Season preview: Football set to open 2017
ALBANY, N.Y. – Back in Spring Practice, the University at Albany football team adopted the slogan “Every Rep Matters,” a reminder that success is built on the practice fields, one repetition at a time.
Six months later, the Great Danes are ready to find out how much the hard work of spring and summer will pay off when they open the season Saturday at Old Dominion.
Here’s what you need to know about a 2017 team that begins its fifth season in the Colonial Athletic Association with several preseason accolades, a challenging slate of games and hopes of competing at the top of the Football Championship Subdivision’s most challenging conference.
FOR STARTERS: For the third consecutive year, UAlbany opens against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. Last season, the matchup produced one of the greatest wins in program history: a 22-16 upset of Buffalo on the road that was the Great Danes’ first-ever FBS victory. This year’s task is even taller. Old Dominion is coming off a 10-3 season that included a victory over Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl.
HONOR ROLL: UAlbany placed three players (RB Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, FB/TE Anthony Manzo-Lewis and DE Malachi Hoskins) on the preseason CAA All-Conference team. Ibitokun-Hanks, coming off a year in which he led the league with 1,401 yards, and Manzo-Lewis were named to STATS preseason All-America teams. As a team, the Great Danes were picked to finish sixth in the CAA preseason poll and were ranked No. 24 in the STATS Preseason Top 25.
TV TIME: It won’t be hard to follow the Great Danes this season. Seven of their games will be broadcast nationally on digital platforms, including five games – beginning with Saturday’s season opener – on ESPN3. Two games will be highlighted on CBS Sports Digital as part of the CAA’s “Game of the Week” package.
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: In conference play, the Great Danes will be competing against some of the top teams in FCS. Five CAA teams were ranked in the STATS Preseason Top 25, including reigning national champion James Madison, which was picked No. 1. The Great Danes will face Richmond (No. 7), Villanova (No. 10) and New Hampshire (No. 13).
UNDER CENTER: Third-year quarterback Will Brunson will start Saturday’s opener. He started the final two games of the 2016 season, leading victories over New Hampshire and Stony Brook. A native of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Brunson has been playing the position since age 6. Neven Sussman, a junior who has started 13 career games, also will see playing time this season.
LEG AND ARM: Speaking of Sussman, he’ll be lined up both behind center and behind the long-snapper. Sussman has been working as the team’s punter since Spring Practice.
GOING DEEP: The quarterbacks will be flanked by playmakers at wide receiver and running back. At running back, redshirt junior Kendell Rodgers Jr. and freshman Karl Mofor will bolster a backfield that’s led by Ibitokun-Hanks. Meanwhile, at wide receiver, senior Brad Harris returns after missing all but one game last season with an injury. The receiving corps, which also includes key returnees Jordan Crockett, Austin Ellis and Jerah Reeves, gets a boost from transfers Jerod Diggs and Donovan McDonald, who comes to UAlbany from Nebraska, where he was a walk-on on the football team and middle-distance runner for the track squad.
BIG D: The defensive line is expected to be one of the Great Danes’ strengths. In addition to Hoskins, the unit is comprised of a veteran cast: returnees DaeSean Timmons, Nick Griffin, Nick Dillon and Brian Dolce, plus the addition of Antoine White, a redshirt junior who transferred from Penn State. The defensive backfield is equally experienced, with three juniors lined up alongside senior cornerback Jamal Robinson.
NFL CONNECTIONS: The Great Danes have four former NFL players on the coaching staff: associate head coach Bernard Clark, offensive line coach Jim Sweeney, defensive line coach Delbert Cowsette, and tight ends coach Nate Byham.
- Clark was a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, playing three seasons in the NFL and two in the AFL.
- A 16-year veteran of the NFL, Sweeney was second round pick in the 1984 draft. He was named to the All-NFL Rookie Team after his first season with the New York Jets; he played 11 seasons with the Jets, with 158 consecutive starts.
- Cowsette was drafted by the Washington Redskins and played for the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears from 2000-2006.
- Byham was a sixth-round pick in the 2010 Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He played in 29 NFL games, playing 14 games, including three starts, with the 49ers before signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
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