With holes to fill on both sides of the ball heading into next year, the Slippery Rock University football team will be looking to answer some questions Friday afternoon with the annual Green and White spring game. With only one full-time starter returning on defense and positions to fill at both quarterback and running back, a lot of players will have opportunities to stand out and make a case for themselves in the spring game.
This year, the spring game will have a different format than years past. The full roster will be split up into two teams, a green “Rock” team versus a white “Pride” team. Team Rock will be the first team offense and the second team defense, while Team Pride will be the second team offense and the first team defense.
SRU head coach Shawn Lutz said that they wanted to change up the spring game format to make it different from their usual scrimmages and keep it fun for all the players.
“We want to make if fun for our guys and competitive,” Lutz said. “Sometimes you just go offense versus defense it takes the excitement out of it.”
Adding to the excitement, serving as honorary coaches for the two teams will be Slippery Rock legends: former 28-year football head coach George Mihalik will coach the Rock team and Jerry Bejbl, the first ever Rock football player to have his jersey retired, will coach the Pride team.
Headlining the offense for The Rock will be battles for the quarterback and running back positions, along with a new starting offensive lineman and new wide receivers.
Competing for quarterback will be senior transfer Tanner Garry and sophomores Augustus Necastro and Nathaniel Musselman.
Garry was on Slippery Rock’s roster last season but had to sit out all year due to the NCAA transfer rules. Garry started his collegiate career at Division I Bowling Green State University, where he was red-shirted in 2012. After that he spent three seasons at Youngstown State University, completing three of 10 passes for 48 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Necastro saw time in three games last season as an injury replacement, completing 31 of 47 passes for 396 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Musselman fought through injuries this past year to play in five games, completing 12 of 22 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s a three-man race right now,” Lutz said. “They’ve been all getting equal repetitions this spring. It’s my goal with this team to, if we can, we’d like to name a starting quarterback coming out of the spring. If we feel like it’s a close race still, they’ll have to battle it out in camp.”
Lutz said that all three quarterbacks having playing experience is a big advantage for the team. At running back, Lutz said there are four backs on the roster that have been impressing him.
“I think we’ve got got capable tailbacks,” Lutz said. “Everybody knows Isiah (Neely) because he was second team all-conference, Dontez (Rash) had a good freshman campaign, but this Braden Fochtman and this Chacar Berry have been a real pleasant surprise. We could platoon four tailbacks if we have to.”
Neely, a senior, played in nine games last season as an injury replacement, totaling 502 rushing yards and four touchdowns while earning the aforementioned second team all-conference honor. Rash, a sophomore, played in 11 games as a freshman, compiling 248 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Fochtman and Berry, both redshirt freshmen, sat out all of last year, but have impressed thus far in spring practices.
Joining the offensive line this year will be senior transfer Ian Park, a former starter at Division I Northwestern University. Park looks to be one of SRU’s starting guards next season and will be seeing his first bit of live game action since coming to Slippery Rock in the spring game. Lutz also thinks sophomore Chris Larsen has had a good spring and is excited about him for next year.
Returning for The Rock in the receiving corps will be seniors Marcus Johnson, Cornelius Raye and junior Carnel Harley. All three played in all 11 games last seasonl, with Johnson and Raye leading the team with 54 receptions each. Johnson also led the team with career-highs in receiving yards (898) and touchdowns (13).
Johnson said that in order to duplicate the numbers he had last year, he needs to work hard and set a higher standard for himself.
“Just work hard, just work out of practice, after, before, just make sure we get time in together as quarterbacks and receivers and make sure we build that trust together,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he has also started to take some of the younger receivers under his wing, singling out redshirt freshman Ashton Teeter as someone who he sees a lot of potential in.
“For the guys that play on my side, we’ve got a young boy named Ashton Teeter,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working real hard on him, I’m going to be hard on him because he’s young. I’ll harp on him real hard so he can be better than I was as a freshman.”
Lutz also singled out senior Andrew Bridgeforth as someone who could potentially get more playing time moving forward. Bridgeforth caught four passes for 67 yards last season.
On defense is where the biggest question marks for The Rock are. The team will only be returning one full-time starter from a year ago and only two other returners saw significant playing time. SRU will return all-time school sacks leader, senior defensive end Marcus Martin.
Martin said he is not worried about being the only returning starter on defense, saying that as long as everyone, especially the young players, work hard there’s no reason they should not succeed.
“I just what to build that trust,” Martin said. “Everyone should be able to play knowing the person behind them has their back. I think a lot of people are playing stressed out, but you should be able to play free out there, trust the man behind you that they’ll make up for your slack.”
Joining Martin from last year’s defense will be sophomore linebacker Patrick Minenok and junior defensive back Kyle Hall.
Lutz said that it is very fortunate that the team at least has players that have experience at every level (defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs) so they can be the leaders of their respective groups.
Lutz singled out transfer juniors Bryson Briggs in the secondary and defensive lineman Tim Soave as two players they will look at hard this spring and could be starters when the fall comes around.
Also on defense, Lutz is excited to see redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Vernick, brother of SRU great Bob Vernick, and junior defensive back Tavarus Sample, a converted wide receiver.
All of the players on the roster will be looking to impress coaches and fans alike on Friday, with many of them seeing their first action at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. The game will begin at 6:00 p.m.