Sixth in a series about spring football across the Football Championship Subdivision.
By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Last season was the year of the quarterback in the Ohio Valley Conference.
This year, it's a question of who are the starting quarterbacks?
Position battles abound for a conference that lost many of its top rushers in addition to the signal-callers.
The OVC has a chip on its shoulder, having had three 8-3 teams (Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State and UT Martin) denied at-large bids to the FCS playoffs last year.
Defending OVC champion Eastern Illinois brings back quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Erik Lora, who were finalists for the 2012 Walter Payton Award as FCS player of the year. Lora may fall short of his 136 receptions from a year ago, but the Panthers offense might be better this season.
Tennessee Tech was crippled by injuries, going from a share of the OVC title and an FCS playoff bid in 2011 to a tie for last place last year. So many players saw action last season that the Golden Eagles return one of the more experienced teams in all the FCS.
Jacksonville State never had an OVC record worse than 5-3 under Jack Crowe, but after 10 years in the conference, the Gamecocks have gone in a new direction behind Bill Clark, whose first assignment is to fix last season's struggling defense.
After Austin Peay's Rick Christophel left in January for a coaching position with the Arizona Cardinals, the Governors have been without a permanent leader for six weeks. They hope to settle in during a spring practice that begins March 18. They are replacing a four-year starter at quarterback, Jake Ryan, likely with redshirt junior Jacob Sexton.
Tennessee State started last season with a 7-0 record, but finished with losses in three of its final four conference games. Do the Tigers, who have a host of returning talent on defense as well as quarterback Michael German, have a finishing touch?
OH, YES, THEM AGAIN
UT Martin linebacker Ben Johnson has led the Skyhawks in tackles in each of the past two seasons, collecting 131 as a junior last year.
Murray State's Walter Powell racked up 193 all-purpose yards per game as a receiver and return specialist, which ranked No. 2 in the FCS.
Eastern Illinois place-kicker Cameron Berra was a perfect 12-for-12 on field- goal attempts last season and is 27-of-32 in his career.
Eastern Kentucky has suffered some big losses on the offensive line, but Brett Eyckmans is a star-in-making after an excellent campaign as a true freshman.
Tennessee Tech quarterback Darian Stone received four late-season starts in relief of the injured Tre Lamb and showed game-breaking running ability and a strong arm.
Murray State is giving a heavy workload this spring to senior Jamaal Berry, hoping to make the former Ohio State player the featured running back.
UT Martin wide receiver Jeremy Butler made the All-OVC Newcomer Team last season, but he spent time in the shadow of All-America Quentin Sims. Butler will build on his 51 receptions and 10
Austin Peay needs a touchdown maker. Wiry sophomore wide receiver Mikhail Creech hopes to be an answer.
All-OVC running back Trabis Ward declared for the NFL Draft as a junior- eligible prospect. Telvin Hooks, Tim Broughton and Darion Hall will battle to replace Ward and his 1,422 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
Three running backs with different styles - DeShaun Sands, Zavier Foster and Jeremian Williams, who's been hampered by a knee injury - are trying to replace All-OVC standout Matt Denham.
Losing Washaun Ealey hurts Jacksonville State, but the Gamecocks have capable replacements in junior DaMarcus James, who actually outrushed Ealey last season, and sophomore Troymaine Pope.
Running-style quarterback Scott Lathrop was a revelation in winning the OVC's freshman of the year award, but he would not have gained the starting job if Ohio University transfer Kyle Snyder had not suffered a torn ACL nine days into preseason camp. Snyder will try to wrestle back the starting job.
Murray State has quarterback issues as well because Racers coach Chris Hatcher is trying to replace 2 1/2-year starter Casey Brockman. Either sophomore K.D. Humphries or South Alabama transfer C.J. Bennett should be the starter this season.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Austin Peay: March 18-April 12
Eastern Illinois: April 2-27
Eastern Kentucky: March 25-April 20
Jacksonville State: March 8-April 12
Murray State: March 9-April 20
Southeast Missouri State: March 26-April 27
Tennessee State: March 25-April 20
Tennessee Tech: April 2-27
UT Martin: March 25-April 20
*Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Foster and EIU Athletics