190817 UNA football Scrimmage 27

Wide receiver Dexter Boykin signals first down during UNA's scrimmage at Braly Stadium. UNA plays its first all-FCS schedule this season, beginning Aug. 29 when Western Illinois visits Braly Stadium. [MATT MCKEAN/TIMESDAILY]

Coach’s corner

Head coach: Chris Willis

Age: 45

Record at school: 12-8

Breaking it down

Location: Florence

Stadium: Braly Municipal (14,215)

All-Time record: 472-269-16

Conference affiliation: Big South

Last conference title game appearance: None

Returning starters: 13 (8 offense, 3 defense, 2 special teams)

Four-down territory

1. New league: Say hello to UNA’s new Big South Conference rivals – Kennesaw State, Monmouth, Charleston Southern, Campbell, Hampton (Va.), Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian (for one year). Kennesaw State is the defending league champion and it and Monmouth represented the conference in the FCS playoffs. Kennesaw State has won the past two league titles and reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs last season. It finished the season ranked 4/5 in the final polls. Presbyterian is in its final season in the Big South, as it downsizes to non-scholarship football in 2020. UNA is ineligible to compete for the conference title and its games will not count in the standings.

2. Chris Willis begins third season as head coach: Willis and the Lions are coming off a 7-3 season in which they played a split FCS/Division II schedule. This season, the Lions face an entire FCS schedule for the first time in school history. Willis began his career as head coach two seasons ago with a 5-5 record. The Lions improved by two wins last season. Willis is beginning his 18th season with the Lions. He came to UNA in 2002 as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.

3. Can the Lions run the ball effectively? After averaging 189.8 yards per game in 2015 and 184 yards per game in 2016, the Lions have dropped by approximately 40 yards per game running the ball. In 2017, Willis’ first year as head coach, the Lions averaged 145.6 rushing yards per game. Last season, it rose slightly to 149.8 yards per game. Last season, the running game produced 38.6 percent of the 3,880 total yards. That’s the lowest percentage in the past five years. However, their average 4.1 yards per attempt in 2018 was in line with the past five seasons and also was up 0.6 yards per rush over 2017.

4. Next man up: UNA will be looking to find a new linebacker after Christion Taylor was suspended for the season for violating team rules. Taylor led the Lions with 62 tackles last season, including 31 solo stops. As a freshman in 2017, Taylor was a first-team All-GSC performer and was the GSC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. Kendric Haynes, Jakon Cummings, Caleb Dawson and Thomas Smith are potential replacements for the talented Taylor.

Extra Point

UNA’s roster features players from 11 states, including Alabama. UNA has seven players from Georgia listed, with Mississippi next with six players. There are two players each from Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee, and one player each from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Louisiana, Alaska and Nevada.

Upset special

Cheer: Aug. 29 vs. Western Illinois. This will be the first time the Lions have hosted an FCS opponent at Braly Stadium since Troy visited in 1992. With a tough schedule, the Lions need to get off to a quick start as they head to Montana for their second game and to sixth-ranked Jacksonville State for the fourth game of the season.

Jeer: Oct. 5 at Hampton. This could be a swing game on the Lions’ schedule in the race to get to six or seven wins. Hampton was 7-3 a year ago, but that came against a very weak schedule that included wins over Lane, Presbyterian, Virginia University of Lynchburg, Maritime College, Mississippi Valley and St. Andrews. The Pirates added a big-name quarterback this fall when former Florida State starter Deondre Francis joined the team.

Crystal ball: 6-5. Six wins would be considered a good start for Willis and the Lions against what is an extremely tough schedule. UNA won’t be favored in many games this season, but to get to six wins it’s imperative that they win their five home games and steal at least one on the road.

Did you know?

UNA enters the season on a four-game winning streak. The Lions closed the 2018 season by beating Mississippi College, Jackson State, Shorter and North Greenville.

Quotebook

“I like our team. At some point we have got a line up and play somebody else, and that’s Western Illinois, and get a better gauge where we’re at. You don’t know, maybe you are not as good as you think or maybe you aren’t as bad as you think.”

— Chris Willis

2018 results

UNA 34, Southern Utah 30

UNA 25, Alabama A&M 20

North Dakota State 38, UNA 7

UNA 37, Azusa Pacific 35

Campbell 31, UNA 7

West Florida 24, UNA 19

UNA 34, Mississippi College 17

UNA 24, Jackson State 7

UNA 41, Shorter 14

UNA 31, North Greenville 28

2019 schedule

Aug. 29 Western Illinois, 7 p.m.

Sept. 7 at Montana, 8 p.m.

Sept. 14 Alabama A&M, 6 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Jacksonville State, 6 p.m.

Sept. 28 Presbyterian, 3 p.m.

Oct. 5 at Hampton, 1 p.m.

Oct. 19 Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Kennesaw State, 2 p.m.

Nov. 2 Campbell, 1:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 at Monmouth, 11 a.m.

Nov. 16 at Gardner-Webb, 12:30 p.m.

— Gregg Dewalt

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