Finishing with a 7-4 record is really disappointing to a team that finished 12-2 the year before and had won three straight division titles. Despite the final record however, spirits are high around Slippery Rock football. The Green and White finished the 2016 season at 7-4 overall and 3-4 in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) play.
“It was very,very different. It was challenging,” first year head coach Shawn Lutz said. “We faced adversity and I faced it and I feel like I’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to really concentrate on not trying to be past teams and not putting so much pressure on winning championships I think we’ve just got to take care of the process.”
This Slippery Rock team had to deal with a lot of roster turnover from 2015 and the team had to deal with a lot of injuries to key players at different times throughout the season.
In the second half of the season, Slippery Rock lost three straight games to conference opponents, losing to Indiana University (Pa.), Edinboro University and Clarion University in consecutive weeks.
Following the season, eight Slippery Rock players were given post-season accolades.
Junior defensive end Marcus Martin was named the PSAC-West defensive player of the year and was named to the All-PSAC West first team. Senior defensive lineman Joe Philips, senior linebacker Bob Vernick and junior cornerback Titus Howard all joined Martin on the All-PSAC West first team defense.
Named to the All-PSAC West second team were junior running back Isiah Neely, sophomore offensive tackle Steve Gaviglia, junior receiver Marcus Johnson and senior linebacker Anthony Zappone.
This is Martin’s second consecutive PSAC-West defensive player of the year award and his third time being honored on an all-conference post-season team. He finished second in the entire PSAC in tackles for loss with 18.5 and fourth in sacks with nine. He led Slippery Rock in both categories.
Joe Philips totaled nine tackles for loss and five sacks, Vernick finished second on the team in total tackles with 69 to go along with 3.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions and Howard recorded one interception and seven pass break-ups with 1.5 sacks.
Neely filled in for injured senior running back Shamar Greene halfway through the season and rushed for 521 yards and four touchdowns. Gaviglia switched from the defensive line to the offensive line for this season and played in all 11 games this season. Johnson emerged as the number one receiving threat on the team and had a breakout season with 54 receptions, 898 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Zappone transferred to The Rock from division one Eastern Michigan and led SRU in total tackles (88) and interceptions (five) while also recording 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
“I thought Isiah Nealy was a nice plus for us with Shamar going down,” Lutz said. “I think Steve Gavivlia did a really nice job. Marcus Johnson, look at the improvement he had from last year to this year.”
Also having solid offensive seasons for The Rock were senior quarterback Don King III (2,668 passing yards, 24 touchdowns), freshman running back Dontez Rash (248 rushing yards, six touchdowns), junior receiver Cornelius Raye (54 receptions, 679 yards, six touchdowns) and senior receiver Drew Scales (50 receptions, 502 yards, five touchdowns).
On defense, senior defensive lineman Mike Kope (4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks), senior defensive lineman Tony Twillie II (five tackles for loss, three sacks), senior defensive end Cody Conway (nine tackles for loss, three sacks), senior safety Derrick Fulmore (57 tackles, three interceptions) and senior cornerback Alfon Cook (three interceptions, 13 pass break-ups) all had stand-out seasons.
Looking ahead to next year, The Rock will have to replace nine of 11 starters on defense and find a new starting quarterback and running back.
“I like our future, I think it shows a sign of how you fight through adversity with the young guys,” Lutz said. “We got to have some guys step up and they realize what it takes.”
Lutz said that he is looking forward to the offseason and plans to bring a lot of talent to Slippery Rock in next year’s recruiting class.