CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- University of Charleston coach Pat Kirkland has to be breathing a sigh of relief these days.After all, an offense that only returned four starters and is filled with uncertainty hung a 45-14 victory over the defense, which has eight starters back from a squad that was ranked second in the nation last year, during April's spring game."I'm encouraged,'' said Kirkland, who has posted a 14-8 mark in two seasons at UC. "Our goal is to continue to move the program forward and be competitive. Our expectations have gotten a little bit higher."And rightfully so as the Golden Eagles moved the bar a little higher last season, posting a 9-2 record and just missing out on an undefeated season by a combined 10 points.Kirkland begins putting the pieces back together Aug. 13 when fall camp opens.There is still some trepidation on offense after losing four All-West Virginia Conference performers, including three offensive linemen. It will be tough to replace All-American running back Jordan Roberts, a former Scott High School standout who is in the Chiefs training camp.In addition, starting senior quarterback Maurice Leak is still recovering from knee surgery. He got hurt in the second game last year and tried to fight through the injury, throwing for 638 yards in seven games in which he was in and out of the lineup. Kirkland said Leak began running only a few weeks ago, but is hopeful the signal-caller can return sometime this fall.The offense, though, finished tops in the league in total yards under the direction of freshman backup quarterback John Knox, who started nine of 11 games and rolled up 932 yards passing with five touchdowns and was the second-leading rusher with 427 yards."Going into spring I was a little concerned about the offense, then at the spring game the offense runs all over the defense,'' said Kirkland. "I was very excited with the way the offense stepped up. The seniors we've got on offense are great leaders."
Kirkland knows that to take the next step into the NCAA Division II playoffs the Golden Eagles must develop depth, and that starts next month.Even though UC ripped off nine wins last year, it failed to qualify for the postseason. The Golden Eagles finished seventh in the regional rankings and the top six advance. UC was as high as fourth last year."We've got to play with more depth on our roster,'' Kirkland said. "We had a number of injuries and it hurt us."We've got a lot of questions we need to answer. We've got to have some guys that have some limited playing experience step up early and contribute. The pieces of the puzzle are there. We've just got to get it worked out.''Kirkland said on offense, he expects big contributions from senior fullback-tight end Taylor Franz, who will get some of the work left by the absence of Roberts.On defense, junior safety Isaiah Gibson and linebackers Matt Duncan (senior), Justin Avery (junior) and Matt Kelly (senior) will carry the group. Gibson and Kelly were All-WVC first-team picks last season.
"The biggest thing is we have a competitive camp,'' Kirkland said. "If we do that, we'll put ourselves in position to win football games.''UC will also be entering the new and challenging Mountain East Conference, which replaces the now-defunct West Virginia Conference, this fall."Now when you're talking about teams [capable of] winning the conference, you're talking about seven or eight,'' Kirkland said. "Each week it's going to be tough to pick'em. It's anybody's game. I think it's going to be extremely competitive.''Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.