Having players who set the program’s single-season rushing record or lead all of the NCAA in career sacks are vital pieces in building a collegiate football program that can contend for the national championship every season. What sets the truly elite teams apart, however, is the ability to replace those iconic players.
The Slippery Rock football team has welcomed the newest batch of Rock football players into its midst with 27 players signing National Letters of Intent on Wednesday’s 2019 National Signing Day.
“We signed 27 guys. Our primary need was a bunch of young offensive linemen. A lot of skill guys but a lot in the secondary. I’m very excited, and since I have been a head coach, it’s our best class in terms of guys who are very good football players,” said Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz.
Despite losing star halfback Wes Hills to the NFL Draft, The Rock’s offense is bolstered by the return of junior quarterback Roland Rivers III. Rivers rapidly became one of the top passers in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Jermaine Wynn Jr. and Henry Litwin, a pair of talented redshirt sophomores, and redshirt junior Mike Merhaut all return to The Rock as River’s top receiving targets from last season.
The offensive line figures to be a work in progress following the losses of Colten Raabe and Steve Gaviglia to graduation.
The defense, despite losing star defensive back Kyle Hall, will return a strong, young core headlined by junior linebacker Brad Zaffram, redshirt sophomore linebacker Tim Vernick and sophomore linebacker Trysten McDonald.
Junior kicker Jake Chapla, the best kicker in program history, returns to headline a strong special teams’ group.
With much of the first team offense and defense returning next season, the biggest position battles will come from the players whose relationship on the field can make or break a team’s offensive success: the linemen and the running backs.
“Offensive line wise, I think the guys who come in and compete will be Eric Festa, who started at Concord as a true freshman, and Anthony Rebar from Belle Vernon. Austin Swink from Lake Norman in North Carolina too,” Lutz said.
Eric Festa, a transfer from Concord University with three years of eligibility left, started 10 games for the Mountain Lions and has the potential to be a day one starter for The Rock. Austin Swink from Lake Norman High School and Anthony Rebar from Belle Vernon High School are two high impact freshmen that Lutz feels can see the field next season.
Sam Enslen from Butler High School, Dylan Vaniel—who was a long snapper in high school—from McKeesport High School and Yuriy Hryckowian from Central Bucks-South High School round out the talented offensive line corps.
Now that Hills has departed the program for the NFL, the running back committee will see two more names enter the fray for the running back battle.
Seton Hill transfer Cinque Sweeting, a 6’0” 180-pound running back, compiled 837 all-purpose yards and five total touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore. Incoming freshman Avante McKenzie from Aliquippa High School brings gaudy statistics and big game experience from his time in high school.
“At running back, it’ll be Cinque Sweeting and Avante Mckenzie battling with Chacar Berry, Braden Fochtman and Nassir Weaver,” said Lutz. “We got a lot of guys, we just need to find out who that guy will be.”
Bolstering an already loaded receiving core, The Rock brought in eight wide receivers and a tight end.
Converted quarterback Kyle Sheetz from Conneaut Area High School and Penn State transfer Brandon Clark—son of former NFL player Bruce Clark—both stand taller than 6’3” and weigh more than 195 pounds. Lacking a tall vertical threat last season, the two incoming players unlock a new wrinkle in the Green and White’s playbook.
Deoveon Crute from Aliquippa High School and Cohen Russell from State College High School each bring elements that will allow for the chance at seeing the field as true freshmen. Russell—the state runner-up in the 100-yard dash in 2018—has the kind of speed unseen before at The Rock, said Lutz.
Dante Flati from West Allegheny High School, Billy Kersten from Norwin High School, RayQuin Glover from South Fayette High School and Cameron Marett from Wilmington High School round out the wide receiver commits.
Colin Kadlick from Deer Lakes High School is the lone tight end recruit this year and should expect to see the field, said Lutz.
On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive backs got a boost with a couple of transfers. Coming from PSAC-West rival Indiana University (Pa.), Nazir James and Erie Community College transfer Sam Fairley will be given looks to start at cornerback and safety, respectively.
Selvin Haynes from Upper Dublin High School—an East-West All-Star game participant in the spring—has Lutz excited for his potential as the future of the secondary. Devin Sims from McKeesport High School, Jalen Dangerfield from Hartford Tech and Dashaun Wright from Imani Christian Academy complete the secondary ranks.
For the front seven, two defensive linemen and two linebackers signed their Letters of Intent for the Green and White.
Jevon Lang, the 6’2” 255-pound defensive end, was the top-ranked player on The Rock’s defensive big board. An astonishing 32 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and four forced fumbles as a senior attracted the attention from The Rock. Eric Oblak from Belle Vernon High School rounds out the defensive line commits.
Despite not losing a player that had been in The Rock’s recruiting plans, Lang was the one player that Lutz worried would not put the pen to the paper.
“A kid named Javon Lang. A damn good football player and probably the best I’ve had here since Marcus Martin,” Lutz said.
PIAA District 10, Region 6’s Co-Player of the Year Chris Mohra from Conneaut Area High School racked up over 2,000 all-purpose yards as a running back in high school but will transition to the defensive side of the ball with the Green and White. Cody Ross from Freedom Area High School brings valued leadership to the locker room, Lutz said.
Fresh off an 11 win season and a PSAC-West title, Lutz credited the program’s success in recent seasons along with a stellar recruiting staff in bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the conference.
“It helps when you win. We had a great season this year; we made it to the quarterfinals. We really didn’t lose a recruit this year and that’s just a testament to our staff, coach Conrad, our staff and just a testament to our football players.”
With Rock football now fully reloaded for the 2019 campaign, looking ahead is inevitable and Lutz looks forward to being underestimated again.
“I hope they pick us third or fourth like they did last year,” said Lutz with a smile.