Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor
Music blaring, hearts beating, bodies itching to experience that first taste of contact: that is right, Murray State football is back.
The Racers will take the field on Thursday, Aug. 31 at Roy Stewart Stadium to face Kentucky Wesleyan College in their first game of the 2017 season. Even days before the game, Head Coach Mitch Stewart admitted there is a different feeling in the air this week.
“There’s a little different feel this week,” Stewart said. “As much as you don’t want it to be, there’s a little more sense of urgency around the building because it’s right around the corner.”
But this feeling is not an unfamiliar one for most Racer players. In fact, with 17 starters returning for Murray State, the nervous suspense and excitement associated with game week is a feeling many players have experienced before.
For all the experienced returners, however, the Racers will be rivalled by myriad inexperience in their backfield. Just last week, Stewart announced that junior transfer Shuler Bentley will undergo quarterback duties following a summer full of questions regarding the position. Stewart said Bentley’s physique does not jump off the page, but his composure and IQ in the pocket caught the attention of coaches during preseason camp.
“He was just more productive and took care of the football,” Stewart said. “He’s a guy from a size standpoint that isn’t overly big and isn’t above average arm talent. He’s just a smart player that’s not going to hurt you. I think that’s the biggest thing from spring ball all the way through fall camp: the number of turnovers, or lack thereof, was truly what stuck out to us.”
Sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Moss said the transition from playing with a seasoned veteran like KD Humphries last year to playing with a newcomer like Bentley has not been a difficult adjustment; however, he admitted that the chemistry will take time.
“It hasn’t been a big adjustment,” Moss said. “Playing with KD was a really good opportunity because he was so experienced and really knew what he was doing, so everything flowed really well. But playing with Shuler, we’ve got to get our chemistry right and get used to playing with him a little more.”
Another newcomer who will see an influx of reps on Thursday is freshman running back D.J. Penick. Penick was the projected starter prior to sophomore Mareio McGraw’s dismissal from the team on Saturday. McGraw led the Racers in rushing yards last season, but Stewart is hoping Penick can pick up where McGraw left off when the Panthers come to town on Thursday.
“He’s an explosive runner,” Stewart said. “He’s a tough kid. He’s a freshman, so there are some things we have to go through just from a vision standpoint that he’s not used to. But he’s very polished and has picked up on the system really fast. He’s had a really good camp.”
Murray State will be hoping Penick’s run game pays off when they matchup against a Kentucky Wesleyan team that finished 3-8 last season. Yet despite a losing record and being a smaller Division II school, the Panthers have no shortage of resources at their disposal. Keelan Cole, who played for Kentucky Wesleyan last season, just got his first taste of NFL action last Thursday with the Jacksonville Jaguars, catching a 97-yard touchdown pass in the process.
The Panthers are equipped with former Austin Peay wide receiver Jared Beard, who in his junior year with the Governors nabbed 910 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, ranking fourth in the OVC in receptions per game and fourth in receiving yards per game.
Leading Kentucky Wesleyan’s offense will be sophomore quarterback Mike McGee. McGee received most of his reps towards the second half of the season last year, but still managed to complete 56 percent of his passes while recording 1,180 throwing yards and 13 touchdowns.
“They’ve got a couple weapons offensively,” Stewart said of the Panthers. “They do a few things defensively that present a problem. They move around a lot, making it hard to identify some things from a front standpoint. Those guys do a really good job at getting those guys prepared and coming up with a good game plan.”
However, the Racers will come into the game with offensive weapons of their own and a roster that Stewart said is likely the healthiest he has ever had. Starting at wide receiver for Thursday’s game will be sophomore Rajai Perkins and seniors Jordon Gandy, Demetric Johnson and L.J. Gainey.
With several high-profile matchups like the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Louisville awaiting the Racers succeeding Thursday’s game, it is easy to look forward to what is to come, but Stewart said his team is keeping everything in perspective.
“This is the biggest game we have this year just because it’s the only one that we’re going to play right now, so we’re focused on nothing but Kentucky Wesleyan,” Stewart said.
The Racers will look to pick up an early win in their season-opener that kicks-off at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31 at Roy Stewart Stadium.