This is part one of a two-story preview for the 2014 Eastern Kentucky University football team. Part two will feature the defense, special teams and schedule ...

The Eastern Kentucky University football team is headed towards the proverbial fork in the road this fall. Will the team bounce back from a disappointing 6-6 finish to the 2013 season and be an Ohio Valley Conference title contender again this year? Or will the Colonels face another challenging year in a very competitive and balanced league?

"If we execute, especially down the stretch in ball games, and manage the game better from a coaching and playing standpoint, I think we have a chance to contend," EKU head coach Dean Hood said. "The concern is the defense which took a big hit [due to graduation]."

The Colonels lost five of their front seven starters including former All-OVC players in defensive linemen Anthony Brown and Shawn Shupperd as well as linebacker Ichiro Vance. In response to how many of the OVC offenses utilize the spread attack, Coach Hood shook up many of the player positions on defense.

"We got faster moving down and faster moving over [from offense to defense]," Hood said. "Part of this rationale is a function of what we see in our league [from opposing offenses] and who we have to beat to win a championship."

Players such as junior Marquise Piton and sophomore LaJuan Smith have moved from linebacker to defensive end. Junior Trey Thomas and senior Chris Owens are now penciled in as linebackers instead of defensive backs. Senior Theron Norman is moving to safety from corner back. Even sophomore Thomas Owens, who was the team's fourth leading rusher in 2013, has changed positions to linebacker.

"I thought all of those guys looked really good in the spring," Hood said.

On offense, Eastern will attempt to rekindle its physical brand of football from 2012 when former Colonel Matt Denham ran for 1,386 yards and 14 scores. Newcomer Dy'Shawn Mobley heads into preseason camp as the number one running back.

"Mobley is an experienced back who has played at a high level," Hood said. "He is perfect for our system and what we want to do."

Eastern Kentucky recruited Mobley out of high school, but he went on to sign with Kentucky. In the 2013 season finale at Tennessee, Mobley ran for 143 yards on 17 carries (8.4 ypr).

Another position to keep an eye on this summer is the quarterback spot where senior incumbent Jared McClain will compete against University of Cincinnati transfer Bennie Coney and redshirt freshman Barton Mann for the signal-caller duties.

The Offense
A pivotal key to the offense's success in 2014 could be the play of the offensive line. All five projected starters were major contributors last year.  

"With all of those guys back and having some game experience, I think the offensive line will go back to being more of a dominant force like we were two years  ago," Hood said.

Juniors Brett Eyckmans and Josh Minor are slated to fill the left and right tackle positions for the second straight year. Eyckmans has started 18 consecutive games on the offensive line. Meanwhile, Minor started the first four games of 2013 before suffering a major injury.

The inside of the offensive line shapes up to be sophomore Ryan Garretson at left guard, senior Dustin Crane at center and junior Trey Shelton at right guard. Crane started every game at center last year while Shelton was forced to serve as the right tackle for seven contests. Garretson saw plenty of game action as a reserve and even started a pair of tilts against Tennessee State and Jacksonville State.

There is plenty of depth at the running back position. Mobley ran for 300 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry a year ago for Kentucky. Sophomore JJ Jude paced the Colonels with 637 rushing yards and twice reached the 100-yard plateau in 2013.

"Mobley is an excellent leader," Hood said. "He came in with a humble spirit and hardworking character. Our guys have accepted him in a hurry and he gets the entire offense fired up."

Besides Mobley and Jude, redshirt freshman Kentayvus Hopkins could make some noise in the backfield this season. Hopkins was the Class 3A Player of the Year two years ago at Bourbon County.

An injury to sophomore quarterback Kyle Romano in the middle of the spring left Eastern with just one experienced quarterback heading into the fall – McClain.

McClain finished third in the OVC in both passing (1,535 yards) and total offense (162.4 ypg) in his first season as the team's starter. Not only can McClain throw, but he can also run as he posted 414 yards on the ground and a team high seven rushing touchdowns last year.

Coney played in two games for Cincinnati a season ago and completed 6-of-7 pass attempts. He will be a redshirt sophomore in 2014.

"I felt we had good guys at that position, but we wanted to be better at quarterback and deeper with experience," Hood said. "We were really blessed to run into Coney."

Mann, true freshman Tyler Swafford and the potential return of Romano give the Colonels the most depth the team has had under head coach Dean Hood.

Whoever is throwing the ball for EKU will have plenty of targets to choose from. Headlining the wide receiver unit is 2013 OVC Freshman of the Year Devin Borders. The 6-5 sophomore led the Colonels with 509 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season.

The other starting receiver is expected to be 6-4 junior Jeff Glover. Tranard Chester, another 6-4 receiver, could step in as another impact player after redshirting in 2013.  

Tight end Matt Lengel was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering an early-season knee injury in two straight years. If healthy, the 6-7 blocker/receiver significantly enhances the offense's diversity.