Sycamores hit field with excitement and heavy hearts

·3 min read

Aug. 31—Starting tomorrow? Potential no longer matters. Results do.

Indiana State will put a new-look team on the field as it opens its 2022 season at 6 p.m. inside Memorial Stadium against North Alabama.

ISU has a new quarterback, new running back combination, several new starters on the offensive line, new specialists on special teams and five new starters on the defensive side of the ball.

It's a lot to try to mesh in one opening game, but ISU coach Curt Mallory give the Sycamores his best advice.

"I've talked to the team about three things. One is play hard. I've talked about playing smart. The third thing is block it out and play the next play. Those sound simple, but that's what we preach in practice. I know they'll be ready," Mallory said.

Gavin Screws will start at quarterback for the Sycamores. The junior college transfer from Butler Community College won the job from Colorado State transfer Evan Olaes and Cade Chambers.

Screws will be at the controls, but this space bears watching because the competition lasted deep into camp.

"I think ultimately the experience that Gavin [determined the decision]. Gavin spent two seasons in junior college and he was with spring practices. He was in our system in the spring," Mallory said.

ISU will play one of the toughest schedules in the nation at the FCS level. In addition to a guarantee game at Purdue, ISU will play the top three ranked teams in FCS — conference foes North Dakota State and South Dakota State, ranked 1-2, as well as a nonconference home game against No. 3 Montana. That doesn't even take into account the other MVFC foes that are also ranked in the FCS top 25.

That puts emphasis on the opener against North Alabama, a FCS program that has finished its transition from Division II and is now playing in the ASUN Conference.

The Lions were a Division II power and started their FCS journey well with a 7-3 record in 2018, but UNA was 3-8 in 2021, only its third losing season in the 21st Century.

The Lions return seven starters, including two solid receivers in Cortez Hall (46 catches, 564, 4 TD) and Takairee Kennebrew (27, 520, 8 TD) as well as running backs Parker Driggers (470 yards) and ShunDerrick Powell (154). Quarterback Jaylen Gipson is listed as the starter, he threw for 548 yards and six touchdowns in part-time duty in 2021.

UNA, coached by Chris Willis, will try to run tempo at times, a test for ISU's defense.

"They have a lot of experience at the wide receiver spot and they have a lot of explosiveness," Mallory noted. "They're going to run fast at times and we have to be disciplined."

Defensively, UNA is greener with only four returning starters. One of them is safety Kyree Fields, who has impressed Mallory on film.

"He's one heck of a player. He's a run-stopper. He knocks you down when he hits you. He's the leader on that side of the ball," Mallory said.

The home opener will also be a bittersweet occasion as ISU plays its first game after the death of football players Christian Eubanks and Caleb VanHooser. Tribute will be paid to the players and the team will wear stickers on their helmets in tribute.

Given what the team has been through since the tragedy on Aug. 21? Playing a game will offer an oasis from grief.

"Coach Mal has done a good job keeping us focused and locked in on the game, but also, not forgetting what has happened. For us to go out and play for those guys makes this season mean even more," ISU linebacker Geoffrey Brown said.