In the FCS Huddle: New programs stockpile talent

Philadelphia, PA ( – Recruiting classes are designed to fill

Sometimes the needs of a college football program are at every position.

The enthusiasm for national letter of intent signing day on Wednesday is
bursting at East Tennessee State and Kennesaw State universities as their
respective start-up programs are filling needs for the second straight year,
working their way to their inaugural season. The two new FCS-level programs
have scheduled each other for their first game on Sept. 3.

ETSU, which will play an independent schedule this year before joining the
Southern Conference for the 2016 season, and Kennesaw State, which will join
the fray in the Big South Conference right away, put together their first
recruiting classes last year. Those players redshirted in the fall as
preparation continued toward this year’s kickoff.

On Wednesday, ETSU coach Carl Torbush and Kennesaw State’s Brian Bohannon will
continue to be both salesmen and architects as they stockpile the talent.

“It’s going to be fun to see where we take this thing in the next three to
five years because it’s like building a house,” Torbush said. “You get a lot,
it’s got all the trees on it, it looks ugly and then you clear it off and it
looks a little better. Then you build a foundation, then you build the studs
and then you finish it off, and each step along the way, you have the chance
to see it get better or get worse depending on how you put it together.”

“Most times, you’re changing a culture,” Bohannon said. “We get to create one
here. I think that’s the most exciting thing about what we’re doing – how we
want it to look, it’s all on us.”

With both schools located in the football-mad southeast, there is no shortage
of outstanding high school talent bases to draw upon.

Each coaching staff has sought the advice of head coaches who led other start-
up programs in recent years. Torbush relied on the likes of Bobby Lamb at
Mercer, Bill Curry at Georgia State, Larry Coker at UTSA and Joey Jones from
both Birmingham Southern and South Alabama. Bohannon did the same with such
coaches as Lamb, Jones, Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder and Charlotte’s Brad

Not only were Torbush and Bohannon trying to find out what other new programs
did in getting off the ground, but also what they wished they had done.

In Torbush’s eyes, East Tennessee State should not even be in the building
phase. The 16,000-student school in Johnson City had a football program dating
from 1920 until it dropped the sport after the 2003 season, much to the dismay
of the east Tennessee native.

The 63-year-old former head coach at Louisiana Tech and North Carolina was
transitioning into retirement when the ETSU opportunity arose two years ago.
Former Tennessee national championship-winning coach Phillip Fulmer, who was
consulting on ETSU’s head coaching search, suggested Torbush might be the one
to usher in the new era of Buccaneers football.

Johnson City is part of the Tri-Cities area, which also encompasses nearby
Bristol and Kingsport. The school’s natural recruiting base stretches from
east Tennessee into western North Carolina, southwest Virginia, western South
Carolina, even Atlanta, which is about 265 miles away and into Kennesaw
State’s backyard. The Buccaneers will play their first two seasons at Steve
Spurrier’s high school alma mater, Science Hill in Johnson City, during the
construction of a new on-campus facility.

Torbush had only two assistant coaches, Teddy Gaines and Billy Taylor, to sign
a first recruiting class that was 46 on signing day last Feb. 5 and grew over
the next two months to 54, with 42 of the commitments from the state of
Tennessee. Offensive lineman Caleb Bartlett was the first player whose
national letter of intent arrived to the ETSU football office.

All of the commitments came aboard, as Torbush calls it, to be part of a
dream. “Because when we signed ’em,” he said, “there was no weight room, there
was no dressing room, there is no stadium. So they had to look at the big
picture and realize where we hope we’ll be in three to four years.

“Last year, I thought we had a very solid recruiting year,” he added.
“Obviously, we got a lot of kids that we needed to get to help our program.
There’s a lot of interest in our program right now. And what we want to do is
we want to recruit our home base. And when I say that, that means a 200-mile
radius if we put a compass around it.”

With the ability to split up 63 scholarships on the FCS level, the Buccaneers
will add another 30-plus recruits this year. They need to balance the signings
so down the road they won’t have too many upperclassmen and not enough spots
for future freshmen. With walk-ons, the Buccaneers practiced with about 85
players this past fall, and they held scrimmages in Johnson City, Bristol and

“What I always tell (people),” said Torbush, who has five assistant coaches
today, “I say, ‘Look, we’re going to try to outrecruit you. Because if we
don’t, then we’re gonna go backwards.’ The only thing we want to do is,
hopefully, recruit better players every year so we continue to get better as a
football team and as a program.”

While ETSU looks to take its recruiting toward Atlanta, Bohannon and his
Kennesaw State program don’t plan to let the Buccaneers make inroads there.

Their university is located about 25 miles northwest of the ninth-most
populous metro area in the United States, and the Owls have a comprehensive
plan for building their program from scratch. Bohannon and his coaching staff,
which started with assistants Liam Klein, Shane Bowen and Grant Chesnut for
much of last year’s recruiting class, but is now fully complemented, have the
goal of visiting every high school in Georgia each year while also recruiting
in surrounding states.

Kennesaw State is set to grow to an enrollment of 31,000-32,000 after a merger
with nearby Southern Polytechnic State University, and it already had an on-
campus stadium – 8,318-seat Fifth Third Bank Stadium – when Bohannon was hired
two years ago.

In the 44-year-old Bohannon, a native of Macon, Georgia, the Owls have a head
coach who will utilize an option offense, which he learned under coach Paul
Johnson for 17 years, including stops at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia

Quarterback Chandler Burks was the program’s first signee last Feb. 5, and the
Owls’ initial class included 29 scholarship players, with 26 from Georgia. The
addition of walk-ons brought the roster to nearly 90 for practices this past

The Owls have to push the needle a little more in recruiting considering they
will face a full Big South schedule this year. Unlike ETSU, whose 10-game
schedule includes four sub-Division I teams and only one Southern Conference
opponent in Mercer, the Owls will play the maximum of 11 regular-season games,
with the Big South portion of the schedule including the likes of nationally
ranked teams Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Charleston Southern.

“Our classes are really different,” Bohannon said. “The first class, and we do
this with every class, but there were certain characteristics because we knew
this would be the foundation class. We put a number for every position that we
were trying to achieve. On the offensive and defensive lines, our numbers were
higher there because we knew they take a little longer to develop, whereas
some of the skill positions, we felt like we could plug in with year two.”

With the first class, Bohannon said, “They were all like ninth-graders in high
school. We had to coach everything the first fall, I mean everything. Whereas
normally you have upperclassmen who say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ And that was
good and bad.”

To change the complexion of the roster, the Owls coaches have been more
position-specific with recruits in this year’s signing class, and they plan to
bring in about 14 college transfers as well as eight high school signees.

“Getting a start-up from ground zero, I’ve really enjoyed it,” Bohannon said.
“I’ll be here two years on March 22, and it’s flown by, I don’t know where the
time went. But they say time flies when you’re having fun. We’ve enjoyed it.”

It will feel even better Wednesday morning. The dreams at East Tennessee State
and Kennesaw State will continue to come to life.