Sep 06, 2019
By Blake Baxter
EUREKA — It's been nearly 300 hundred days since the last time the Eureka College football team competed in an NCAA Division III football game.
But the program has been far from dormant.
The work — the training, the lifting, the recruiting, the planning, the mentoring and the culture-building — has never stopped. The only thing that's been missing for the Red Devils is the intensity, excitement and raw emotion of the games on the gridiron.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., it all returns when EC hosts Knox in the eighth annual Lincoln Bowl to kick off the season under the bright lights of McKinzie Field.
For the past nine months and 20 days, EC coach Kurt Barth and his team have been gradually, painstakingly putting everything in place to make 2019 another banner year.
And now, they're ready to show everyone where they're at in Week 1.
"I've never been so ready in my life," senior cornerback Matt Sutton said. "I can't wait. This team is one of the most talented groups I've ever been around."
Sutton is one of 16 seniors on the roster. Two are new, one joined the squad last year, five are entering their third year in the program and eight have been there all four years.
With a 25-5 regular-season record over the past three years, those four-year seniors are the winningest group in program history.
They've been along for the ride and in the middle of the action as Eureka has gone from coming one win away from an Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship in 2016 to winning it in 2017 to conquering the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference in 2018.
However, this will be the first time everyone will be looking at them to lead the way.
"I think they're excited to prove their worth." Barth said. "They've got a chance to do something special, and I think they recognize that."
When Barth took over the Red Devils' program in 2009, the Red Devils hadn't had a .500 season since he was a national standout on the 1997 team. It took time to get here, and there were plenty of growing pains as class after class, and staff after staff, worked to lay down the foundation of a successful program.
But EC broke through with an 8-2 season in 2013, and over the past four years has proved that it can string together victories and compete and win conference titles.
It's been a minute since that tide turned. Winning is no longer an aspiration; it's an expectation. The central question now is, can the Red Devils sustain their hard-earned success?
And, more specifically, how are they going to replace two-time All-America running back Le'Anthony Reasnover?
To refresh your memory, Reasnover was the NACC Player of the Year in 2018. He rushed for 2,187 yards and 40 touchdowns while running for 125 yards or more in all 10 of the Red Devils' regular-season contests. He racked up 200 yards or more five times and reached 300 twice. On two different occasions, he posted five rushing touchdowns to set a single-game NACC record.
By the time his career was over, he had set more than a dozen school records, including career rushing yards (6,036), rushing touchdowns (95), total touchdowns (99) and points scored (600).The 10th player in program in NCAA Division III history to reach the 6,000 yard plateau, Reansover's 600 ca-reer points is the third-most in Division II history.
From the outside, Reasnover was the face and legs of the program, the engine that powered Eureka to its best offensive season in school history.
But from the perspective of everyone on the inside, Reasnover – as talented and valuable as he was — was the beneficiary of a lot of other talented people pulling their weight and filling their roles.
It starts up front where the Red Devils lost a pair of all-conference honorees in Ryan Barth and Jordan Lamb, but return a pair of battle-tested offensive linemen in left tackle Martin LeCesne and center Corbin Heiken.
"We've been very successful running the football the last few years," Coach Barth said, "and while Le'Anthony is a big part of that, probably the bigger part of that is your offensive line play."
On season-opening game day, that pair will be joined by sophomores Cody Maxwell and Trever Neal, and the lone freshman in the starting lineup, Tim Wright. All told, EC believes this might be the deepest group of linemen it has ever had.
Under center, the Red Devils have two seasoned senior signal-callers in starter Drew Barth and back-up Nick Holman. The latter has started six games and appeared in 17 over the past two seasons for the Red Devils. The former is seventh in program history in career completions (264), eighth in passing yards (2,821) and eighth in passing touchdowns (26).
"I think anytime you're coming back, especially when you're looking to replace the best running back in program history and one of the best in college football, you better hope your quarterback is stable," Coach Barth said. "And we're fortunate that we have two guys that can do it."
At tailback, junior Joe Hughes (59 rushes for 506 yards and four touchdowns in 2018) and sophomore Peyton Doughty (68 rushes for 306 yards and one touchdown in 2018) are primed to fill Reasnover's void. Though they've yet to have their time to shine, Barth says they are already "as good as a lot of the backs that have come trhough this program."
"While we're not going to have that big home run hitter every time like Le was, Peyton and Joe are going to grow into that" he said. "No doubt in my mind."
Plus, senior fullback Wesley Burris is another instrumental member of EC's backfield. Go back and watch clips of Reasnover's most electrifying runs from last season and you'll often see Burris – among others — paving the way with a key block.
EC has developed a reputation as a running powerhouse in recent years, but Barth says the team might have a more balanced offense this season. What the exact run-pass ratio will be remains to be seen, but it's not likely to be 70-30 like last year.
That will likely give EC's receiver crop of James Douglas III, Caleb Fauver, Pierce Bradford, Kolbi Crittenden, Blake Phillips and Brett Charlton more chances to get more involved. Fauver (28 receptions for 450 yards and six touchdowns) and Douglas (17 receptions for 194 yards and one touchdown) are the team's two leading receivers.
Eureka, along with Aurora, was voted to finish atop the NACC in the league's preseason poll.
"Everybody's coming for you," Drew Barth said. "You're going to get everybody's best game … so everybody (on our team) has got to up their game."
On the other side of the ball, first-team all-conference defensive lineman Macae Skaggs and defensive back standouts Colton Fauver and Tony Greenwood have moved on, but there's still quite a bit of talent and experience.
Senior cornerback Trevon Moore is the only Red Devil on the defensive side to enter his senior season as a three-year all-conference honoree. As a junior, he made a career-high 31 tackles, broke up 14 passes and snagged two interceptions.
"He's as good as we've had," Barth said.
Joining him and fellow All-NACC honoree Sutton in the secondary is sophomores Nehemiah Butler and Dylan Garrett, both of whom received ample playing time last year.
All-leaguers Austin McCarty and Mason Diederich anchor the team's linebackers, along with sophomore Amari Smith. McCarty and Diederich combined for 104 total tackles last season, and Smith received some big minutes as well.
On the line, the most experienced players are junior and first-team All-NACC defensive end Jon Jackson and defensive tackle Julius Peyton, a sophomore ready for a breakout season.
Defensive end Bryson Smith is another sophomore who received reps in 2018, and sophomore Jake Struckhoff will be the other defensive end.
Kicker and punter Tanner Kuhne (101 career extra points and seven made field goals) is another key piece to the puzzle. Heading into his final season as a Red Devil, he is eight extra points away from becoming EC's all-
Putting it all together and pushing this team forward, Barth says, is going to come down to what this senior group can add to the program as leaders. Tradition is crucial, but it can't happen without growth.
How, exactly, will Eureka grow this season?
"A lot will be told this weekend," Barth said.