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University of Charleston defense will remain a constant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston football team is in a new conference with a rebuilt offensive line and lacking the star that has been the cornerstone of Pat Kirkland's program during his first two seasons as head coach.

One steadying force for the former West Virginia University assistant, however, stands tall: the defense.

The Golden Eagles open the season at 1 p.m. on Sept. 7 at Shaw University in their first game in the Mountain East Conference - one of seven road contests on their 11-game 2013 schedule.

While Kirkland acknowledges the changes he faces with a road-heavy slate, he remains confident in a defense that was ranked second in NCAA Division II last season.

"It's a different unit and we're playing a different schedule," said Kirkland, whose team is playing four new opponents. "They know I expect them to be the best. We're going to play great defense and win football games because of field position."

Charleston gave up an average of 264.55 yards per game last season, trailing only Indiana University (Pa.) nationally.

The Golden Eagles surrendered more than 20 points only three times, with the most being 30 in a victory over UNC Pembroke, which was the 24th-ranked team in NCAA Division II at the time. The first time last season was in a 44-26 win over Shaw in the season-opener and the third was a 28-23 win over West Virginia Wesleyan, which was led by quarterback Nate Montana, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame member Joe Montana.

The defense is anchored by a pair of Charlotte, N.C., natives with junior linebacker Justin Avery and junior nose tackle Rockford Stone. Avery led the Golden Eagles with 55 tackles, while Stone had 28. They also combined for 191/2 tackles for a loss. Stone also had five sacks for UC, which had 37 last season, but lost 13 with the graduation of Jeff Green.

Offensively, Kirkland's offense will be without all-purpose running back Jordan Roberts for the first time. The Kansas City Chiefs running back and former Scott High School star led the team in rushing yards (1,572), kickoff return yardage (389) and points (122).

  The coach's plan is to lean on junior C.J. Stallworth and Northern Illinois transfer Leighton Settle. Stallworth ran for just 168 yards last season, but Kirkland said the duo will help make up for the loss of Roberts.

"(C.J.) has been the front runner thus far," Kirkland said. "He's had a great offseason and came back in great shape. He's up to about 230 pounds and he's running well. He just has to take care of the football and continue to run behind his pads and he'll be OK. He has some big-play potential."

Last season at Northern Illinois, Settle ran for 453 yards on 43 carries in contributing to a 12-2 Huskies team that played in the Orange Bowl.

The team's offensive leader is quarterback Maurice Leak. Leak suffered a knee injury last fall that limited his play during the season, but, in seven games, he completed 53.4 percent of his passes and was fourth on the team in rushing with 164 yards.

In Leak's absence, the versatile John Knox took over and completed 55.2 percent of his passes for 932 yards and five touchdowns.

Kirkland said he wants to get Knox, a sophomore, on the field even if it isn't at quarterback.

"John has the ability to play a number of positions in our scheme," Kirkland said. "It gives us a lot of versatility offensively to have two guys with their skill set. He's in the mix to play quarterback, we can line him up at the running back position and he can play the slot. He knows them all. He's work very hard in the offseason to put himself in position to play where he wants to play and get some snaps.

The UC backfield will be running behind a revamped line dealing with the loss of first team all-West Virginia Conference players George Davila, Nick Lepak  and Matt Farhat and second-team pick Ross May.

Jawaugn Arnold played a lot as a freshman and will return to help on the line, along with fellow sophomore Justin Johnson, who suffered a broken leg the second week of the season.

"The big question marks are really the front line," Kirkland said.

Kicker and punter Puma Nuredini is among the best in the conference, earning first-team all-WVC honors as a kicker last season. As a junior in 2012, Nuredini was the only kicker in the league to convert all of his extra point attempts (40) and was 13-of-18 on field goals to lead the league in percentage of kicks made (72.2). He had a long field goal of 49 yards.

As a punter, Nuredini averaged 40.39 yards on 54 kicks mostly utilizing a rugby style of kicking.

This year, Nuredini will also punt more conventionally so the team can take advantage of his strong leg.

"We've got to have the ability to do both," Kirkland said. "He has such a strong leg. Sometimes when you do the rugby style, it's fun and it's good because you can eliminate some returns and eliminate half the field, but he has a strong leg and he can get it down the field with tremendous hang time."

The University of Charleston opens MEC play on Sept. 21 at University of Virginia College at Wise before playing its first home game on Sept. 28 against MEC foe Notre Dame College (Ohio).

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at richstevens@dailymail.com or 304-348-4837.


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