ROLLA, Mo. – As has been in the case in all but one of the past six seasons, Missouri S&T's football team will open its season at Allgood-Bailey Stadium as it begins its 125th campaign Thursday night by hosting Eastern New Mexico in a 7 p.m. contest.
Thursday's matchup features two teams carrying high expectations into the upcoming season. Missouri S&T finished 7-4 last fall and was picked to finish in a tie for second place in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, while the visiting Greyhounds were tabbed for a third place result in the LSC after going 8-2 a year ago.
In what might be a first in NCAA Division II history, Thursday's game will pit two teams that each faced off against a team that played in last year's Division II national championship game. The Miners suffered a tough loss at the hands of West Florida, who lost in the title game to a Texas A&M-Commerce squad that handed Eastern New Mexico one of its two setbacks a year ago.
ABOUT THE MINERS: Missouri S&T comes into the 2018 season picked to finish near the top of the GLVC as it returns eight starters on each side of the ball, including an offensive unit that posted the best numbers of any Miner offense in history last year.
The Miners piled up a school record 5,057 yards in 2017 -- the first time in program history that a Miner team had accumulated 5,000 offensive yards in a season -- and scored a total of 410 points, a mark exceeded by only two previous S&T squads.
The returning group on offense includes record setters Tyler Swart (Dickinson, TX/Dickinson) at quarterback and Deshawn Jones (Olympia Fields, IL/Rich Central) at running back as part of a veteran group at the skill positions. Swart broke the Miners' career passing yardage record a year ago after throwing for 3,165 yards and 22 touchdowns, while Jones established new S&T single season standards with 1,579 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns as he earned All-America honors.
S&T also returns five receivers that earned All-GLVC honors last season, led by first-team selection Justin Vaughn (Houston, TX/George Bush) and second-team picks Braxton Graham (Seneca, MO/Seneca) and Logan Armontrout (Centralia, MO/Centralia). Vaughn emerged as the Miners' top pass catcher with 40 receptions in 2017, while Armontrout caught 37 balls and Graham had 36 despite missing half of the season due to an injury.
Meanwhile, the Miner defense finished last season as the top-ranked unit in the GLVC, allowing only 294.3 yards per game and only 91.3 per game on the ground. Linebacker Landon Compton (Lamar, MO/Lamar) is the top returning tackler for the Miners with 78 stops -- and 16 for a loss -- while Bo Brooks (Canutillo, TX/Canutillo) finished with 68 tackles last season.
Defensive end Tershawn Wharton (University City, MO/University City) was among the NCAA Division II leaders last fall in both tackles for a loss with a school record 21 and 13.5 quarterback sacks, as he heads up a unit that led the GLVC with 37 sacks.
Another returner, cornerback Roderick Chapman (Los Angeles, CA/Jefferson), had a team-high 17 passes defended and led the conference with five interceptions.
ABOUT EASTERN NEW MEXICO: The Greyhounds were in contentiion for a spot in the NCAA playoffs last year before dropping their season finale to Midwestern State, but also return a number of talented players to the mix for the new season in an effort to reach post-season play.
Eastern New Mexico's run-based offense -- which led the nation with an average of 352.7 yards per game last fall -- has to replace leading rusher Kamal Cass, but quarterback Wyatt Strand is back after running for 678 yards himself.
The Greyhounds had four individuals who rushed for better than 400 yards last season, including Johnny Smith with 449 yards and Tayshaun Gary with 417.
Strand threw the ball only 96 times last season, but did complete 54.2 percent of those throws for 783 yards and four touchdowns. Russell Montoya had a team-high 11 receptions, while Smith averaged 34.3 yards per catch on his seven receptions.
On the defensive side, the Greyhounds return three of the top six tacklers from the 2017 campaign, led by defensive back Charles Countee, who had a team-high 47 stops and 11 pass breakups last fall. Fellow secondary mate Dante
Urrea recorded 46 tackles last season, while linebacker Brad Hardin finished the season with 39 tackles and 6.5 for a loss.
ENMU's defense was also tough against the run as it gave up only 80.8 yards per game in that category as only four of its 10 opponents reached the 100-yard mark last season.