The wait is over for J.J. Eckert.
Eckert and Northeastern State will make their 2019 debut on Thursday in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Emporia State.
Named the 20th head coach in program history last December, Eckert has transformed the program from the ground up since his arrival.
“It’s a new year, a new coaching staff and a new team,” Eckert said Tuesday. “I think we’ve really had a good fall camp. I think we’ve done a really good job of learning how to practice in the correct manner, going out and working hard with a fast tempo, fast reps. I say it all the time, you practice the way you play and you play the way you practice.”
The RiverHawks are coming off an 0-11 campaign and haven’t won a game since defeating Missouri Southern in double overtime on Oct. 28, 2017 at Doc Wadley Stadium in Tahlequah. They also haven’t won on the road in their previous 16 tries, and haven’t won a game in the state of Kansas since 1990 when Eckert’s father, Tom Eckert, was head coach and led NSU to a 34-22 win over Emporia State.
Eckert hopes to fix those droughts against the Hornets.
“We’ve made some headway,” Eckert said. “We made some headway going back in the spring. We made some headway obviously here in fall camp. I think that’s one thing as a football team, we’ve really emphasized of being a very conditioned football team. We’ve done a really good job as far as overall schematics of trying to make sure we’re not out there thinking but we’re able to play at a fast pace. Now, we need to be able to get into a game setting to see where we’re truly at.”
Offensively, NSU returns starting quarterback Jake Pruitt and all five of its offensive linemen — tackles Madison Wrather and Jason Staggs, guards Caleb Hash and Chaz Jimerson, and center John Waters.
“We have some seniors back, we have some experience back,” Eckert said. “We just haven’t been able to put that group [offensive line] together where they’ve had a chance to get cohesive with each other where they’re able to get a lot of snaps with each other. Having some experience back helps.”
Pruitt, who had nine starts in his first year with the program, threw for 947 yards while completing 41.3 percent of his passes as a junior. He had two touchdown tosses and threw eight interceptions.
“Jake’s done a pretty good job as far as in fall camp and going back to last spring, in No. 1, understanding what we’re trying to get done offensively, and No. 2, going out and executing it. He’s one of those quick learners that if he makes a mistake he learns from it. He does a good job of having a next play mentality.”
Seniors Boo McKnight and Kevin Jackson are expected to get a bulk of the carries at running back. McKnight rushed for 149 yards and a pair of scores last season, and Jackson added 122 yards.
Mark Wheeland and Cory Jones are back at receiver, and Trey Currin returns at tight end. Wheeland, a sophomore, had three catches for 42 yards in 2018, while Jones finished with five receptions for 44 yards and a score, and Currin recorded six grabs for 99 yards.
“We’re a work in progress,” Eckert said of the offense as a whole. “We’re still trying to figure out some things that maybe we’re good at and maybe some things that we’re not good at.”
Most of NSU’s experience is on the defensive side in what now will be a 4-2-5 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Michael Conrad.
The RiverHawks return the likes of Ashton Antwine, Courtland Clark, Jean Bazile and Ty Nichols in a speedy secondary. Antwine has been hampered by injuries the past two seasons, Bazile (99 tackles) and Clark (91 tackles) were the top two tacklers in 2018, and Nichols had a team-high seven pass breakups and 35 tackles.
Expected to start at the two linebacker spots are sophomore Daxx McCalister and junior Robert Wilkerson. McCalister logged 20 tackles last year, and Wilkerson recorded 42 tackles as a freshman in 2017.
The starting front four includes tackles Eli Harvey and Dailon Holmes, and ends Ukoh Essang and Damani Carter. Harvey had 19 tackles, including one for a loss, one pass breakup and one interception a year ago, Holmes had 21 tackles and one sack, Essang moves over from fullback, and Carter is a University of Arkansas graduate transfer who played in the Razorbacks’ season opener last year.
“We’ve got some guys back defensively that have some experience,” Eckert said. “We’ve got some guys back that were top tacklers last year. Obviously, I think the four-man front is something we can hang our hats on and live with because it gives us some advantages in some areas. I think our overall speed is something that probably is one of our better qualities right now.”
Emporia State, who has won the last seven meetings and holds an 8-5 series advantage, was picked sixth in the preseason MIAA media and coaches polls. The Hornets went 8-4 in 2018 and defeated the RiverHawks, 34-7, in season openers for both schools last August at Doc Wadley Stadium.
The Hornets return 13 of their top 15 tacklers on defense, but must replace a bulk of their offensive production from a year ago.
Key players back are All-MIAA performers linebacker Jace McDown, defensive lineman Parker Bass, defensive lineman Tre’Vaun Ammons, defensive lineman Marek Thompson and defensive back Gary Woods II, and offensive linemen Austin Unterreiner and Estevan Arana.
The RiverHawks’ home opener will be Thursday, Sept. 12 in a 7 p.m. kickoff against Central Missouri at Doc Wadley Stadium.
Other MIAA week one matchups Thursday: In its first game as a member of the MIAA, Lincoln will travel to play Washburn in a 6 p.m. start. The other 6 p.m. start is Nebraska-Kearney at Missouri Southern. Pittsburg State is at Central Oklahoma (7 p.m.), Northwest Missouri State visits Missouri Western (7 p.m.), and Fort Hays State travels to Central Missouri (7:05 p.m.).