Aug. 31—KENNESAW — Kennesaw State's football team will kicks off its eighth season Thursday at Samford.
It will mark the second time the Owls have opened the year in Birmingham, Alabama, against the Bulldogs, and they are looking forward to posting a better result than the last trip, when they dropped a 28-23 decision to open the 2017 season.
It will also be the fourth time the teams have faced off — with Kennesaw State leading the series 2-1 — but the first since 2018. Kickoff at Seibert Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"We're going to go play a team we're familiar with," Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said. "We have an opportunity to go over there Thursday and get off to a good start. I think it will be important for our football program to get off to a good start.
"We're excited about the opportunity. We're excited to see who we are. I told our guys after practice (Sunday), this 2022 football season, first impressions are lasting impressions. There's a lot of people going to be watching how we represent our program and how we go about our business."
After playing in the Big South Conference the last seven years, Kennesaw State will now transition into playing in the inaugural season of football in the ASUN conference, with the idea to do the same thing it did last year — be the conference champion at the end of the year.
To do that, the Owls will have to fill some holes, and one of the biggest spots comes in the middle of the defense.
Last year, they had graduate student Xavier Reddick, as well as seniors Chance Bates and Evan Thompson at linebacker. Now, the position is loaded with young players who still have to show they can be "the guy," according to Bohannon.
One player who is expected to be a young leader is sophomore Garland Benyard, the 2021 Big South Freshman Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 35 tackles, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Once he assumed a starting role around midseason, he did not come off the field.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Benyard is expected to be joined in the starting lineup by 6-1, 200-pound freshman Juan Silas and 6-1, 195-pound junior Jalen Barnum. The trio is expected to be backed up by William Jenkins, former North Cobb standout Montrel Jenkins and Mike Mincy, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
The linebacker unit is one Bohannon said he is anxious to see perform and is hopeful of consistent success.
"Jalen Barnum is high-intensity, high-motor and loves to run and hit," Bohannon said. "This is his first chance to line up and be that guy. Loves the game, plays it with passion.
"Juan, early on in camp, he was one of those natural guys that just wants to run and hit. He didn't really know where he was going, but he would run and really hit. You find those guys that just do that instinctively and get them to line up and go do their job with those characteristics.
With the temperature in Birmingham forecast to be in the low 90s at kickoff, Bohannon said he expects to play many of those players and likely a few more, as they will rotate them in and out to try to keep them fresh.
Quarterback Xavier Shepherd enters the game as a first-team preseason All-American and he, along with running backs Isaac Foster and Gabriel Benyard, may be facing a Samford defense that offers a favorable matchup. Last year, the Bulldogs allowed 39.5 points and 504.7 yards of offense per game.
The Owls finished third in the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing, averaging 278.6 yards per game.
As the 2021 season started, Kennesaw State had more than 20 players — including much of the offensive line — who were hurt and could not play. The Owls never quite caught up and struggled with injuries all season.
Heading into Week 1 of the 2022 season, the amount of players out is significantly fewer, but there are a few key players who will not take the field Thursday. Bohannon said no one on the list will be missing for long lengths of time, with the exception of running back Gene Sledge, a Northern Colorado transfer who will miss the season with a lower body injury.
Key players set to miss Thursday's game are offensive lineman Matt Olson and defensive back Jeremiah Compton. Offensive lineman Terrell Paxton, slotback Iaan Cousin, defensive lineman Kerick Reese and wide receiver Oscar Gonzalez are questionable.
There are five players from Cobb County on Samford's roster — safety Ty Hardimon (Lassiter), quarterback Will Hudson (Sprayberry), long snapper Evan Barnes (Walton), wide receiver Chandler Smith (Walton) and defensive tackle Seth Simmer (Harrison).
Hardimon, Simmer and Smith are listed as starters on the Bulldogs' depth chart.
On the air
The game will be streamed live on ESPN+ and can be heard through the KSU Owls app.