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In the FCS Huddle: OVC spring football primer

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Updated: 2/28 6:42 am

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For a conference that hadn't won an FCS playoff game since 2000, a lot changed for the Ohio Valley Conference last season.

Eastern Illinois, which won its second straight conference title, and Jacksonville State both reached the national quarterfinals, and Tennessee State also won a playoff game.

EIU coach Dino Babers turned his two championship seasons into the top job at Bowling Green, and Kim Dameron received the keys to the program. He has to find an heir apparent to Jimmy Garoppolo, the 2013 Walter Payton Award winner, leaving Jacksonville State as the likely favorite in the conference this year.

Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:

STORY LINES

Speaking of the OVC favorite, coach Bill Clark left Jacksonville State after one season, and offensive coordinator John Grass was promoted to the top job.

After being one of three winless teams in the FCS last season, Austin Peay can only go up in coach Kirby Cannon's second season. He has to settle the roster after losing some underclassmen this offseason. This year's recruiting class went 29 players deep.

Tennessee State was dominant when it wasn't facing Eastern Illinois last season. The Tigers could be even better with OVC defensive player of the year Anthony Bass rushing quarterbacks, Nick Thrasher patrolling the field at linebacker and FCS interception leader Daniel Fitzpatrick starring at safety.

Eastern Kentucky, the OVC's all-time winningest team, lost its final three games to finish an uncharacteristic .500. Coach Dean Hood has plenty of motivational tools this offseason.

The maturation of Murray State quarterback Maikhail Miller will go a long way in determining the Racers' season. He had the unenviable job of replacing veteran Casey Brockman last season.

Southeast Missouri State has a new head coach in Tom Matukewicz and it's good that he's defensive-oriented. The Redhawks finished eighth in the OVC in both scoring defense and total defense, and last in rushing defense.

THEY'RE BACK

Tennessee Tech's leading tackler the last two seasons, linebacker Tra'Darius Goff, returns along with free safety Marty Jones, who was outstanding last season after getting healthy again.

Shepard Little's dominance at Eastern Illinois was a bit overshadowed by Garoppolo, but he averaged 156.6 all-purpose yards per game and scored 19 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore.

Little's touchdown total would impress anybody in the OVC except Jacksonville State's big running back DaMarcus James, who rushed for 29 scores last season.

POSITION BATTLES

Wide receiver should be the most competitive position at UT Martin this spring. The top four wideouts are gone, including All-American Jeremy Butler. The top returnee in receptions is Corey Jordan with 13 and coach Jason Simpson had four wide receivers in his signing class.

As EIU looks to replace Garoppolo, his backups were Andrew Manley and Ben Krol last season, but redshirt freshman Austin Green just may beat them out for the job.

Jacksonville State quarterback Max Shortell shared All-OVC second-team honors yet run-oriented signal caller Eli Jenkins seemed to take control of the starting job during the Gamecocks' big playoff run. Now Georgia transfer Christian Lemay has joined the program in a case of the rich getting richer.

Tennessee State quarterback Michael German had an uneven season, which began with a team suspension and saw him throw for 13 touchdowns with no interceptions in six games. Ronald Butler did enough to make the All-OVC second team and have the Tigers think twice about who should be the starting signal caller.

Andrew Spivey is Austin Peay's incumbent quarterback, but Central Arkansas transfer Trey Taylor and freshman Mickey Macius will compete for the starting spot.

Keeping with the quarterback theme, UT Martin's Jarod Neal and Dylan Favre split time last season, and they have new competition from North Carolina State transfer Manny Stocker.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

When last seen, Dy'Shawn Mobley was rushing for 143 yards against Tennessee in the University of Kentucky's season finale. He should hit the ground running as a transfer to Eastern Kentucky.

As good as Tennessee State is expected to be this season, there are concerns at running back. Tim Broughton was a senior last season when he was a workhorse with 1,146 yards, No. 2 rusher Telvin Hooks is recovering from an ACL tear and No. 3 rusher Adam Davenport transferred out of the program. The Tigers' hope is that sophomore Tevin Spells will turn glimpses of success into a regular job.

After moving into the starting lineup midway through the season and finishing second on the team in tackles, Austin Peay linebacker Antonio Turner will gain more attention.

READY FOR IMPROVEMENT

Having lost two starters after each of the last two seasons, Tennessee State's offensive line has a lot to prove this year. Returning tackles Jessamen Dunker and Robert Myers will anchor the unit.

Speaking of offensive lines, Tennessee Tech's various quarterbacks, including running-style Darian Stone and passing-style Jared Davis, can only be so effective if the offensive line doesn't improve after a subpar season.

Murray State ranked eighth in both rushing defense and passing defense and was last in total defense in the OVC last season. The Racers will have four new starters in the secondary, which figures to include two transfers, cornerback Shawn Samuels-Connell (Marshall) and safety DeQuinten Spraggins (JUCO).

Terrance West's FCS playoff record 356 rushing yards exposed a relative lack of physical play by the Eastern Illinois defense last season. Junior defensive tackle Dino Fanti, who had 14.5 tackles for loss, is a good starting point for improved muscle.

Southeast Missouri State was second-to-last in the OVC in scoring last season. Its kicking game wants to stopping leaving points on the field after going 5- of-13 on field goal attempts and 25-of-34 on PATs.

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Austin Peay: April 1-26

Eastern Illinois: March 24-April 26

Eastern Kentucky: March 24-April 24

Jacksonville State: March 4-April 11

Murray State: March 8-April 19

Southeast Missouri State: March 25-April 26

Tennessee State: March 3-April 5

Tennessee Tech: March 1-April 5

UT Martin: March 12-April 12

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