Fresh off one of the most successful seasons in program history, the Slippery Rock University football team appears poised to take that next step in the national playoffs this season.
Although, SRU football coach Shawn Lutz takes no stock in empty preseason noise.
“We have got to ignore the noise and all the hype,” Lutz said. “This is a new year, and we have not done one thing yet. Tell me something we’ve done besides get all this preseason hype? Which is based on last year’s results.”
However, last year’s results were no small feat and accolades were plentiful as SRU ran away with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-West title. Lutz took home PSAC-West Coach of the Year and multiple players received conference and national recognition.
A deep run to the NCAA quarterfinals, which ended with a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame College, ended the season with an 11-3 (7-0 PSAC) record and a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.
“These guys want more,” said Lutz. “A lot of these guys remember the feeling after the Notre Dame game where we had a chance to win and get to the National semifinals. They worked hard over the summer, but they haven’t gotten cocky or full of themselves.”
With 18 returning players from last season’s team, a strong mix of offensive and defensive veterans, SRU enters the season as the media’s preseason pick to win the PSAC-West. Senior quarterback Roland Rivers III headlines an explosive, new offense.
Adjusting to new offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer’s faster, up-tempo offense has been one of the biggest challenges for Rivers, but Lutz attributed River’s leadership and an offseason of hard work to the offense’s electric start in the preseason.
“That year of experience under his belt really helped him. The throws he’s making, the way he runs and extends plays and just how big he is… I’ll just explain it like this, from an NFL standpoint, he’s Cam Newton. He’s a Division II version of Cam Newton,” Lutz said.
After starting last season as the third stringer, following a transfer from Valdosta State University, Rivers ascended the depth following a pair of injuries. Once taking the reins, he never looked back.
Accounting for 3,318 yards of total offense (597 yards on the ground) and 33 touchdowns (seven on the ground), Rivers was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the PSAC last season. Despite the loss of former Rock running back Wes Hills to the NFL, a talented core of position players return to complement Rivers.
Most notably, a pair of electric wide receivers in redshirt juniors Jermaine Wynn Jr. and Henry Litwin.
“We have two of the better receivers in Division II football right now in Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn. Jermaine Wynn, with what he did over the summer, and Henry Litwin, he doesn’t even look like a football player, he looks like a boxer. He’s really put together,” said Lutz.
Combining for 102 catches—51 for each player—and 1,586 yards, the duo return as two of the best pass catchers in the PSAC. Wynn was voted a captain by his coaches, highlighting the trust he has earned from the coaching staff.
Lutz attributed the real strength of his offense to the ability of his four slot receivers: Wynn, transfers Cinque Sweeting and Reggie Mays Jr. and freshman Cohen Russell. Since coming into the program as a running back, Lutz said Sweeting has impressed the coaching staff.
“Cinque [Sweeting] is going to do a thing where we put him in at receiver, motion him into the backfield and he’ll be in at running back, so he’ll get some carries back there. He can do both. He’s just so electrifying,” Lutz said.
With four options in the slot, Lutz feels as though the bubble screen will allow his smaller, quicker slot players to be able to get into some space and create plays.
After losing All-American Steve Gaviglia and All-Region Colton Raabe on the offensive line, one of last year’s biggest strengths came into the season as a question mark. But entering the season, Lutz is confident in his newly formed line’s ability to create space for his receivers and open holes for his running backs.
“The biggest improvement coming out of camp though is the improvement of our offensive line,” Lutz said. “We have a lot of depth. Ryan Podgorski got bigger and stronger at the guard position, and Matt Carr from Erie Prep, who played a little as a freshman, got better. You don’t replace a Steve Gaviglia, but, overall, we got more depth, and I think we’re going to look more solid across the offensive line.”
Carr and redshirt junior Jake Tecak will be joining the returning starters redshirt senior Chris Larsen, redshirt junior Austin Wayt and redshirt senior Podgorski on this season’s offensive line. With 61 combined starts between Larsen, Wayt and Podgorski, the line will be a veteran mix of experience and potential.
With Hills no longer prowling the backfield for SRU, new running backs will have a chance to make their mark at The Rock.
Following in Hills’ footsteps from last season, transfer running back Charles Snorweah will look to use SRU as a jumpstart to the NFL. Snorweah, a graduate transfer from Rutgers, will start the season as the starter, but Lutz still feels as though the Liberian-born running back is the biggest wild card this season.
“He’s the biggest mystery for me right now,” Lutz said. “Wes Hills came in all banged up, and he’s been kind of the same thing. He hasn’t made a lot of practices, since he’s got a pulled hamstring, but we’ve seen a glimpse of the things he can do.”
In contrast with the powerful, big-bodied Hills, Snorweah is a smaller back at only 5’9” and 185 pounds, but has track star speed. Lutz said Snorweah was the fastest guy on the team while at Rutgers, clocking in with a 4.41 40-meter sprint time.
While Snorweah did not play much at Rutgers, mainly playing special teams while a Black Knight, he lit up the competition while in high school. During his senior season at Pennsbury High School, he ran for 2,793 yards and 40 touchdowns and was a consensus three-star prospect.
Joining Snorweah in the backfield is redshirt junior Braden Fochtman and transfer Desean Dinkins as the second and third stringers, respectively. Lutz said while he would like Snorweah to carry the ball 20 times in week one, a lingering injury will likely limit his role. Fochtman, who Lutz has labeled as, “Mr. Reliable” will see an uptick in carries to start the season.
While there will be no replacing Hills, who fought for a roster spot with the Arizona Cardinals, this season, Lutz is confident in his trio of Snorweah, Fochtman and Dinkins going forward.
To complement an offense that scored 37.2 points a game last season, good for third best in the PSAC, is a defense that has spent two years working toward this moment.
“Two years ago, we started almost 10 freshmen and to have all these guys coming back… you can just do so much more. They’ve been in all these situations and the guy that might be the best player on our football team, he might be the best linebacker I’ve ever had, Brad Zaffram is going to be a high impact guy for us,” Lutz said.
Leading a defense which returns all but one starter, former cornerback Kyle Hall, is Zaffram. Zaffram, an All-PSAC performer last season, finished with 84 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, nine pass breakups and a fumble recovery and was a crucial cog in a defense that allowed only 21.2 points per game last season—a far cry from the 32.64 points per game allowed two season ago.
A position of strength for SRU, the linebacking core features Zaffram, Tim Vernick and Trysten McDonald. The duo of Vernick and McDonald, both juniors, combined for 170 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.
While the trio have solidified their place in the starting lineup, the toll of a long, physical PSAC conference schedule will have the backups and even third stringers, a la Roland Rivers, thrust into prominence. Lutz already found a surprise contributor from somewhere he did not expect.
“Chris Mohra, I never expected it from him. He’s a kid from Fairview, grew up in Erie, and he’s going to be a backup linebacker. He’ll play this year behind Peyton Remmish. He came out this year as a very big surprise,” Lutz said.
With McDonald still recovering from an offseason shoulder injury, redshirt freshman Peyton Remish will likely slide into that outside linebacker spot in week one. With Remish slotted into the lineup, Mohra becomes even more important as his backup.
A veteran front four returns with 57 starts, cementing an experienced advantage with both of SRU’s offensive and defensive lines, in the form of junior Garrett de Bien, redshirt senior Trey Blanchford, redshirt sophomore Jeff Marx and redshirt junior Chad Kuhn.
The transformation of a young, inexperienced defense that allowed 30 plus points per game in high-scoring PSAC shootouts to one that stifled defenses to barely 20 points per game has enabled SRU to take the next step in the national landscape.
With nearly the entire veteran core returning with another year of experience and a full offseason, Lutz will lean heavily on his front seven to make crucial stops to allow the high-powered offense to get back on the field.
While the defense starts a majority of upperclassmen, the secondary will see an infusion of youth. True freshman Selvin Haynes will start the season as the starting free safety.
“Selvin Haynes will be a true freshman starting at the safety position for us,” Lutz said. “How often do you find a true freshman as an opening day starter? He’s going to replace Kyle Hall. Just got to see what the growing pains are.”
Replacing Hall, who led SRU in interceptions last season, will be a tall task for Haynes, but the freshman will be surrounded by a veteran unit to learn from.
Senior Eric Glover-Williams intercepted three passes last season while starting the majority of games at cornerback. His counterpart, junior Khadir Roberts, recorded two interceptions and four pass breakups. Haynes will be joined in the secondary by junior strong safety Dalton Holt.
Veteran units headlined by Roland Rivers and Brad Zaffram shoulder high expectations heading into the season, but perhaps no one shoulders more than senior kicker/punter Jake Chapla.
“I don’t know what Chapla did over the summertime, but he’s punting the ball over 50 yards consistently,” Lutz said. “You know how good of a kicker he is, but he’s killing the ball right now, punting wise.”
Entering his senior season, Chapla has already broken SRU’s career field goal record. His 39 field goals lead all Rock kickers, and he’s only four extra points away from setting the SRU record, too.
One name in PSAC history still evades Chapla: Dan Fisher. The former Bloomsburg kicker leads all PSAC players with 57 field goals and 361 points.
With 17 field goals made last season, Chapla would need to improve upon last season’s total by one to break the PSAC record. 18 field goals would set a new conference record and also close the gap in the total points race to the point where a couple dozen extra points would break the record.
A strong sense of trust from Lutz will afford Chapla plenty of opportunities to become the most prolific kicker in conference history.
While past season’s have featured more explosive offenses, this season’s team features an unmatched blend of offensive balance, defensive grit and precision kicking. But like Lutz has emphasized, this team has not even stepped onto the field this season.
A road test in Detroit, Michigan with Wayne State University looms large as the season kicks off Thursday night.
Lutz reiterated how looking at the Warriors’ 2-9 record from last season is an easy way to underestimate an opponent returning a lot of starters. He emphasized how difficult playing on the road can be, especially a Thursday night game in Michigan.
Unlike Division I football, the margin for error at the Division II level is slim. Starting the season off on a winning note is imperative. A loss so early can sometimes cause the whole season to spiral out of control.
“In Division I football, if you go 7-4, you go to a nice bowl game,” said Lutz. “In Division II, if you got 8-3, 9-2, you’re staying home. So, the margin for error is very slim, you can’t have a misstep.”
While some coaches would prefer to start the season at their home stadiums, Lutz relishes the opportunity to be able to build chemistry while on the road, away from it all.
“I love the first game that we get away from the everyday grind of being a student-athlete, going to class and all that,” Lutz said. “We can just get away and focus on the game; eat together, hang out together and build that bond. There are some relatively new guys on this team, and I think we kind of got that taste in our mouth last year when we were road warriors in the national playoffs.”
While SRU is dealing with a few pesky injuries to start the season, including injuries to Snorweah and McDonald, the team is poised to begin the 2019 season.
Kickoff against WSU is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. at Tom Adams Field in Detroit, Michigan. Following all with The Rocket’s Twitter account for live updates as the action unfolds.