For a university playing just its second season of football since reviving the program, East Tennessee State experienced some significant highs in 2016.
It also had some lows, naturally.
There were wins against Top 25 Football Championship Subdivision teams Kennesaw State and Samford, the latter nearly missing the playoffs as a result. There was also a four-week span in which ETSU was outscored 157-21.
With 19 starters returning from a 5-6 team, the Buccaneers have higher, more consistent goals set for 2017.
East Tennessee State
2016 record: 5-6, 2-6 in SoCon
Season opener: Sept. 2 vs. Limestone
Date against UTC: Nov. 18 in Chattanooga, 2 p.m.
Projected order of finish (coaches/media): 8/8
Coming Sunday: Furman
"We had some really high highs, and some super low lows," quarterback Austin Herink said at SoCon media day early this week. "We've showed what we can do, the great teams we can beat, but we also showed if we don't play well we can get beat pretty bad, so finding the way to continue getting better and playing more consistently at a high level is going to be really key for us this year.
"We have a more mature team as well, and having another year in the SoCon will help with that."
Herink, who played at Cleveland High School, has started all 22 games for the revived ETSU program — tied for most experienced returning starting quarterback in the Southern Conference with The Citadel's Dominique Allen. And Herink's growth has mirrored that of the team: He took a ton of punishment as a freshman, as the first-year Bucs were forced into a lot of third-and-long situations, which allowed opposing defenses to "pin their ears back and hit him hard," according to coach Carl Torbush. Last season, the team was able to get the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder into some more manageable situations on third downs, which opened the playbook even more for the Bucs.
Torbush had high praise for Herink, calling him a "great leader and a great young man."
"He's the type of guy that's going to be a head football coach or athletic director one of these days. He's got that type of personality, that type of temperament," Torbush said. "If I had to pick out one leader on the team, it'd be him. This spring I saw him be better than at any time since he's been here. He showed poise, maturity and bounces back from adversity very well.
"For us to be the type of team and program we want to be, he needs to be successful this year."facebook
Even with as many Top 25 wins last year as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and The Citadel and a 5-6 record, the Bucs were selected eighth in the SoCon preseason, a ranking that Torbush likes. The team went through the league gauntlet for the first time last year, something he and Herink think will help in an improved league this season.
"Instead of having a fresh opponent each week, now we've studied each opponent so we have a baseline of information on them," Herink said. "I'm sure we'll use our notes from last year and be able to build upon it instead of having a brand new opponent we've never seen before. It helps us this year and even more so as we go on.
"As a start-up program, you've got to take your lumps the first couple of years, but you get better and better each year."
ETSU started from scratch in 2014, bringing in freshman classes for two seasons and redshirting them. Now, with so many players back with experience from being thrown to the wolves for two seasons, Torbush feels the team is ready to compete this season in a league that he routinely calls "the SEC of the FCS."
"If you're not ready to play each and every week, you're going to have a hard time winning," he said. "There's 4-6 teams in our league that, if they play like they think they can play, they'll be a playoff contender.
"Everything we do is a plus; if an athlete is a competitor, he likes being picked not to win so he is able to prove people wrong when they do win. It's an exciting time, but we have to realize that we won three ballgames last season we easily could have lost, but at the same time if we do what we want to do, we'll be competitive and have a chance to win in the fourth quarter."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.