Zach Morrison is in his second year as Shorter’s head football coach, but he knows there are still things about his team he has yet to figure out.
With the Hawks’ season-opening contest Saturday at East Tennessee State, he expects to find some answers.
The NCAA Division II program begins its 2019 campaign facing a Division I opponent for the fifth year in a row, traveling to Johnson City, Tennessee, to take on the Buccaneers, who began their season last week with a 42-7 loss at Appalachian State.
“They’ve already knocked the cobwebs off while we’re still waiting on that 7:30 kickoff to happen,” Morrison said. “It’s definitely a challenge to open against a D-I opponent. We’ve got to play at the top of our game, and they’ve got to make some mistakes. But we look at it as a way to see just how much we’ve improved since last year.”
Helping give the Hawks some confidence is the return of several starters, including senior quarterback Tyler Pullum and junior defensive back Nemo Reddish.
With many of those returners still just sophomores, Morrison knows there will have to be some growth to get to where they want to be. But he has been encouraged by their attitude in the preseason.
“It’s night and day from last year to this year,” Morrison said. “The pace of practice is better, and how those guys are taking ownership in practice. They are definitely taking ownership of this program and being more consistent of what we’re asking of them.”
Pullum has rewritten the history books throughout his career at Shorter, breaking every Hawks passing record. He threw for 1,856 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior. Receiver Elijah Gilbert is Shorter’s only other senior offensive starter. Running back Tupac Lanier is back for his sophomore season.
Reddish, a former Rome High standout, led the defense with 70 tackles last season and was the lone Hawk named to the Preseason All-Gulf South Conference team earlier this summer. He’ll be joined in the secondary by Bradley Kirk, who is coming back from a shoulder injury, and Jeff Brewer, who Morrison commended for his dedication at the cornerback slot.
“He started almost every game last year and he’s a different person watching him play now,” Morrison said. “He’s taken total possession of that position.”
East Tennessee State went 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Southern Conference play last season, claiming a share of the Southern Conference championship. The Buccaneers are young this season, with more freshmen than the other three classes combined, but have a solid slate of returning players, including SoCon preseason defensive player of the year Nasir Player.
ETSU leans heavily on the running game, with former McEachern standout Quay Holmes finishing with 928 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago.
Morrison recalled his debut as the Hawks’ head football coach last year when they lost to then-No. 10 FCS team Samford 66-9 in Birmingham, Alabama. He said East Tennessee will present a bigger challenge on defense.
“But really it’s a measuring stick for how much improvement we’ve made in the last year,” Morrison said. “We have to understand some things are going to happen that we have to face head on and see how we adjust.”