 32 interceptions while rushing for 1,446 yards and 20 scores.
Jaden Smith returns after leading the team in catches, hauling in 62 passes for 750 yards and six TDs. The next two top targets have departed, but running back Braedon Sloan is back as a big part of the passing game. He was last year’s No. 4 pass-catcher with 42 receptions for 506 yards and three scores. Sloan was also the leading rusher, running 147 times for 629 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sloan is a dynamic weapon, getting named to the 2022 HERO Sports Sophomore All-American Team as an all-purpose player. He added 484 kick return yards, becoming the only player in Division I last season with at least 415 yards rushing, receiving, and kick-returning.
EKU added to its wide receiver and tight end positions through the transfer portal. TE Lucas Raber is an All-Conference performer from Davidson. The Colonels also brought in TE Hunter Brown from Saint Francis. WR additions include Dequan Stanley (USF), Jackson Hensley (Wake Forest), and Jalen Burbage (Lehigh).
An experienced o-line is led by Payton Collins (6’7″ 305 lbs). Collins is a three-year starter at left tackle and a two-time All-Conference selection. Vincent Munlin Jr. (6’6″ 299 lbs) started all 12 games last year at left guard. K’Rojhn Calbert (6’5″ 325 lbs) started 10 games at right guard. Josiah Ezirim (6’6″ 320 lbs) started the final eight games at right tackle. And Drew Hart (6’7″ 302 lbs) started the other four games at right tackle and also started all 11 games at RT in 2021.
EKU landed a handful of o-line transfers from different levels of colleges, including Antonio Gaines from Charlotte and Kyler Edwards from Bethune-Cookman.
Defense was not a strength last season.
EKU allowed 35.2 points per game (No. 101 in the FCS), 240.2 rushing yards per game (No. 120), and 208.8 passing yards per game (No. 44).
The Colonels hope transfer portal additions aid in a better defense this fall. They’ve landed FBS transfers in Duke DB Tony Davis and Ohio LB Kyle Kelly along with FCS transfers in Elon DL Marvion Field, ETSU DL Rodney Wright, and Illinois State DB Franky West (DB).
West had a PFF defensive grade of 89.0 last season, which is the second-highest for a returning FCS cornerback. He totaled 48 tackles, five pass breakups, and two interceptions in nine starts at ISU.
From last year’s EKU squad, the Colonels lose their top three tacklers and only return four of their top 11 tacklers.
DB Nic Cheeley finished fourth on the squad last year with 57 stops, including three tackles for loss and two pass breakups. LB Jaylen Herrud was the No. 7 tackler with 44. LB Elijah Ford added 36 tackles. And DB Mike Smith Jr. totaled 31 tackles, which was 11th for EKU. DB Deonta Bembry is also back after recording 26 tackles and a team-high seven pass breakups.
EKU is a part of the newly-named United Athletic Conference, formerly known as the ASUN-WAC. The Colonels earned the ASUN-WAC’s postseason auto-bid last season. Its non-conference features two FBS teams (Cincinnati and Kentucky) and two FCS opponents that made last year’s playoffs (SEMO and Gardner-Webb).
9/2 at Cincinnati
9/9 at Kentucky
9/16 vs Western Carolina
9/23 vs No. 11 SEMO
9/30 at North Alabama
10/14 vs Tarleton State
10/21 at No. 22 Gardner-Webb
10/28 at Utah Tech
11/4 vs RV Austin Peay
11/11 at Central Arkansas
11/18 vs Stephen F. Austin
HERO Sports’ rankings
RV = Received Votes
Bold indicates UAC games