ETSU, Kennesaw St. ready for Thursday’s ‘over the top’ debut


Season openers always carry a high level of anticipation, but for Kennesaw State and East Tennessee State it will be at a new level when the startup programs from states with rich football traditions meet in Thursday’s historic game.

Both teams have practiced for over a year for the inaugural 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff. Kennesaw, Georgia’s third-largest university, will make its football debut, while host ETSU resurrects the sport after a 12-year hiatus.

“We were so sick of hitting each other every single day and we knew we weren’t going to get a chance to play anybody else last year,” said ETSU receiver Drake Powell, one of many redshirt freshmen on both squads. “So we’re champing at the bit.”

The Buccaneers will play at Johnson City’s 6,600-seat municipal stadium until a $26.6 million, 10,000-seat horseshoe facility opens in 2017.

Atlanta-area Kennesaw State opens at home Sept. 12 in its expanded multi-use stadium built in 2010.

“Both of those games are going to be emotionally over the top,” said Owls coach Brian Bohannon, a former Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech assistant and Georgia player.

“I’ve even kidded a little about our first game. I’m not sure the first few series if anybody’s even going to know what’s going on — on either side — because it’s just been a lot of buildup.”

Kennesaw and ETSU lie in the footholds of college football powers, but hope to fill a niche in the Football Championship Subdivision for recruits and football-crazed fans.

Former national championship coaches Vince Dooley from Georgia and Phil Fulmer from Tennessee helped kick-start the programs.

“We’re building a foundation right now,” said KSU redshirt freshman defensive back Taylor Henkle. “… Hopefully I come back in a few years to watch Georgia Tech and Kennesaw play, and it’s a competitive and exciting game.”

After only getting the chance to face off against their own teammates, players from Kennesaw State (shown) and East Tennessee State will debut their football programs on Thursday night in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo courtesy Kennesaw State Athletics)
After only getting the chance to face off against their own teammates, players from Kennesaw State (shown) and East Tennessee State will debut their football programs on Thursday night in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State Athletics)

ETSU’s Carl Torbush has a resume that includes head coach at North Carolina and defensive coordinator at several major programs. The Bucs visit the Vols in 2018.

“I’ve been at a lot of places, a lot of big-time schools, but the excitement right here is in my opinion at a fever pitch,” Torbush said.

ETSU estimates a $32.5 million economic impact from football. Torbush said tickets for Thursday are being scalped on Craig’s List — an FCS rarity.

“It’s ecstatic here. I made the mistake of wearing an ETSU football shirt on campus,” Powell said, “and I got so many guys coming up to me hugging me, yelling in my face.”

Some alumni of Kennesaw State have been sporting “Undefeated” shirts since it was announced the school would start a football program.  “I said this is the best-kept secret in the South,” Bohannon said. “… What football can do is open doors and you can see all the great things in a school. Football in the South has a way of doing that.”

Kennesaw State jumps into a Big South conference schedule as a football-only associate, with road games at playoff teams Coastal Carolina and Liberty.

Citadel redshirt junior transfer Trey White, an Atlanta product, operates the option with redshirt senior P.J. Stone a big target. Defensive linemen Mason Harris (South Carolina) and Chaz Cheeks (Georgia Tech) are among four Kennesaw seniors.

“They’ve run out of a college tunnel for a football game before — a majority  of our team has never done that,” Bohannon said. “The great thing about that first game is it’s equal on both sides.”

ETSU already has a quarterback controversy and expects to play both redshirt freshman Nick Sexton and southpaw Austin Herink, who redshirted at Middle Tennessee State.

Bucs defensive lineman Joe Pittman redshirted at UAB before it briefly shuttered football.

It’s really unique,” Torbush said of the opening matchup. “I think it’s a great evaluator for both teams, to see who did it best.”

On the cover: East Tennessee State players huddle with head coach Carl Torbush. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Brown/ETSU Athletics)

Carol Stuart

Carol Stuart is a freelance writer based in Nashville.