When the Husson University football team reports for training camp next Friday, it will begin a season that starts with higher expectations than any season in the 15-year history of the program. The Eagles are coming off an undefeated season against Eastern Collegiate Football Conference opponents and their second appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs in three seasons.

“I’m pumped. I’ve been waiting since the end of last season to strap on the pads again,” senior tight end DJ Allen said.

A Skowhegan native, Allen is one of Husson’s three captains this season. Senior defensive end Luke Washburn, of Litchfield, also is a captain, giving Husson’s senior leadership a distinct central Maine look this season. Senior running back John Smith, of Fayetteville, Georgia, also is an Eagle captain.

“I’ve been calling the guys this summer, making sure everybody is ready,” Washburn said. “I can’t wait to give everybody a hug, then get to work.”

Husson opens the season Sept. 2 at home against Union College. The Eagles went 9-2 last season, and their average margin of victory in ECFC games was just over 28 points. Husson’s closest conference game was a 27-13 win over Norwich, but this season the Cadets have moved on to the New England Women’s and Men’s Conference.

“Luke’s been everything you want in a college football player,” Husson head coach Gabby Price said. “DJ is a solid leader. He had an excellent junior year, and we hope he has an even better senior year. He just loves football.”

All three captains can be expected to lead by example, because that’s what all three have done already. Each was selected to the all-conference first team after Husson went 7-0 in ECFC play last season. Smith was named conference Offensive Player of the Year, running for 1,822 yards and 17 touchdowns. After making 56 tackles and 12 sacks, Washburn was ECFC Defensive Player of the Year.

“It’s exciting, but I don’t think it changes much for me,” Washburn said about becoming a captain. “I expect myself to have a high motor. It’s important to me to play the whole game with the same intensity and passion.”

Washburn has been a defensive contributor from the moment he arrived at Husson, one of the few four-year starters he’s had, Price said. As a freshman, Washburn played carrying 280 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. Now, Washburn’s game is built around speed as much as it is power. He’s listed at 255 pounds on Husson’s roster.

“To be honest, I’m probably not even that,” Washburn said of his listed weight. “It’s not that I feel smaller, I just feel better… My game has changed as my body has changed.”

While Washburn made an immediate impact, Allen’s success has been a slow build. As a freshman, Allen had one reception. He had eight catches as a sophomore, before becoming a breakout player in Husson’s potent offense last fall, making 25 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns. At Thursday’s Maine Football Foundation kickoff luncheon, Price described Allen as the best tight end he’s had at Husson. When asked if that includes Matthew Mulligan, who played one season at Husson before moving on to the University of Maine before an eight-year NFL career, Price only slightly backed off his comments.

Allen credited a strong rapport with quarterback Cory Brandon as a key reason for his increased production in the passing game.

“Cory and I, we’re good friends off the field. He’s a big contributor to why I’ve been more involved in the offense,” Allen said.

With experience came maturity, and Allen said he’s become better at controlling his emotions on the field. With Smith leading the running game, the Eagles rushed for more than 230 yards per game last season, 24th-best in the nation. Not just a traditional tight end, the 6-foot, 240-pound Allen often lined up in the backfield as a lead blocker for Smith.

“My blocking’s improved tremendously,” Allen said. “Coach (Nat) Clark and Coach Q (former Husson assistant Nate Quirion, now the head coach at Mt. Blue High School), they’ve completely reshaped the way I block. Coming out of the backfield was something I wasn’t used to.”

Allen and Washburn each said all three captains are close friends, and are looking forward to working with each other as team leaders.

“Those guys are awesome. They just love to have fun playing the game,” Washburn said. “Even when things are going bad, they get down and dirty.”

Added Allen: “We’ve been friends since freshman year. Luke was my roommate and is probably my best friend in college. John, he always thanks me after every game.”

Husson’s tough non-conference schedule includes a trip to Western New England, the team that eliminated Husson from the NCAA playoffs last season. Western New England is ranked No. 24 in the d3football.com preseason poll.

“We’re excited for it,” Washburn said. “It’s more of a challenge, but that’s what we’ve been looking for.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM