The University of the Cumberlands Patriot Football team enters the 2016 season with a chip on their shoulder. The Patriots fell just short of a NAIA Football National Championship Series berth and now is the time for redemption.
After a 2014 season where UC went 3-7, Head Coach Matt Rhymer and staff compiled a stellar 2015 squad who turned it around, tallying a 7-3 overall record and 4-1 in MSC East Division play. Now, UC looks to push their momentum even further forward as they look to win the MSC East and make their way back into postseason play in the NAIA this year.
UC would lose three key offensive players to graduation including Wendall Williams, Hunter Lewis, and Tor Peterson. Williams was named a NAIA 2nd Team All-American along with MSC 1st Team All-Conference after a fantastic senior season. Helping spread out the defense, Williams had seven carries for 204 yards and three rushing TDs. He also caught 15 passes for 457 yards and eight TDs. As dynamic as he was there, his special teams play will surely be missed, returning six punts for 141 yards and a TD while returning 24 kickoffs for 777 yards and three TDs. Lewis was also a major role player last season for UC, proving to be a workhorse in the backfield with 181 carries for 1,066 yards and 10 TDs. Peterson anchored an offensive line that helped UC rush for 3,427 yards and throw for 1,157 yards while scoring 54 offensive TDs on the year.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots will be looking to replace Erico Smith and Zach Balusik from the starting lineup. Smith was a staple in the secondary with 49 total tackles, a forced fumble, two interceptions, and eight pass breakups. Balusik, who was a tight end the season before, converted to defense and was a catalyst for the Patriots totaling 42 tackles, three sacks, nine tackles for loss, and a pass breakup.
The Patriots returning a large portion of their offense this year, including a number of familiar faces who were named All-Conference last season. Offensively, UC will rely on the dangerous Adam Craig and Seph Burke to get the ball moving. Craig, who owns a multitude of records at UC, returns for his senior season at quarterback. Last year, he tallied 1,144 yards passing along with 746 yards rushing for a combined 31 TDs. Burke was also an offensive pillar as he carried the ball 89 times for 678 yards and 5 TDs. He also chipped in receiving with 175 yards and a TD.
Defensively, Jimmy Preston and Cole Genders will be looked at to anchor the defensive core as they both had solid seasons in 2015. Preston totaled 64 tackles including five tackles for loss, an interception, and a pass breakup. Genders added 50 total tackles for UC including six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and an interception.
The Patriots coaching staff has been working hard on the recruiting trail as they brought in 59 signees on National Signing Day last spring. When asked about the incoming class, both Head Coach Matt Rhymer and Recruiting Coordinator Phillip Wells were excited as they feel like they have done a great job in adding the talent needed to win the MSC East. Head Coach Rhymer commented, “I’m very excited about this signing class. We have a lot of great student athletes who will be great people, great students, and great competitors. I feel this could be one of the strongest overall classes we have had. Our 2016 recruiting class is a very important part of what we are trying to accomplish here at UC, which is to win championships!”
Wells added, “I couldn’t be more excited about this class of young men coming in. Not only are they excellent football players, but these are fine young men that come from great families. We have a certain mold that we look for in recruits and we feel like this class has a chance to be really special. The majority of these players are coming from some of the winningest programs throughout the southeast.”
The Patriots start their schedule this season at home for the first Thursday night game in school history, hosting MSC West Division rival Campbellsville University with kickoff scheduled for 7 pm. UC travels the following week for their first road test of the season at Bethel University. Kickoff set for 2:30 pm eastern time. MSC East Division play starts up on September 10th as the Patriots host newcomer to the MSC Cincinnati Christian University at 7 pm.
The Battle for the Brass Lantern will take place in Barbourville this season as UC faces Union College in one of the best rivalry series games in the NAIA. The Pats and Bulldogs will hit the gridiron on September 24th at 7 pm. UC’s Homecoming game also falls with Family Weekend this year on October 8th as they host the Blue Raiders of Lindsey Wilson College. Game time is scheduled for 7 pm. Senior Day will held on October 29th as UC hosts Bluefield College. Kickoff is set for 1:30 pm with Senior Day festivities to be held pre-game. The Patriots will cap off the regular season with an away contest against MSC East Division rival Georgetown College at 1:30 pm.
Head Coach Matt Rhymer and staff know they have an opportunity to make a mark in the Mid-South Conference East Division this season. With the large number of returners along with a great group of newcomers that are bought in to the Patriot philosophy, look for UC to make strides in route to another possible MSC East Division Championship in 2016.
Story courtesy of UC Multimedia/Athletic Services