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Sanders expects Bucs to see improved VMI team

Joe Avento • Sep 9, 2019 at 8:51 PM

JOHNSON CITY — Virginia Military Institute visits East Tennessee State in both teams’ Southern Conference football opener Saturday, and Bucs coach Randy Sanders is expecting to face a much improved Keydets team.

VMI was picked to finish last in the SoCon in both preseason polls, but that’s where the Keydets were picked last year when they gave the Bucs fits in the conference opener.

“VMI, I think, is a much better football team than they were last year at this time, so our challenge is we have to be a much better football team than we were last year at this time,” Sanders said Monday at Greene Stadium.

Last year, the Bucs were just good enough. A 27-24 victory began a run that eventually led to a share of the conference championship. ETSU made enough mistakes to easily lose that game, which went down to the wire despite the Bucs intercepting five passes and getting eight sacks.

Both teams are 1-1. Saturday’s kickoff at Greene Stadium is set for 7:35 p.m.

After beating VMI last year, the Bucs won their next three league games by a total of eight points, illustrating how fine the margin between winning and losing can be.

“I try to remind them that of every game,” Sanders said. “You just play the next play. You win the next play. The difference between winning and losing — and even some lopsided scores — sometimes is just two or three plays. It’s not that much difference in coming out on top on the scoreboard or behind.

“Certainly last year that was the case in this game.”

With ETSU clinging to a three-point lead, the Keydets were driving late in the fourth quarter. The Bucs stopped them on fourth down, or so it seemed.

Instead, ETSU was called for roughing the passer and had another 15 yards thrown in for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play. That enabled VMI to get tantalizingly close to field-goal range before ETSU’s defense ultimately held.

VMI quarterback Reece Udinski went on to a record-setting season. Udinski, a preseason second-team all-conference pick this year, became the first VMI quarterback to ever pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season, and his 20 touchdown passes were a school record.

“I think the quarterback’s a really good player,” Sanders said. “He’s got some receivers that do a great job catching the ball. They do a nice job running routes. And they throw it so much that they’re getting a lot of reps at it.”

ETSU’s Trey Mitchell, meanwhile, is ready for his second collegiate start at QB. The redshirt freshman, who completed his first 14 passes in his first start Saturday, briefly left the game with a knee injury. He eventually returned but left the field afterward wearing a knee brace.

Without giving any details, Sanders said “He’s upright and walking around. He did participate in practice yesterday.”

Mitchell’s backup, Cameron Lewis, has been getting in some work at wide receiver and Sanders seems ready to turn the 6-foot-3, 200-pound redshirt freshman loose.

“A lot of it depends on Cam — how mature he is, how much he can handle it,” Sanders said. “We had a plan with him going in where he was one of our starting receivers in a particular package. I’d been impressed with what he had done during the week.

“If you’re a good football player, get on the field, whether it’s at quarterback or wide receiver.”

Lewis is reportedly reluctant to play receiver, preferring to keep fighting for the quarterback job. He threw his first collegiate touchdown pass in Saturday’s win over Shorter and added a 28-yard TD run.

Sanders pointed out two backup quarterbacks who excelled as pass catchers while he was at Tennessee, Jeremaine Copeland and James Banks, not to mention Randall Cobb at Kentucky.

“If you’re a good athlete, why do you want to stand on the sideline and not be utilized?” Sanders said. “And that’s been my philosophy as a coach — if a guy can help you, let’s get him on the field. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re moving his position, but let’s get him on the field and give him a chance to make plays.

“I don’t know that he is overjoyed with it. I think he would like to be the starting quarterback, but until he becomes the starting quarterback, let’s find a way to utilize his abilities.”


ETSU should get linebacker Jared Folks back this week. Folks, who has been out with a leg injury, had his best game of thee year last season against VMI when he recorded 3½ sacks, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass, leading to SoCon’s defensive player of the week honors. …

VMI defensive back Kaleb Tucker was picked as the SoCon’s defensive player of the week after getting two interceptions in a win over Mars Hill last Saturday.