FLORENCE — University of North Alabama head football coach Chris Willis welcomed just over 100 players to campus for the start of preseason practice July 31.
With UNA’s season opener against Western Illinois set for Aug. 29, the Lions’ first practice date fell on the last day of July.
After posting a 7-3 record in 2018 in the school’s first season as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Lions return 32 lettermen, including eight offensive starters.
Senior quarterback Christian Lopez and a talented and deep group of receivers will lead the way for the UNA offense.
Lopez threw for 2,184 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 220 yards and five TDs a year ago. He also only threw two interceptions all season and set a school record with 258 consecutive passes without being picked off.
The Lions’ four returning redshirt sophomore receivers —Jakobi Byrd, Dexter Boykin, Cortez Hall and West End’s Andre Little — combined for 145 catches for 1,861 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago.
The Lions face a challenging schedule in 2019, with seven Big South Conference opponents and nonconference games against Western Illinois, Montana, Alabama A&M and Jacksonville State.
Four of UNA’s opponents — Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, Monmouth and Montana — are ranked in the various FCS preseason polls. The Lions will be playing seven of their 2019 opponents for the first time.
UNA’s opener against Western Illinois will mark the first time the Lions have hosted an FCS opponent at Braly Stadium since playing Troy in Florence in 1992. The Lions have played their last 11 straight games against FCS opponents on the road.
North Alabama will host Alabama A&M at Braly Stadium for the first time since 1996. The last four trips the Bulldogs have made to Braly Stadium rank as four of the top seven home attendances in UNA history, including a crowd of 14,683 in 1996.