Photo: KSU Athletics/Kyle Hess
Photo: KSU Athletics/Kyle Hess

Strong upperclassmen presence marks start of Kennesaw State camp

Kennesaw State’s post-practice huddle lasted longer than usual Wednesday as the Owls ended their first day of camp.

Every player was engaged, eyes focused on coach Brian Bohannon as he challenged the reigning Big South champions to pick up the tempo.

Wednesday’s effort was not up to his expectation.

“I think we got a lot of young guys learning what to do and how to do it, so that was really it,” Bohannon said. “If we want to be a championship football team and all that, we have to practice at a little higher pace.”

A “championship effort, attitude and toughness” is what Bohannon has preached to his players since the program’s first season in 2015. Last season, the Owls began to reap some of the rewards from that effort. 

Kennesaw State went 12-2, won the Big South title and made it to the FCS quarterfinals in its third season as a program. The success wasn’t just because of the difficulty defending the triple option, but because of the presence of several upperclassmen, many whom reported to preseason camp this week for the fourth time as Owls.

Those returners, including senior quarterback Chandler Burks and senior linebacker Anthony Gore Jr., helped transform a start-up program into a contender for the FCS title in three seasons, demonstrating the type of effort Bohannon wants the young Owls to continue after Burks and Gore are gone.

“That class, especially those two guys, what they’ve done here is really unreal when you think about what’s happened. ... The whole objective for those guys when we signed them was, ‘Listen we want you to leave a legacy and lay a foundation.’ ... There’s still work to be done this year to continue to finish what they started and continue to lay that foundation,” Bohannon said after Wednesday’s practice.

Even though the Owls had several upperclassmen on the roster last season when they won their conference for the first time, the impact of the returning upperclassmen on offense this season is even more remarkable, with 10 starters returning, nine of them seniors.

The only open spot on offense is at tackle after the departure of Zach Mitchler.

With nearly an entire offense that’s tasted a conference championship returning. Burks could feel the chemistry was stronger than ever one day into training camp. 

“It’s a huge thing right now. ... We’re going to rely on their leadership, rely on their experience and rely on them to lead these young guys and get them ready to build that depth in positions and get out there and compete,” Burks said after Wednesday’s training camp. 

Last season’s Big South Offensive Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Burks threw for 1,307 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions and rushed for 1,103 yards and 18 touchdowns — becoming the first Owl to pass and rush for over 1,000 yards.

While the experience on offense will undeniably be a strength for the Owls, the lack of returners on defense is more concerning.

The departures of starters at cornerback, safety, linebacker and defensive end means those positions are wide open during camp and might not be solidified until a few games into the season, Bohannon said Wednesday.

The noticeable turnover on defense doesn’t just mean the loss of experienced players, but the loss of leaders such as linebacker Izzy Sam and defensive back Taylor Henkle. 

Gore recognized the void and has accepted he must fill it as one of the more tenured players on the roster.

“No seniors were here when (the first signing class) got here and now we are seniors, so it’s very special to me and it’s going to be a very special season. ... I feel like (having more seniors gives) a good sense of leadership,” Gore said. “Because every team needs leaders and sometimes it comes from the young guys, but knowing that we’ve been here is a big emphasis to make it upon us to become leaders and be leaders for the younger guys.”

Kennesaw State will kickoff its campaign for an FCS national championship Aug. 30 at Georgia State Stadium when they face the Georgia State Panthers.

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