GREENEVILLE — The Tusculum football team will open the 2019 campaign this Thursday night when the Pioneers make the 574-mile trip to Cleveland, Mississippi to face Delta State University.

Kickoff time is slated for 7 p.m. at Parker Field-McCool Stadium.

Tusculum returns 45 lettermen and 15 starters from last season’s 5-5 squad that finished tied for third place in the South Atlantic Conference.

TU head coach Jerry Odom enters his fourth campaign in Greeneville where his teams have posted improvement in each of his previous Tusculum seasons and is looking for 2019 to be a breakout year for the program.

The Tusculum defense has emerged as one of the best in the conference during the Coach Odom era as the Pioneers have been listed amongst the league leaders in scoring defense, total defense and turnovers caused over the past three seasons. The Pioneers allowed just 21.9 points per game last year which was the third-best in the SAC and the fewest by a TU defense in a dozen seasons. The Pioneers were also third in the conference in total defense allowing 312.9 yards per contest (31st in NCAA II).

Tusculum returns eight starters on defense as well as seven of its top-10 tacklers. TU also brings back 69 percent of its defensive production from 2018.

Junior linebacker Ivan Hogans led the Pioneers with 92 tackles and finished third in the league posting 9.2 stops per contest. Hogans tallied eight tackles for loss with two sacks, two interceptions, three pass break-ups and a forced fumble. He enters this year having posted at least two tackles in each of his previous 20 career games in a TU uniform and led the team with five games of 10 or more tackles in 2018.

Two-time All-South Atlantic Conference cornerback Dee Alford is back for his final collegiate campaign. The Griffin, Georgia native has been a menace in the TU secondary where he has posted 20 career passes defended. In 2018, Alford led the Pioneers with 13 passes defended (43rd in NCAA II) including 11 pass break-ups (4th in SAC) and two interceptions (T14th in SAC). The 6-0, 170-pounder finished fourth on the roster with 49 tackles including a team-leading 31 solo hits.

Senior free safety Malik Goodman earned All-SAC first team honors as well as a spot on the Football Gazette All-Region third team last year. His 146 career tackles are the most by an active TU player to go along with his two career interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 15 career passes defended. His 48 tackles were the fifth-most on the TU team last season including five for loss.

On the offensive side of the football, the Pioneers return seven starters from 2018 including All-SAC running back Jordon Shippy and All-Region offensive tackle Keveon Broadwater.

Shippy, a senior from Gaffney, South Carolina, led TU with 694 rushing yards last season on 116 carries with five touchdowns. He averaged 6.0 yard per rush and 77.1 yards per game which were both third in the conference. He ran for a school single-game record 258 yards in last year’s SAC-opener with Limestone as he also scored three touchdowns. He garnered SAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts, while also finishing the season with four receptions for 34 yards.

Shippy enters his senior season with 1,186 rushing yards to his credit, which are ranked 11th in the Tusculum record book.

Broadwater, who has been a prep and collegiate teammate of Shippy at both Gaffney High School and Tusculum, will be the anchor of the Pioneer offensive front. The 6-4, 315-pound senior from Gaffney has started in all 31 games of his TU career as he was a consensus All-Region selection last year while also garnering All-SAC first team accolades.

Tusculum’s top receiver from a year ago is back in sophomore Ajay Belanger. The 6-3, 190-pound product of Green Cove Springs, Florida, led the Pioneers with 33 receptions and 386 receiving yards as a true freshman. He averaged 11.7 yards per reception and also posted three touchdowns as was tabbed to the 2019 Preseason All-SAC second team.

The Pioneers have a stable of talented quarterbacks as redshirt freshman Joaquin Collazo has been tabbed to get the opening week start at Delta State. Collazo, a 6-3, 185-pound southpaw from Melbourne, Florida, was a two-time All-State standout at Central Catholic High School where he passed for over 4,000 yards and tossed 63 touchdowns.

Sophomore tailback Maurice Gomillion ran for 281 yards on 56 attempts last year with a touchdown. He also posted a TD catch on the year for the Jacksonville, Florida native. Redshirt freshman Thurlow Wilkins is expected to see time in the offensive backfield for the Pioneers. He rushed for 1,425 yards in 2017 at Avon Park High School in Florida where he was an All-State, All-County and All-Conference selection.

Jacob Moss, a sophomore from Orange City, Fla., led the squad as a true freshman with his five touchdown receptions. His 23 catches for 286 receiving yards were both the second-most on the TU roster in 2018 as he posted at least one reception in all 10 contests.

Preseason All-SAC second team choice Carter Mangel has taken over the starting job at tight end as he finished 2018 with four receptions for 72 yards. Mississippi Valley State University transfer Tyron Hundley will also see action at tight end. He played two season at MVSU where he totaled six catches for 63 yards and a touchdown.