By Steve Williams

The excitement over the return of football at East Tennessee State University can be felt 100 miles away.

That’s about how far it is from Knoxville to Johnson City, where the Buccaneers will kick off their first season in 12 years Thursday night. Many players from the Knoxville area will be a big part of the rebirth of ETSU football.

First-game opponent Kennesaw State is really the new kid on the block in this unique opener. The Owls from just north of Atlanta will be launching their inaugural season.

The game, which starts at 7:30, will be played on Steve Spurrier Field at Kermit Tipton Stadium, which is located on the Science Hill High School campus. This will be the Bucs’ home field until their new on-campus stadium opens in the fall of 2017.

East Tennessee State announced in 2013 it was bringing football back. That was good news for not only ETSU but also for Knoxville area high school football players then, now and in the future.

Having the Buccaneers back in business means many young men from Knoxville and the East Tennessee area will have an additional place close to home where they possibly can continue to play the game and get a college education after their high school playing days are over.

I counted 24 players from The Knoxville Focus’ coverage area on ETSU’s current roster and eight who are No. 1 or bracketed at No. 1 on the team depth chart released last week.

Probable starters include left tackle Matt Brewer (Hardin Valley Academy product), center Matt Pyke (Anderson County), right tackle Patrick McFall (Catholic), tailback Jajuan Stinson (Central), wide receiver Drake Powell (Clinton), wide receiver Brock Beeler (Webb) and kicker JJ Jerman (Seymour).

Nick Sexton of Seymour is bracketed No. 1 at quarterback along with Austin Herink of Cleveland. Head coach Carl Torbush said that battle may not be decided until game day. Sexton also will be the holder on special teams.

Other local guys high on the depth chart and expected to be in the rotation include fullback Jack DeFur (Hardin Valley), wide receiver Hank Black (Carter), wide receiver Kobe Kelley (Grace Christian Academy) and linebacker Cameron Kuerschen (GCA).

“I think we have 33 or 34 guys from the Knoxville area,” said Torbush, “and being from there, I’m proud of that. I’ve always felt like they play good football in that area.

“Teams from there also have won many state championships over the past 10 years, so obviously they’ve had a lot of really good players. That needs to be a big recruiting area for us. We need to get the ones that don’t go to Tennessee or another FBS school.”

In conjunction with its return to football, the 25 “top moments” in the history of the ETSU program are being listed on

Number 10 on that list is the 2003 season ending with a 16-13 win over The Citadel and the following notation:

“That victory capped – what was at the time – the final season of Buccaneers football, but served to inspire a generation of supporters to work tirelessly to bring the football program back.”

East Tennessee State had been playing football since 1920. It just didn’t seem right without the Navy Blue and Old Gold.

Former UT Coach Phillip Fulmer probably could have been ETSU’s new head coach. Instead, the College Hall of Fame coach serves as a consultant and special assistant to ETSU athletic director Richard Sander. Torbush, a longtime collegiate coach and former head coach at Louisiana Tech (1987) and North Carolina (1997-2000), was hired for the job in June of 2013. He’s a perfect fit.

In February of 2014, the Bucs signed their first recruiting class in 12 years. Their first Blue/Gold scrimmage game of the new era drew 3,000 fans last September as part of a Game Time 101 tailgating event.

Last Monday morning, despite the hectic and busy start of a fall semester, ETSU students picked up all their tickets for the opener in five hours, displaying their excitement for the return of football.

A Top 10 “Things to Know” about ETSU football game day also has been posted on the athletic web site. Topping that list is the announcement that there will be a post-game fireworks display. Fans also are advised to memorize again the words to the ETSU fight song and to make note of when and where the Buc Walk will be.

ETSU will play as a NCAA Division 1 FCS independent this year and rejoin the Southern Conference in 2016.

The Bucs’ second game this season will be a visit from the Maryville College Scots on Thursday, Sept. 10.

Already on the Buccaneers’ schedule for 2018 is a trip to Neyland Stadium to play the Tennessee Vols. This season’s freshmen and redshirt freshmen will be seniors when that game rolls around. It’ll be a 100-mile trip they won’t forget.

For now, however, it’ll just be fun to play anybody anywhere.

Welcome back, Bucs!