In three weeks, Ashland University's football team will begin the 2017 season at Indiana, Pa.
The official run-up to the season-opener started on Thursday (Aug. 10) morning with the first practice of the season with a roster 146 players strong.
"Another year, another camp," said Eagle head coach Lee Owens, starting his 14th season at the helm and needing just two wins for 100 at Ashland. "I can't remember another camp in a lot of years of coaching where we were able to do hurry-up offense at the end. But we have a lot of veterans, starting with the quarterback position (redshirt senior Travis Tarnowski), a lot of starts up front, a bevy of backs, a lot of experience at receiver.
"We've got to figure out who will be the next tight end. But that's why you can do what we did today. We're offensively, for sure, way ahead of the game."
The loss of All-American tight end Adam Shaheen, playing in his first National Football League preseason game on Thursday night for the Chicago Bears, is significant. However, three of the top four wide receivers from 2016 return, and another, senior Jamie Hence, comes back after missing all of 2016 due to injury.
"Being back on the field, it felt amazing," said Hence, the team's No. 1 wideout in 2015 with 35 catches. "Just being out here with the team again…it's been a long summer. We put a lot of work into it, hoping it pays off this season.
"I was here for most of spring ball, so that really got me back into the groove of things. We lost Adam, but we brought back a lot of starters. We'll miss Adam, but we're going to need some guys to step up this season and, hopefully, we'll get it done."
Defensively, Ashland is missing five starters from a 2016 unit which far and away led the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in scoring defense (15.1 ppg.) and total defense (297.5 ypg.). Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tim Rose will have a veteran secondary and some enthusiastic fresh faces on hand for the new season.
"What we've lost in experience, particularly in the linebacker spot, we've got youth and we've got passion," Rose said. "Not that we didn't have it a year ago, but we've got guys who've never played, so the excitement level is tremendous.
"We'll play a lot of guys, and the schedule, as we all know, is appreciably more difficult. But I have every confidence we are going to be a very good defense."
One of the players looking to potentially play a starring role within that Eagle defense is sophomore inside linebacker Clay Shreve. As a true freshman last year, Shreve saw action on both sides of the ball, playing every game and carrying five times for 40 yards and a touchdown as a fullback and recording seven total tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble on defense and special teams.
"It's great to be out here. We just have a lot of energy," Shreve said. "Everyone's flying around. Everyone's ready to go. I'm treating it like I don't have the starting spot, because nothing's set in stone. I'm going to go hard every play."
Ashland's 2017 opener is a road contest against an IUP squad picked fifth in the preseason poll in the Lindy's Sports College Football National 2017 Preview magazine.
"We have to be ready three weeks from today. We've got to be mid-season game ready," Owens said.
Shreve said, "I've been counting it down for a long time, so I'm pretty excited about it."