2023 East Tennessee State Football Preview

Year 2 under Coach George Quarles brings hope for ETSU football after a 3-8 debut. QB Riddell and WR Huzzie lead, but defense faces rebuilding.

ETSU's QB Tyler Riddell drops back against Mississippi State
Source: ETSU Athletics

Team Overview

Head Coach: George Quarles (3-8/2nd Yr)

2022 Record: 3-8 overall, 1-7/T-6th in SoCon

Returning Starters: 9

Offensive Starters: 5

Defensive Starters: 3

Special Teams: 1

Players to Watch Offense

  • QB Tyler Riddell (151-of-279 passing, 1,950 yds, 15 TDs, 11 INTs)
  • WR Will Huzzie (42 rec, 541 yds, 6 TDs, 12.9 YPR)
  • WR Einaj Carter (30 rec, 436 yds, 4 TDs, 13.0 YPR)
  • TE Noah West (10 rec, 128 yds, 1 TD, 12.8 YPR)
  • WR Cam Lewis (9 rec, 141 yds, 15.7 YPR)
  • QB Baron May (10-of-30 passing, 77 yds, 2 INTs)
  • RB Bryson Irby (35 rush att, 158 yds, 2 TDs, 4.4 YPR)
  • OL Braxton Shipp
  • RB Jawan Martin (9 rush att, 41 yds, 1 TD, 4.6)

Key Losses on Offense

  • RB Jacob Saylors
  • OL Joe Schreiber
  • OL Tavon Matthews
  • OL Blake Austin
  • OL Shaun Hastings

Players to Watch Defense

  • DB Sheldon Arnold II (53 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 4 PBUs, 1 FF)
  • LB Stephen Scott (40 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 4 QBHs, 1 PBU)
  • DB Chris Hope (48 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 FR)
  • LB Zach West (35 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FRs, 1 blkd kick)
  • DL Max Evans (34 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 PBU)
  • LB Di’Andre Davis (37 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 PBUs, 2 FFs, 1 QBH)
  • DB Ton'Quez Ball (5 tackles, 2 PBUs)

Key Losses on Defense

  • LB Chandler Martin
  • DL Davion Hood
  • DL/LB Jalen Porter
  • DB Mike Price
  • DB Erek Campbell
  • DB Alijah Huzzie
  • DL Rodney Wright

Key Additions from the Transfer Portal

  • LB Tyrin Brooks (Missouri State)
  • DL Hot Rod Fitten (South Carolina)
  • LB Malik Hall (Cumberland University)
  • OL Luke Smith (Appalachian State)
  • OL Luke Slusher (Western Kentucky)
  • OL Zach Teter (Virginia)
  • RB Zach Borisch (Idaho)
  • DB Khalil Anderson (Pittsburgh)
  • LB Jordan Hoskins (Missouri State)

Preseason All-SoCon Selections

  • DB Sheldon Arnold II (2nd Team)
  • TE Noah West (2nd Team)
  • DL Max Evans (2nd Team)
  • P Trace Kelley (2nd Team)
  • LS Ryan Phillips (2nd Team)
  • WR Will Huzzie (2nd Team)

Redshirt Sports Predicted Finish: 7th in SoCon

Preseason Outlook

It’s year two of the George Quarles era in Johnson City, and the pressure cooker has been turned up just a little bit for Quarles and staff heading into year two at the helm of the East Tennessee State football program.

The pressure cooker was turned up as a result of the Bucs 3-8 record in year one, including having posted just a 1-7 record in the SoCon, with that lone win coming against VMI (W, 42-21). The other two wins for the Bucs a year ago came against Robert Morris (), which went winless (0-11) last season, meaning the Bucs two Division I wins came against programs that finished a combined 1-21 overall last fall.

The Bucs did get a win over a solid, seven-win Division II program, in Mars Hill (W, 44-7), however, it was a Division II program.

Quarles’ first season in Johnson City also had attached to it some unfair expectations, despite the return of 17 starters off a team that won a Southern Conference title and won a school-record 11 games the previous season.

While most armchair quarterbacks think it’s easy to go out and take those 17 starters and win at least eight games and make an FCS playoff appearance a later is more of a tip of the cap to the job Randy Sanders and the job he did, rather than a job that wasn’t done by Quarles, who has never been the head coach of a college football program prior to last season.

However, from any perspective which the 3-8 season of 2022 is viewed, there is one common agreement that even those Bucs fans that might disagree about how last season is viewed and that is that Quarles needs to win this season.

A majority of ETSU fans didn’t like the fact that former Director of Athletics Scott Carter hired Quarles because they were friends, and that other candidates weren’t seriously considered.

In my opinion, Quarles was unfairly judged in that light, and whatever issues the previous Director of Athletics had or didn’t have, or whatever you think about the hire of Quarles, the fact remains that doesn’t determine his aptitude as a football coach, or his tremendous football acumen.

Quarles came from Furman where he was hired out of Maryville High School in 2017 to be the tight ends coach by Clay Hendrix, and he had more success than struggle during his short four-year stint on Furman’s staff. Quarles helped develop Ryan Miller into being one of the top tight ends in program history, and one of the top tight ends in the recent history of the Southern Conference.

After all, it was Quarles’ idea to use Miller to create certain matchup issues and headaches for opposing defenses, and if you say that was just because Miller was a freakish athlete, then refer to the 2017 season in which Furman employed the services of Andy Schumpert in a similar role, and look at the role Schumpert played that season in Furman’s return to the FCS postseason for the first time in four years.

It is true that Quarles, who took over the offensive coordinator role in 2018, oversaw a Paladin offense that struggled to move the football in both the COVID spring season of 2020-21, as well as the fall 2021 campaign. But the problem wasn’t Quarles I would argue against the naysayers. In fact, Furman’s issues offensively stemmed more from the quarterback spot after Darren Grainger decided to transfer to Georgia State and Furman was left without an answer with no real experience among its candidates to replace Grainger.

That was a problem of not having a guy ready to step in or any real contingency plan at quarterback than it was anything to do with Quarles as an offensive coordinator. Having said that, like any coach, Quarles isn’t perfect. To run his offensive scheme he needs a particular type of athletic quarterback similar to Grainger and Furman’s offense in 2019. If you look at that offense, it’s more what Quarles’ offense can be with the right quarterback in the fold. A guy that takes a few calculated chances is usually one that is successful in Quarles’ offense.

While I am not sure what Baron May or Tim Dorsey with respect to that type of athleticism and ability to be a factor in the run game, from what I saw in year one with Tyler Riddell in Quarles’ offense, my opinion is that Riddell is not really the guy that is going to be successful in Quarles’ spread offense, which puts some stress on the quarterback to make plays when his reads aren’t there. Quarles’ playbook isn’t for everyone either, as it’s more in line with what you might see at a place like Mercer under Drew Cronic–it’s expansive.

I think Quarles is a really good football coach, however, I am not sure he will end up being the answer in Johnson City–at least without patience among its fanbase and administration.

The only real question for me about Quarles is his experience. I think he’s a very good football coach and offensive mind, and that will show in the future, but it might not necessarily come during his time at ETSU.

That being said, Quarles has made some necessary adjustments to ensure that if there are problems, at least on the offensive side of the ball last season, he will be the one solely responsible for them.

The good news is the Bucs have recruited well, and despite all the losses to the transfer portal on both sides of the ball, there is talent in the ranks on both sides of the football.

With Quarles calling the shots this season, I think the Bucs will look better on offense. Jay Guillermo–a former standout offensive lineman at Clemson–was brought in to coach a new crop of talented offensive linemen. The defensive losses were massive, and there are plenty of unknowns on that side of the ball, however, if the newcomers are able to be plugged in and have an impact right away, the Bucs have the talent and potential to finish much higher than anyone has them projected going into the season.

Judging how year two is going to go for Quarles in Johnson City is anyone’s guess, however, if it were based on talent and athleticism, I’d likely have the Bucs in the top five. But talent and athleticism are just two parts to the equation, and the number of unknowns that exist and lack of cohesiveness kind of force me to error on the side of a lower-third finish. However, I will say that the 2024 season looks to be one that should see ETSU competing for a league title once again. So, be patient Bucs fans.

Previewing the Bucs Offense

The Bucs got some good news on the offensive side of the ball when Tyler Riddell became one of the few ETSU players to return from the transfer portal back to ETSU. He was joined by star wide receiver Will Huzzie, who also opted to return to the ETSU program this season after briefly entering the transfer portal.

The Bucs offense was inconsistent last season, and those struggles came despite the fact the Bucs had a veteran quarterback, in Riddell, as well as one of the nation’s top running backs, in Jacob Saylors, however, the Bucs showed explosiveness in spots last season.

ETSU finished out the 2022 campaign averaging 363.9 YPG, finishing ranked 68th in the nation in total offense average. As far as scoring offense, the Bucs averaged 29.4 PPG to finish 43rd in the nation in scoring offense. The Bucs fielded the nation’s 82nd ranked passing offense, while their ground attack finished the 2022 season ranking 42nd in rushing offense averaging 170.4 YPG last season.

All told, the Bucs have to replace six regulars on offense, with a large majority of that talent coming from the offensive line, which must find replacements for four starters from last season.

The other major loss on the offensive side of the football is, of course, Jacob Saylors, who was one of the top offensive weapons in the nation last fall. Saylors sparkled in his senior season for ETSU, rushing for 1,307 yards and 15 TDs on 225 carries and also accounted for an impressive 1,701 all-purpose yards.

Saylors’ incredible senior season helped him finish out his career ranking third in ETSU history in rushing yards, as he finished his outstanding career with the Bucs having rushed for 3,851 yards and 33 rushing TDs. Saylors signed a free agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals following the NFL Draft in April.

Without a Quay Holmes or a Jacob Saylors back to carry the football in 2023 for ETSU, it’s the first time in several seasons that we have had to ask any question about the running back position. Brought in to help any concerns the fans might have this season is University of Idaho transfer Zach Borisch.

Borisch saw action in 19-career games with the Vandals, rushing for 792 yards and seven scores on 168 carries. He also saw action under center for the Vandals, completing 25-of-48 passes for 446 yards and three scores. Keep an eye on him for “gadget plays” in the Bucs offense this fall. His best season with the Vandals came during the 2021 campaign, as he posted 502 yards and five TDs on the ground.

Set to join in the ground game efforts this fall along with Borisch are Bryson Irby, true freshman Torey Lambert and short-yardage specialist Jawan Martin.

When going to the air, the Bucs have several reliable options that give ETSU one of the top contingents of pass-catchers in the Southern Conference. The top target is Will Huzzie, who is set to finish his career mentioned alongside former Bucs legendary receivers like BJ Adigun, Jeff Johnson, and Lamar Cooper.

Huzzie comes off a 2022 season which saw him haul in 42 passes for 541 yards and six scores, averaging an impressive 12.9 YPR to lead the ETSU receiving corps.

With another big season, Huzzie is on pace to finish his outstanding career in the Blue and Gold as the school’s all-time leading receiver and already has 1,980 receiving yards in his Bucs career.

In his final season with the Bucs, Huzzie will need 823 receiving yards to set a new career receiving yards record, surpassing the 2,802 receiving yards recorded by ETSU Hall-of-Fame wideout BJ Adigun. His 148 receptions over the past four years means he needs just 25 catches this fall to surpass Adigun’s career mark of 172 career grabs. His 16 career scoring grabs are 10 less than Adigun’s school-record of 26, which he established from 1994-97.

Fellow wideout Einaj Carter and tight end Noah West offer quarterback Tyler Riddell two other outstanding options in the Bucs passing attack.

Carter is an explosive option in the passing game, and Cameron Lewis, who was once a quarterback at ETSU before entering the transfer portal to go to Winston Salem State, returned last season to the fold and saw some limited action in his new role as a wideout. He’s back this fall and figures to play a bigger role. Lewis could be an x-factor at wideout for ETSU.

Against Furman last season, Carter was the one offensive threat the Paladin defense seemingly had no answer for. Early in the game, Carter posted one of ETSU’s biggest offensive plays of the season, as hauled in a 75-yard scoring pass from Tyler Riddell to give the Bucs an early 7-3 lead in that contest. Carter finished the game against the Paladins hauling in three passes for 87 yards and a pair of scores and it remains one of his best games to date as a Bucs player.

The offensive line will have a new leader this fall, as Jay Guillermo comes over from the University of Virginiawhere he was an offensive grad assistant last season. Prior to that, Guillermo was a standout offensive lineman for Clemson, and during his prep career, played for Quarles at Maryville High School. He takes over as the offensive line coach for Dru Duke, who was the offensive line coach for the Bucs last season after coming over from Furman.

The Bucs lost some key pieces along their offensive front from a year ago, including Blake Austin and Fred Norman Jr., who have both decided to move on. Also lost from the offensive front are starters Joe Schreiber, Shaun Hastings,and Tavon Matthews must all be replaced along the offensive front.

Braxton Shipp returns to anchor the offensive front for ETSU, and it’s a unit that will be a mix of veterans, youth and transfer portal additions this fall. Redshirt junior Chris Everhart, who transferred in from Marshall, figures to provide immediate support up front, as do graduate transfers Zach Teter (University of Virginia) and Luke Smith (Appalachian State). Luke Slusher has joined the ranks from the offensive front from Western Kentucky.

Previewing the Bucs Defense

ETSU enters the season having to replace eight regulars on the defensive side of the football heading into the upcoming football season, and that’s a concern, at least on the surface, heading into the 2023 campaign.

Veteran defensive coordinator Billy Taylor must replace most of his front seven from a year ago, and like the offense, the defense was too inconsistent, but at times showed how good it could be when it played as a cohesive unit.

Also gone from the ETSU defense from a year ago is the top three tacklers from last season, including Chandler Martin, who I would argue is as talented an Bucs linebacker since the mid-late 1990s when Mario Hankerson roamed the middle of the ETSU defense. Martin will be continuing his football career at the University of Memphis this fall.

The other huge loss to the ETSU defense from a year ago comes in the defensive backfield, where All-America Alijah Huzzie has moved on to North Carolina. Huzzie followed in the same footsteps of former Bucs standout defensive back Gerald Sensabaugh by transferring to North Carolina. Huzzie will start his career as a Tar Heel as a preseason All-ACC performer.

ETSU finished the 2022 campaign ranking 85th nationally in total defense (411.1 YPG) and 81st in scoring defense (30.4 PPG). Those numbers were significantly increased from a 2021 season, which saw the Bucs surrender just 22.7 PPG and just 383.0 YPG, and when you consider the Bucs had seven starters returning on defense, the Bucs should have been better, especially when it comes to scoring defense.

The Bucs were pretty good against the run in 2022, ranking 39th nationally, surrendering just 138.8 YPG on the ground, which was actually better than the 153.8 YPG the Bucs had given up in their 2021 championship season.

Billy Taylor’s 3-4 defensive scheme will be getting a massive overhaul to say the least. All told, the Bucs will have to replace 61-percent of their players that recorded tackles last season. Also gone are four of the six players that recorded at least one INT last season, and eight of the 11 players that helped the Bucs amass a total of 19 sacks last fall are gone.

The good news is the Bucs will be getting some help from the transfer portal, as it's not just all outgoing talent. The Bucs will get a talented defensive lineman, in Hot Rod Fitten, who comes over from South Carolina, as well as a couple of DBs that have a chance to make some noise right away, in Khalil Anderson (Pittsburgh) and Jordan Hoskins (Missouri State).

Fitten, a native of Atlanta, GA., will likely factor into the plans of head coach George Quarles as an edge rusher. The defensive line was one of the areas that will be the greenest on the roster for Quarles this fall. Nine of the 14 defensive linemen on the Bucs roster are listed as either a freshman or redshirt freshman.

The top returnee along the defensive front this fall is also one of the more veteran performers on the two-deep roster for ETSU is Max Evans. Evans came to ETSU back in 2019, and he enters the 2023 campaign as a Second-Team All-SoCon selection.

Though the linebacker spot has to replace its share of talent, it appears to be the strongest position on the defensive side of the football for the Bucs. Highlighting the players back at linebacker for the Bucs this fall are Stephen Scott, who had been one of the top tacklers on the defensive side of the ball last season prior to suffering a season-ending injury.

Scott combines with veterans like Di’Andre Davis and Zach West who are a couple of veterans that were members of that SoCon championship team a couple of years ago.

The defensive backfield is also stocked with some pretty good talent, which includes three players that sport good experience, with Chris Hope, Sheldon Arnold III and TonQuez Ball being among the more mature players returning on the defensive side of the football. Arnold was the lone player on the defensive side of the ball chosen to either of the preseason all-conference teams, garnering second team plaudits as selected by the league’s head coaches.

Previewing the Bucs Special Teams

As far as the special teams unit is concerned for the Bucs, it is much the same scenario as on defense, with ETSU needing to replace Tyler Keltner (17-of-23 on FGs/38-of-38 on PATs) at place-kicker. Punter Trace Kelley (40.6 YPP) returns to handle the punting duties for the Bucs.

Kelley comes off a 2022 campaign in which he garnered SoCon All-Freshman Team honors and posted seven punts which traveled in excess of 50 yards in total distance.

As for who will fill the large shoes left by Keltner at place-kicker, Esteban Mendoza, Andrew Rollans, and Ewan Johnson are the top candidates in the running for that role.

Kelley was joined on the second-team all-conference team by long snapper Ryan Phillips.

Overall Synopsis

ETSU has enough talent to exceed expectations this fall, however, the questions I have are offensively. How good will an offensive line that is pretty much a patchwork unit from the transfer portal be this fall? Other unanswered questions come on the defensive side of the ball where the defensive line is really young and a concern is being able to generate pressure. If the Bucs can do that, they have some maturity and talent returning at linebacker and the secondary, however, for the most part it’s almost a completely new two-deep. The 2024 season looks like the season in which the Bucs will be competing for a SoCon title once again, however, it will be incumbent upon the administration and Bucs fans to be a little patient with Quarles to see that come to fruition, and though the Bucs should be much improved this fall, it’s probably not going to show up as much in the final overall record as many ETSU fans would hope.

2023 Schedule prediction

  • Sept. 2 at Jacksonville State (L, 17-31)
  • Sept. 9 vs Carson-Newman (W, 31-14)
  • Sept. 16 at Austin Peay (W, 24-21)
  • Sept. 30 at Samford (L, 42-55)
  • Oct. 7 vs. Mercer (L, 14-17)
  • Oct. 14 vs. Wofford (W, 18-17)
  • Oct. 21 at Chattanooga — Rail Rivalry (L, 22-24)
  • Oct. 28 at Furman (L, 14-34)
  • Nov. 4 vs. VMI (W, 35-28)
  • Nov. 11 at Western Carolina — Blue Ridge Border Battle (L, 31-38)
  • Nov. 18 vs. The Citadel (L, 17-21)

Projected Final Regular-Season Record: 4-7 overall, 2-6 SoCon