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.