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Racers working to get in OVC mix

By EDWARD MARLOWE emarlowe@paducahsun.com

Mitch Stewart's second season as Murray State head football coach comes with just as much excitement as it does uncertainty.

In one hand, he will have control of one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS in redshirt senior KD Humphries. He will finally get to unleash former Ole Miss and Memphis running back Mark Dodson, the four-star running back and 2012 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year. He can put his freshman and JUCO class of 39 new faces to the ultimate test to see if they are whom he thought they were.

But in the other fist is a litany of questions. Will the defense - though improved overall in 2015 - take a leap to match one of the perennially best offenses in the country? Will his hefty class of 2016 eventually pan out and meet his expectations? Can everybody stay healthy and push the Racers out of the cellar of the Ohio Valley Conference - where they are picked to finish eighth?

Time is a cruel mistress. Four months from now, Stewart and his staff - one of the youngest in the country - will either be looking at a successful shakedown of Racer football, or they will be dealing with the ultimate frustration of not being able to crack the conference's elite.

It will start with an up-tempo offense strikingly similar to 2015, where the Racers use a burst formation, modified huddles and sideline calls to keep defenses out of alignment.

Senior wide receiver Jesse Blackburn - a preseason All-OVC candidate - comes in as an unconventional target for the Racers as a 6-foot-3, 240-pound product with fly traps for hands. Fellow receivers Mitch Stults (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) and Jordon Gandy (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) come in with the most game experience from 2015, but several additions - Malik Golson (graduate student from Delaware State), L.J. Gainey (JUCO) and Sterling Taylor (JUCO) - have an opportunity to make an impact right away.

The running game is unproven heading into the first contest against Big Ten opponent Illinois, with Dodson having been shelved two seasons and converted defensive back Demetric Johnson not having a carry in a Racer uniform. Leading 2015 rusher Roman Clay remains inactive following charges in an alleged robbery in his home state of Pennsylvania, clouding his future.

Defensively, coordinator Chris Boone will be relying on a couple of local names - senior linebacker and former Mayfield standout Jonathan Jackson, as well as junior defensive back and former Murray High School standout Dylan Boone - to help push a unit that finished near the bottom of the conference in 2015. Bookend corners in D'Montre Wade and Marquez Sanford continue to make their mark during fall camp, but JUCO transfer Zachary Wade (Saddleback CC), one-year starter Toby Omli and Zach Shipley continue to push for snaps.

Boone's defense - which often resembles a shifting hybrid of man and zone - requires a solid platoon of guys that can change between downs. It's almost a necessity with the number of different offenses represented in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The rest of the story

Murray State has a tall mountain to climb with teams like Jacksonville State, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin in the forefront of the conference. And with each school comes a significant face at the quarterback position.

The Gamecocks will be unrolling STATS LLC First-Team All-American Eli Jenkins, the 2016 preseason OVC Offensive Player of the Year. Eastern Illinois will be under the direction of former University of Kentucky Wildcat Jalen Whitlow for another year, while the Colonels have one of the more intriguing quarterback battles with 2015 standout Bennie Coney and former University of Missouri ace Maty Mauk, who transferred during the spring of 2016 following a drug-filled junior season with the Tigers.

The Skyhawks haven't decided on a starting quarterback, but there's still time for a program that has had the Racers' number in recent years. Tennessee State will be looking for redemption after falling to the Racers in Nashville, Tennessee, last season in a 46-43 OT thriller, Southeast Missouri still totes preseason All-OVC candidate Tremane McCullough at the tailback position as well as defensive standouts Roper Garrett (LB) and Mike Ford (DB), while Tennessee Tech has perhaps one of the most electrifying receivers in the conference in Brock McCoin (61 catches, 747 yards, four TDs, 271 rushing yards, 458 passing yards).

Only Austin Peay was picked to finish lower than the Racers, but the Govs have plenty to be excited about with first-year head coach Will Healy, who is now the second-youngest skipper in Division I football at 31. Healy has already had a significant impact in Clarksville; Austin Peay compiled one of the top recruiting classes in the FCS coming into 2016.

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