FOOTBALL: 2018 TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW
ALBANY, N.Y. – The University at Albany football team is “bigger and stronger and faster” than a season ago, head coach Greg Gattuso said, and as a result training camp, which begins Friday, Aug. 3, is expected to be as competitive as any in his five-year tenure.
Starting spots are up for grabs at virtually every position, including quarterback, as UAlbany gets ready to open its season Sept. 1 at Pittsburgh, of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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The Great Danes will be trying to improve upon a 4-7 record in 2017, when UAlbany faced a formidable schedule that included a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent (Old Dominion) and five games against Top 25 teams.
UAlbany lost four games last season by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime, while playing almost entirely without tailback Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who led the CAA in rushing in 2016 before missing all but one game of 2017 while recovering from a knee injury.
Now, though, the Great Danes enter training camp armed with the experience of having played in so many close games in arguably the most competitive league in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We were close last year,” Gattuso said. “Some of the experience we have now, maybe we can win some of those games.”
The Great Danes’ offense gets new leadership in offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Davis, who came to UAlbany this past winter from Fordham.
He’ll be working with a talented backfield that includes Ibitokun-Hanks, who ran for 16 touchdowns in 2016, and Karl Mofor, who last year as a true freshman shouldered most of the carries, running for 555 yards and six TDs.
“I don’t think there’s been a moment in my life as a coach where I didn’t care who was out there carrying the ball, even in pressure situations,” Gattuso said. “They’re both excellent, and I feel really good about our running back situation.”
At receiver, too, the Great Danes return junior Donovan McDonald, who also was named to the CAA Preseason All-Conference team as a punt returner. A former track athlete at Nebraska, McDonald emerged as one of the league’s top playmakers in his first season at UAlbany.
“I was watching him on a highlight tape (at CAA Media Day), and he was the most dynamic guy on the screen at times,” Gattuso said. “Sometimes you see him every day, you forget how dynamic he is.”
McDonald, fellow junior Jerah Reeves and redshirt junior Austin Ellis give the Great Danes a veteran cast at receiver. Newcomer Dev Holmes, a freshman from Troy, N.Y., will compete for playing time in training camp, too.
The competition also will be tight at quarterback and along the offensive line.
Will Brunson, who started all 11 games at quarterback in 2017, will open camp with the first-string unit, but he’ll be in a “straight open competition,” Gattuso said, with redshirt senior Vincent Testaverde, a transfer from Miami, and redshirt sophomore Nyc Burns, who started his career at Oklahoma State before joining UAlbany from Northeast Oklahoma A&M.
Brunson threw for 1,889 yards and nine touchdowns this past season, and Testaverde, a mid-year transfer in 2017, played well in the Spring Game, throwing for two TDs.
“We’re going to give them all a chance, rotate them and see who’s going to take control of this thing and be the guy,” Gattuso said.
On the offensive line, UAlbany worked with a young group last season that will be bolstered this year by several newcomers.
Benson Israel, a transfer from Temple, and Kassy Desir, who missed all of last season because of injury, both will compete for time at guard, along with Jack Dudzinski and Griffin Clancy.
At center, Corey Christian and Niko Culnan, who joins the program from Hudson Valley Community College, will get a chance at the position in training camp, which could allow last year’s starting center,Micah Royster, to play tackle. Sam Davis, too, provides depth at center.
Luke Ritter, who started at tackle in 2016, returns, and as does Sean Kennedy, who started eight games on the offensive line last season.
“We’ll put the best five out there,” Gattuso said. “Right now, we feel really good about our depth and our size.”
Redshirt sophomore Murad Hussain is the leading returning pass-catcher among the tight ends, but bothLuke Repetti and LJ Wesneski saw playing time in 2016. Graduate student Greig Stire, who joined the team in the spring after playing four years of basketball, also will continue to work at tight end.
Keith Dudzinski, who coached the linebackers as a season ago, will the lead the unit this year as Defensive Coordinator, with help from co-Defensive Coordinator Joe Bernard, last year’s offensive coordinator.
The defense will be coming off a dominant season in which it ranked No. 9 nationally with 282.5 yards allowed per game. In the season finale, the Great Danes shut out No. 16 New Hampshire, a playoff team.
Once again, the defense will boast a strong line, both on the inside and edges.
Brian Dolce, at 6-foot-6, and Nick Griffin, at 6-4, help give Gattuso the biggest line he’s ever coached, he said. Inside, senior Nick Dillon has emerged as a team leader, and the coaching staff has been impressed by the summer work of redshirt senior Antoine White. Mazon Walker and Anthony Lang, both of whom redshirted last season as true freshman, will compete to be part of the rotation, as will redshirt junior Dean Grogg, who can play either inside or outside, and redshirt sophomore Ibn Foster.
“We feel good about our depth and the disruption we can cause there,” Gattuso said. “There are eight or nine guys who will play.”
The linebacking corps, meanwhile, gets a newcomer from within the program – Neven Sussman, who last season served as both backup quarterback and punter. Sussman, who’s 6-3 and 218 pounds, will start training camp at outside linebacker.
“It will really help us if he can do it,” Gattuso said. “When we approached him about it, he was all for it.”
Eli Mencer, one of UAlbany’s top playmakers in 2017, returns at the other outside position, while redshirt sophomore Levi Metheny gets a chance to solidify his role in the middle. Redshirt freshmen Danny Damico and Isaiah Watson along with Julian Conover, a transfer from Temple, give the unit a solid rotation.
In the defensive backfield, UAlbany will be without senior safety Mason Gray, who will miss the season while recovering from an injury.
But the Great Danes do get back redshirt sophomore Tyler Carswell, who missed 2016 because of injury, and return starting free safety Josh Wynn. Redshirt freshman Damon Burton and redshirt sophomoreHayden Specht also will compete for time.
At corner, UAlbany returns fifth-year senior Kareem Brown one on side, while several players will compete for roles opposite him. The Great Danes have good depth at the position, with returning junior Ty Tobias, redshirt freshman Daniel Banks and two transfers – Kareem Gibson, who comes from Hutchinson Community College, and Dante Mount, from Erie Community College.
“We have a group we’re excited about,” Gattuso said. “It’s going to be very competitive there. With as many corners as can play, there will be a lot of nickel stuff we can do. It’s the first time we’ve been this fast since I got here.”
UAlbany’s special teams also gets a new coordinator in Bernard. He takes the reins from Nate Byham, who continues to coach the tight ends and now also is the running-game coordinator.
Ethan Stark, a fifth-year senior, will again handle the place-kicking duties – and possibly take over the punting responsibilities as well, with Sussman moving to linebacker.
McDonald, who was third in the CAA with an average of 10.1 yards per punt return last season, continues to give the Great Danes an exceptional return game, and UAlbany returns both of its long-snappers: Paul Casanzio and Tristan Sokach-Minnick.