Eastern Illinois kicks off its season and a new era under head coach Adam Cushing Thursday at Chattanooga (6 p.m., ESPN3) with hopes it can return to the level of consistent playoff contention it has previously operated at.
That quest starts with the Mocs, who went 6-5 last year (6-4 against the FCS) while playing most of their games in the difficult Southern Conference. Here are five things to know about Chattanooga, which was picked to finish fourth in its league.
1. The passing attack has a powerful punch
It starts with quarterback Nick Tiano, a redshirt senior who began his career at Mississippi State and enters his second full season as the starter. Last year, he tossed 15 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He also had one receiving and one rushing touchdown.
“He’s got a big arm and knows how to put the ball where he wants it,” Cushing said.
Tiano’s favorite target is preseason All-American Bryce Nunnelly, who caught seven touchdowns a year ago and is one of four receivers in program history to post a 1,000-yard season.
2. The running back room has a star too
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That would be senior Tyrell Price, who totaled nearly 1,000 scrimmage yards and scored 10 touchdowns in 2018. It earned him second-team All-SoCon honors. He was a preseason second-team all-conference selection this year. Chattanooga fed him the ball 190 times, the second-most carries for any back in the conference.
3. They have new leadership
Like EIU, Chattanooga is under the direction of a first-time head coach. Rusty Wright succeeds Tom Arth, who left after two years to take the same position at FBS Akron. Wright played for Chattanooga in the mid-1990s and was later the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator from 2013-16. He spent the last two years in the same role at Georgia State.
His coordinators, though, are two veterans. Joe Pizzo has been an offensive coordinator since 1997. He spent 2018 at Mercer, and 2013-17 at Division II North Greenville. He previously held the same title at Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T. Chattanooga defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward was the interim head coach at Louisville last season, but spent seven years running Steve Spurrier’s defense at South Carolina. He had a one-year stint at Fresno State in 2016.
4. The offensive line is deep
Noah Ramsey, a second-team all-conference player in 2018 as the starting center, is not even listed as a starter anymore. He was supplanted by junior Kyle Miskelley, who sat 2018 as a transfer from Division II Minot State. Chris Barnes, a former Georgia lineman and nine-game starter last year, is the backup left tackle. Four of the five linemen started either for Chattanooga or at another level. Two of the backups are former starters, and another is an FBS transfer. Last year, the unit allowed just 17 sacks, good for 33rd in the FCS.
5. Getting defensive
Chattanooga led the SoCon in scoring defense (18.5 points per game) during conference play and finished No. 14 in the FCS in scoring defense (21.0 ppg). Its pass defense ranked No. 2 in the league in yards allowed and opponent pass efficiency rating. The Mocs are breaking in a pair of new corners, but its safety tandem anchors the secondary: Brandon Dowdell was a first-team all-conference pick in 2018 and Jerrell Lawson is a preseason first-team all-league honoree. Dowdell busted up a team-best six passes, while Lawson is back at safety after splitting time between linebacker and the secondary in 2018.