Training camp preview: Football set to begin 2019 season
The University at Albany football program begins training camp Wednesday, July 31, with its biggest, fastest, deepest team since joining the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013.
It’s feeding optimism that the Great Danes are ready to break through in one of the best conferences in all of the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We have experience, we have depth and we feel good about who we are,” said Greg Gattuso, UAlbany’s head coach. “Our testing this Spring was outstanding. We’re faster than we ever have been as a team. There’s a lot of reasons for optimism.”
UAlbany will open its 12-game season Thursday, Aug. 29, at Central Michigan. It’s coming off a 2018 campaign that included a victory over Stony Brook in the finale for the Great Danes’ second win over a Top 10 program in as many seasons.
Here’s a look at how UAlbany stacks up at each position at the start of training camp.
Jeff Undercuffler may be a redshirt freshman, but he already has three starts to his credit after having taken over late in the 2018 season because of injuries. He threw for 526 yards and four touchdowns over four appearances.
But he’ll be challenged by Nevada transfer Griffin Dahn, who will have two years of eligibility remaining at UAlbany. Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Braeden Zenelovic, who will look to build upon a strong Spring Practice.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Gattuso said.
Karl Mofor, a junior, has been a stalwart in the Great Danes’ backfield since his freshman debut. He ran for 596 yards and four TDs in 2018. Just as important, he’s a standout blocker in pass protection and can catch out of the backfield, having hauled in a pair of touchdowns in 2018.
“Karl is everything you look for in a running back,” Gattuso said. “He runs really well, he’s physical, and he’s really established himself as a tremendous blocker who also can catch.”
He’ll be joined by Alex James, a redshirt junior transfer from Coastal Carolina who ran for 475 yards and seven TDs during his two years playing. Gattuso also noted that redshirt sophomores Joshua Garvin and Tre Davis were strong in Spring Practice.
It’s arguably the Great Danes’ deepest position. UAlbany’s top four from last season — Dev Holmes, Juwan Green, Jerah Reeves and Donovan McDonald — all return. They combined for 13 TDs a season ago. Holmes was recognized by the CAA as a Preseason All-Conference Honorable Mention.
One of the newcomers at the position is a familiar face — redshirt junior Nyc Burns, who was a reserve quarterback in 2018 in his first season at UAlbany. At 6 feet, 5 inches, he brings additional size to the receiving corps.
“We’re very talented at receiver,” Gattuso said. “Those guys can run, and they’re fast. Tyler Oedekoven, a redshirt freshman who played some last year, is another guy we really like. The one thing we didn’t have was a big long receiver, and Nyc will get an opportunity. We feel very good about that group.”
This might be the most intense competition during camp, with at least five different players who will compete for significant playing time.
Redshirt junior LJ Wesneski returns after having started 10 games last season. Joining him are Murad Hussain, who played seven games in 2017 before missing last season due to injury, as well as two redshirt freshman in Thomas Greaney and Ian Renninger.
Also, the program brought in graduate transfer Max Anthony, who had spent the previous four seasons at Rutgers. He will be used in an H-back role.
“That’s a position where it’s going to be very interesting,” Gattuso said. “It’s about nothing else except who can block and catch a football in tight spaces. We feel great about that position.”
The Great Danes return a wealth experience on the offensive line, starting with center, where Niko Culnan started every game in 2019. Also back are Griffin Clancy, Sean Kennedy and Micah Royster, all of whom have starting experience.
Royster will get a chance to see if he can lock down the left tackle position, while redshirt freshman Kobe Thomas will compete for a starting job right side. The coaching staff also is pleased with the depth at the position afforded by redshirt junior Kassy Desir, redshirt freshman Hunter Verdi and junior-college transfer Dominick Lito, among others.
The defensive line will be one of the most experienced units on the team, with a pair of fifth-year seniors — Nick Griffin and Nick Dillon — back in 2019. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Lang, who posted 4.0 sacks in 2018, returns as well as an emerging talent at defensive end.
But new to the position group this season is standout Eli Mencer, a Preseason All-CAA Honorable Mention who led the Great Danes with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. He’ll be playing more as an end.
“We’re going to let him go get the quarterback and chase the play down — what he does best,” Gattuso said. “We’ve really increased the athleticism of our line.”
In 2018, middle linebacker Levi Metheny emerged as one of the anchors of the defense, leading the Great Danes with 92 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss. Alongside him, Danny Damico also had a breakout season at the position, finishing with 81 tackles (32 solo).
“I think we’re going to be way more flexible,” Gattuso said.
Backstopping the Great Danes’ defense will be two veterans at safety in Tyler Carswell and Josh Wynn. Meanwhile, at corner, Kareem Gibson returns as a second-year starter one side, while graduate transfer Jarren Williams, from St. Francis (Pa.) has been impressive in offseason workouts. Tyler Tobias, too, is back after having been a solid contributor the past two seasons.
UAlbany’s defensive backfield was best by injuries last season, but the silver lining was that several players gained experience. Safeties Hayden Specht and AJ Mistler were among those who emerged as valuable contributors.
The Great Danes will be looking for both a new kicker and punter this season, with Ethan Stark, who handled both duties last season, having graduated.
Redshirt sophomore Dylan Burns will have a chance to earn the place-kicking job in training camp after impressing the coaching staff during spring practice. There will be an open competition at punter.
“Dylan has earned the right to go into camp as the No. 1,” Gattuso said. “He’s really improved over the past couple years and had a solid spring. Punter is way up in the air. We brought in some young guys with big legs who will compete for the job.”