NASHVILLE -- In a vote of Ohio Valley Conference head football coaches and sports information directors, Eastern Illinois University was picked as the 2007 preseason favorite in the 10-team league. The Panthers have won or shared the last two OVC Championships and have won four titles since joining the OVC in 1996.
Eastern Illinois (150 points) garnered eight first-place votes, although the overall balloting was balanced, as five different teams got at least one first-place nod. Jacksonville State received six first-place votes (139 points), followed by defending co-champion Tennessee-Martin with four (126 points), while Eastern Kentucky (119 points) and Tennessee State (103 points) each received one apiece. Those teams respectively finished second through fifth in the predicted order of finish.
The order of finish was rounded out by Tennessee Tech (79 points), Murray State (60 points), Southeast Missouri State (57 points), Samford (46 points) and Austin Peay (21 points), who rejoins the Conference for the first time since switching to non-scholarship football in 1997. The re-addition of Austin Peay puts the OVC at 10 football-playing institutions for the first-time in its 60-year history.
Eastern Illinois will attempt to become the first OVC team to win three straight football championships since 1988. Two years ago the Panthers won the title outright and a year ago shared the title with Tennessee-Martin. EIU is 15-1 in Conference play the last two years and 36-8 over the past six seasons, a span that has seen the team win four championships. Eastern Illinois returns 2006 OVC Defensive Player of the Year Donald Thomas at linebacker; Thomas has already received numerous preseason accolades, including being selected a preseason All-American by three different outlets. Thomas, who had 127 tackles last season, leads a defense that has eight starters returning. Offensively, 6’6" senior wide receiver Micah Rucker snagged 49 passes for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Head Coach Bob Spoo, the dean of OVC coaches, returns for his 20th season as Panther head coach after missing last season due to health concerns.
Jacksonville State won back-to-back OVC championships in its first two years in the league (2003, 2004), going 7-1 in each of those campaigns but has finished third and fourth the last two years. They are re-loaded with 10 returning starters and a talented group of younger players. Wide receiver Taurean Rhetta was a second-team All-OVC pick last year after pulling down 30 catches and four touchdown passes for the Gamecocks. He will continue to catch passes from returning quarterback Matt Hardin, while junior kicker Gavin Hallford was tabbed a preseason All-OVC selection. Junior punter Zach Walden earned the same honor.
Tennessee-Martin captured its first OVC crown and made its first playoff appearance at the Division I level a year ago. This year the 2006 OVC Roy Kidd Coach of the Year Jason Simpson has 12 starters back, including eight on the offensive side of the ball. That offense is led by last year’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year Don Chapman, who needs 1,257 yards this season to break the OVC career rushing record of 5,149 yards held by Eastern Kentucky’s Markus Thomas. The Skyhawks also have three starters on the offensive line and four total defensive players returning.
Eastern Kentucky will be in search of its 30th consecutive winning season in 2007, the second longest mark nationally (trailing only Florida State). The Colonels return eight offensive starters including 2005 OVC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Josh Greco. Greco already ranks among the top 10 in Conference history in completions and is poised to be among the all-time leaders in passing yardage as well. Both of EKU’s top two rushers from last season, Mark Dunn and Bobby Washington, return this year. The duo combined for 1,336 yards and 13 scores a year ago. Safety Brandon Gathof, a first-team selection last season, is one of six returning defensive players.
Tennessee State is under the direction of third-year head coach James Webster, Jr., who improved his win total from year one to year two by four, guiding the Tigers to a 6-5 overall and 5-2 Conference mark a season ago. TSU returns exciting quarterback Antonio Heffner, who was a first-team All-OVC pick as a sophomore in 2006. Heffner threw for nearly 1,700 yards and nine scores and rushed for five more touchdowns, as he ranked among the national leaders in passing efficiency and total offense. Defensively, first-team All-OVC pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who grabbed a league-best six interceptions a year ago, returns. He has been named a preseason All-American by multiple outlets.
Tennessee Tech begins its first-year under new head coach and Cookeville native Watson Brown. The Golden Eagles return second-team All-OVC quarterback Lee Sweeney and his favorite target, Larry Shipp. Senior defensive lineman Geoffrey Woods, also a first-team pick last season, and junior defensive back Maurice Smith anchor the defense.
Murray State begins year No. 2 under Matt Griffin who is building for the future with youth. The Racers roster includes 72 freshman and sophomores and only 14 juniors and seniors.
Southeast Missouri is also under the direction of a second-year head coach, Tony Samuel. His Redhawks squad has five starters back on each side of the ball, including preseason All-OVC linebacker pick Adam Casper.
Samford, in its last year with the Conference before departing for the Southern, selected in-state legend Pat Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner as quarterback at Auburn, to lead its team during the off-season. Sullivan has a solid group of returnees including receiving threat Jeff Moore and quarterback Jefferson Adcock.
As the new team on the block Austin Peay may have been picked last in the preseason vote, but the Governors and first-year head coach Rick Christophel have three very talented offensive stars back. That trio includes 2000-yard passer Mark Cunningham, 1,000-yard rusher Chris Fletcher and 1,000-yard receiver Lanis Frederick.
All-OVC Preseason Football Team
2006 Ohio Valley Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Year Don Chapman and Defensive Player of the Year Donald Thomas highlighted the selections for the 2007 All-OVC Preseason Football Team, which was voted on by the league’s head football coaches and sports information directors. The pair led their respective teams - Tennessee-Martin (5) and Eastern Illinois (6) - to the most selections on this year’s preseason team.
Returning players who were first-team All-OVC picks last season (13 in total) were automatic selections to the preseason team this year. The squad also included three second-team selections and three All-Newcomer picks from 2006, all of which were voted onto the team. Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech each had three preseason selections, while Murray State and Southeast Missouri each had one player selected. Austin Peay and Samford were the only schools without a representative on the preseason team.
The offensive unit includes Tennessee State junior quarterback Antonio Heffner, who ranked among the national leaders in passing efficiency and total offense (1,668 yards passing, 14 total touchdowns) last season. TSU teammate Javarris Williams, who was a second-team selection last year, filled one of the running back slots. Williams rushed for 1,233 yards and 11 scores a season ago. At the other running back slot was Chapman, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 15 touchdowns last year for Tennessee-Martin. The receivers were a repeat of last year’s first-team, as Eastern Illinois’ Micah Rucker (49 catches, 966 yards, 13 TD’s) and Tennessee Tech’s Larry Shipp (51 catches, 799 yards, 9 TD’s) were the preseason picks. The offensive line included a pair of selections from Tennessee-Martin (seniors Billy Krause and Adam Hansen) and Eastern Kentucky (seniors Sean Dumford and Bakahri Thornton) and one player each from Eastern Illinois (senior Anthony Rubican) and Jacksonville State (senior Devon May). Six offensive linemen were selected due to a tie in the voting.
The defense featured five players who were first-team selections last season. The defensive line is anchored by Tennessee Tech senior Geoffrey Woods (46 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks), Eastern Illinois junior Pierre Walters (38 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks), Tennessee-Martin junior Nate Wilson (48 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Tennessee State senior Shaun Richardson (28 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks). The linebackers include Thomas (127 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks), Southeast Missouri senior Adam Casper (108 tackles, 6.0 TFL) and Murray State senior Nathan Williams (100 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks). The defensive back selections included Eastern Kentucky junior Brandon Gathof (67 tackles, 3 interceptions), Tennessee State senior Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (47 tackles, 6 interceptions), who were both first-team selection last season, as well as Eastern Illinois junior Seymour Loftman (50 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Tennessee Tech junior Maurice Smith (53 tackles, 4 interceptions).
The special teams selections included a first-team pick from last year and two juniors who hail from the same team. Tennessee-Martin return specialist Jessie Burton (26.2 yards per return, 2 TD’s) was the repeat selection, earning first-team honors last season for his kick returns. New to the squad were a pair of Jacksonville State players in junior kicker Gavin Hallford (13-of-22 FG’s, 34-of-35 PAT’s) and junior punter Zach Walden (41.2 punt average).
2007 PRESEASON ALL-OVC FOOTBALL TEAM
QB - Antonio Heffner, Tennessee State *%
RB - Don Chapman, Tennessee-Martin *
RB - Javarris Williams, Tennessee State #
WR - Micah Rucker, Eastern Illinois *%
WR - Larry Shipp, Tennessee Tech *
TE - Jordan Campanella, Eastern Illinois
C - Billy Krause, Tennessee-Martin *
OG - Devon May, Jacksonville State %
OG - Sean Dumford, Eastern Kentucky #
OG - Bakahri Thornton, Eastern Kentucky
OT - Adam Hansen, Tennessee-Martin *
OT - Anthony Rubican, Eastern Illinois *
K - Gavin Hallford, Jacksonville State
RS - Jessie Burton, Tennessee-Martin *
DL - Geoffrey Woods, Tennessee Tech *
DL - Pierre Walters, Eastern Illinois #
DL - Nate Wilson, Tennessee-Martin #
DL - Shaun Richardson, Tennessee State %
LB - Donald Thomas, Eastern Illinois *
LB - Adam Casper, Southeast Missouri *
LB - Nathan Williams, Murray State
DB - Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tennessee State*
DB - Brandon Gathof, Eastern Kentucky *
DB - Seymour Loftman, Eastern Illinois
DB - Maurice Smith, Tennessee Tech
P - Zach Walden, Jacksonville State
* - 1st team All-OVC team in 2006 # - 2nd team All-OVC team in 2006 % - OVC All-Newcomer team in 2006
Note: There are six offensive lineman on the Preseason All-OVC team due to a tie in voting.
Complete team with height, weight, hometown can be found in the attached PDF file.
2007 OVC Football Predicted Order of Finish
1. Eastern Illinois (8 first-place votes) 150
2. Jacksonville State (6) 139
3. Tennessee-Martin (4) 126
4. Eastern Kentucky (1) 119
5. Tennessee State (1) 103
6. Tennessee Tech 79
7. Murray State 60
8. Southeast Missouri State 57
9. Samford 46
10. Austin Peay 21
(9 points awarded for a first-place vote, 8 for second, etc. - Coaches and SID’s could not vote for their own teams)