Coming into this season, the Slippery Rock University football team had four potential quarterbacks all vying for that starting role. Junior Andrew Koester ultimately won the job, primarily because he understood the offense the best, having served as the backup quarterback during the 2017 season, according to head coach Shawn Lutz. Sophomore Taylor King, a transfer from Butte College, was named the primary backup while junior Roland Rivers III, a transfer from Valdosta State University, was announced as the third-string quarterback.
Unfortunately for The Rock at the time, Koester went down with a knee injury during week two’s loss to Shippensburg University and King suffered an ankle injury during the game as well, but was not ruled medically ineligible for week three’s game against Millersville University until that following week. Rivers said he found he would be starting against Millersville early in the week following the loss at Shippensburg.
“I knew Andrew wasn’t walking around pretty good,” Rivers said. “He was in a boot so I knew it was pretty much on me right there to get ready to play. That game we came out and played good against Millersville, first-half put up 42 points and we just been rolling ever since.”
King has since been cleared to resume activities and now serves as Rivers’ primary backup. Koester has been given a medical redshirt and will be back next season.
Rivers’ road to The Rock was an odd one, Lutz said. Rivers suffered a shoulder injury during his sophomore season and had to have surgery, which caused him to miss the entirety of the 2017 season. Justin Roper, The Rock’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, used to be the quarterbacks coach at Valdosta State, where he coached Rivers for the 2015 season. The two were in contact with each other while Rivers was considering transferring, Lutz said.
“We didn’t need a quarterback, we weren’t going to take him,” Lutz said. “Our freshman recruit decided not to come to [Slippery Rock] so Coach Roper got in touch with Roland.”
Lutz said he did not think Roland was going to transfer because Valdosta State then realized that he was wanted by other teams.
“[Valdosta State] was putting pressure on him but at the last minute he decided to come to Slippery Rock,” Lutz said.
Valdosta State participates in the Gulf South Conference (GSC) and is a Division II school, like SRU. Rivers said that both the GSC and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) are competitive conferences and have a substantial amount of talent. Despite having talent at Valdosta State, Rivers said there is something different about The Rock.
“This team right here is a special team,” Rivers said. “The closeness of this team, how everyone plays for each other and the team atmosphere is probably the biggest difference here than compared to Valdosta State. I am so thankful to be here and I am just giving it everything I got.”
Although he put up strong numbers at Valdosta State, Rivers said he understood why he was made third-string quarterback at the beginning of the season. Rivers showed up a few days late to camp and there were some questions on whether he knew the whole offense and was ready to play, Lutz said. Rivers said he felt he was ready to go, but once Koester was named the starter, he remained patient.
“The game of football, the way things happen, when your number gets called, you just got to be ready,” Rivers explained.
Lutz said it might have been a different story for the team this year if Rivers had transferred earlier, arrived to camp on schedule, and had more time to read and understand the offense.
“Right now it’s interesting,” Lutz said. “However we finish up the season, I would have to be crazy not to think to start him next season, even if Andrew was our guy at the start of this season. [Rivers] is our guy right now.”
In four out of the five games that Rivers has started, The Rock offense has put up over 40 points in each of those games. Rivers said he keeps it simple by taking it one play at a time.
“When I get in the game, I have already gone through every possible situation,” Rivers said. “Coach Roper does a great job at putting us through tough situations in practice so when we go out there in the game, we have pretty much seen the toughest look the defense can possibly give us and we are ready to execute.”
Rivers said being able to connect with a receiver on every throw is his biggest strength on the field.
“I can use my feet when I have to but I consider myself a pocket passer,” Rivers said. “I grew up idolizing guys like Ben Roethlisberger, I got his ‘Fathead’ on my wall at home. That’s kind of my game, being able to ‘chuck it’ down the field and score pretty easily doing that.”
Rivers, coming in at 6’3”, 220 lbs., has put up some impressive passing numbers against opponents this year. He has thrown for 1,443 yards on 100 completions with 16 touchdowns. He currently ranks third in the PSAC in passing yards, fourth in completion, and second in touchdown passes, according to the PSAC’s website. Despite strong passing numbers and his size, Rivers has also recorded strong rushing numbers. He has rushed for 248 yards, on 54 attempts, and six touchdowns.
Lutz said that there are games when the defense is not up to par and Rivers’ performances give The Rock a chance to win the game each week.
“We gave up 21 points to Edinboro this past week before halftime,” Lutz said. “That’s too many for the first half. But we can’t let Roland be the excuse and always let him be the guy that has to bail us out.”
Rivers attributes his athleticism to his determination to always stay active. At Martin Luther King High School in Ellenwood, Ga., he ran track and competed on the swim team in addition to playing football.
“We also have a great strength and conditioning coach here, Coach Grossetti, who does a great job in getting us more athletic and more ‘explosive,’” Rivers explained. “I have definitely become more explosive since I have been up here.”
Rivers currently leads a Rock football team that has not made the PSAC playoffs since they won back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 under long-time head coach George Mihalik. Rivers is confident that he can help take his team back to the playoffs this season.
“I know if I just do my ‘one out of 11,’ that we got the talent, we got the players, we got the coaches, the scheme, we have everything we need to win a championship here,” Rivers said. “Not just the PSAC but the national championship and so every week, every day, every practice, every rep, we’re just focusing on doing our job and I feel confident on where we’re headed.”
The Rock (6-1) will look for another strong outing from Rivers this weekend against Clarion University (4-3). Clarion currently ranks in the top five in the PSAC with 13 interceptions on the year. Rivers said he plans on doing what has kept him successful all season long.
“Just doing the same thing we been doing,” Rivers said. “Like I said, taking it one play at a time, one rep at a time, watching film. We’re not taking them lightly even though they have three losses cause we realize that any given Saturday a team can beat you, so we’re still attacking practice and every rep and every play like it’s a game situation, so we’ll be ready to play come Saturday.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is slated for 12:00 p.m. at Memorial Stadium in Clarion, Pennsylvania.