UAlbany Spring Football Preview: Football Practice a Different Rite of Spring
ALBANY, N.Y. – Although Mother Nature dumped a foot and a half of snow on Casey Stadium this week, footballs will soon be held, kicked, recovered, tossed and caught by experienced players and newcomers alike in the first stage of preparation for the 2017 campaign next fall.
It may not feel like other warmer rites of spring, but it’s time for spring football.
The month-long player development session begins with the opening of spring football practice Tuesday. A total of 15 practices, usually about three sessions a week, will run from 3-5 p.m. each day. Veterans and rookies will vie for positions, and the coaching staff will get a long look at how next season shapes up. The Great Danes are coming off an extremely successful 7-4 season under head coach Greg Gattuso, and he hopes to lay the groundwork for an even stronger campaign over the next several weeks.
“Spring football is extremely important for us,” Gattuso said. “We really try to develop players who haven’t played a lot. We will fine-tune our offense, defense and special teams. We’ve got a bunch of players who are back from last year, but we also have a group of young offensive linemen, along with a young linebacking corps. We will work on fundamentals, our offensive and defensive packages, and our overall attitude,” the coach added.
Spring football won’t involve just physical training. “It’s not just the 15 practices, but there will be a lot of meetings and film watching,” Gattuso said. “This is a big development period for us. There are very strong NCAA guidelines in place for us. We can only practice two hours a day, so we spread them out to get the maximum amount of meeting time and watching tape. During a complete year, you have your major training times. After the fall season, you have workouts at the end of January until spring practice. Then, in the summer, you have training camp just before the regular season begins. This is one of the biggest times of the year for us,” Gattuso said.OFFENSE-COORDINATOR JOE BERNARD
Heading into spring practice, perhaps the biggest battle on offense will be at quarterback, where sophomore Will Brunson begins preseason as the starter.
Brunson, as a redshirt freshman, appeared in only four games last year and completed 25 of 45 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown. The starter for most of the season was Neven Sussman, who completed 71 of 155 passes for 1,017 yards and seven TD passes as a sophomore.
“Going into Tuesday, Will be the No. 1 guy, and Neven will be No. 2,” offensive coordinator Joe Bernard said. “We will have stuff in the plays for Neven, and both guys will get plenty of work,” Bernard said. “But the biggest thing in the spring is to get out offensive line situated. A lot of guys are graduating.”
UAlbany loses starters Kevin Malloy at tackle, Michael Senn and Matthew Campion at guard, and Adam Wierbinski at center, so backups like Luke Ritter and Griffin Clancy at tackle and Jack Dudzinski at guard should get plenty of snaps in the spring. There are also plenty of recruits available, including Ryan Solt and Eric Carter, who have strong pedigrees on the line, but Bernard said he won’t rush the youngsters.
“We feel good about the guys we recruited, but we will maybe redshirt them and groom them. It will be an important 15 practices to bring those guys in,” he said.
There is plenty of talent in the skill positions, especially at running back, where the sensational Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 1,401 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. The real battle will be for his backup. “It will be a huge spring for K.J. Rodgers. That’s why we brought him in. We want him to get reps in camps. The 15 practices will be huge for him,” Bernard said about the player who ran 53 times for 166 yards.
The receiving group will get a big boost with the addition of Jerod Diggs, the extremely talented wideout transfer from Lackawanna, where he caught 15 passes for 315 yards and five touchdowns and also excelled as an MVP defensive back. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on one person, but Diggs is a big-time outside receiver. We are anxious to get him acclimated to our system. We feel really good about him. He’s a serious kid and a hard worker. We can’t wait to get him out on the practice field,” Bernard said.
Also back will be Jordan Crockett, who led the Great Danes with 19 catches for 373 yards and three TDs last season, Austin Ellis, Tre Hopkins and Brad Harris, who played only one game but caught a 35-yard TD pass last year. “It will be a full spring with Jordan, Austin and Brad all coming back and then throwing Diggs into the mix,” Bernard said.DEFENSE-COORDINATOR BERNARD CLARK
Defensive coordinator Bernard Clark’s major duty during spring football will be to prep his young linebacker group. Gone are standouts Michael Nicastro, Abner Logan and Neil Morrison.
“The biggest battles will be a linebacker, for sure,” Clark said. ‘We have all new guys in key positions. Some of our guys have been there before, but I would say the biggest competition on defense will be at linebacker. We have a couple of guys who really need to step up. After that, we have a few defensive linemen we want to see, as well.”
Clark hopes to observe two of his younger veterans take a leadership role on a unit that lost all three starters. “The guys we want to see move up are Marcel Ngachie and Eli Mencer,” Clarksaid. “Marcel has been injured, but Eli will start at outside linebacker for us. We also want to see what guys like Julian Cox can do with even more playing time and responsibility. Among the newcomers, I like Justin Walker. He’s one of the guys I haven’t seen on the field yet.”
Clark added that he can’t wait to mold newcomer Antoine White into the Great Danes’ defensive system. The big 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive lineman transferred from Penn State, where he played in the Rose Bowl for the Nittany Lions. He could be an impact player on the UAlbany line, along with returning veterans like Malachi Hoskins, DaeSean Timmons and Nick Griffin.
The secondary lost star cornerback Rayshan Clark, who returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns, but most of the other defensive backs are again part of the Purple Family.
“Mentally, we will put some new things in,” Clark said. “We need to progress as a unit. We need to push forward. The biggest thing is we have to make sure the guys know that they must make every rep matter. They are competing at every level.”SPECIAL TEAMS-NATE BYHAM
Special teams coordinator Nate Byham’s priority this spring will be to find a new punter following the graduation of Jon Martin, who averaged 42.3 yards a punt.
“Finding a punter will be huge,” Byham said. “Right now, we have a couple of guys on the team who we will try out, but they are not true punters. We think we have a guy in Riley Dellinger, but he won’t be here until the summer. This spring, we will mess around with some other guys. We have the flexibility to use some other athletes back there and see what they can do.”
Byham is happy that his other kicker, placekicker Ethan Stark (13-for-21 FGs, 29-for-29 PATs), is back for another season. “Ethan Stark started a bit slowly for us in the beginning of the season, but in the last three or four games he was one of the best kickers in the CAA. He was really confident,” Byham said. “He has a big leg. He was recruited at Maryland, and we always liked his leg. Kicking, in general, takes a little time to adjust to the crowd and the college atmosphere.”
Byham expects a battle at punt returner with the graduation of Cam Wynn. “We will have some new guys back there, including Jordan Crockett,” Byham said. “That will be one of the biggest battles in the spring. Everything is open. Everybody is fighting for a spot.”
At the kickoff return slot, Kadeem Brown returns, but Byham is intrigued with the prospect of adding the multi-talented Diggs to his return unit. “We’re excited to plug him back there. We’ve got a lot of good athletes in the return game.”
Byham said once he puts his coverage team together, he likes to keep it intact. “We have been really fortunate in the fact that all of our coverage guys have bought into the culture. Most of them are starters on offense or defense. We are not scared of playing our starters on the coverage units. Special teams are one-third of the game, and it’s very important. There is a lot of hidden yardage lost or won, and we can’t take that part of the game lightly,” he said.
SPRING FOOTBALL PRACTICES
All practices are scheduled to begin roughly at 3 p.m. and end at 5 p.m.
FIVE HOME GAMES AT CASEY STADIUM
On Wednesday, UAlbany announced that there will be five home games scheduled for Tom & Mary Casey Stadium, including four Colonial Athletic Association opponents. The Great Danes were 4-2 at home last season.
Sept. 16 – Monmouth.
Sept. 23 – Villanova.
Oct. 21 – Maine.
Oct. 28 – Rhode Island.
Nov. 18 – New Hampshire.
UAlbany football season tickets are now on sale for the 2017 season. Prices start as low as $75. For more information, visit ualbanysports.com/tickets or call the UAlbany ticket office directly at 518-442-DANE.