Sitting in a quiet football office in the Morrow Field House and holding a bag of sour gummy worms snagged off of linebacker coach/special teams coordinator Marc Hulls’ desk, Slippery Rock quarterback Roland Rivers III tossed a few brightly colored worms into his mouth.
“Let me finish chewing really quick,” he said, grinning as he leaned back into his chair.
Not unlike his hunger for the sour candy, the senior from Ellenwood, Georgia has craved the chance to get back to the NCAA quarterfinals after last season’s one possession loss to Notre Dame College. Rivers expressed his hunger to prove he can dominate Division II football.
If week one against Wayne State University was any indication for just how hungry Rivers is, Hull is going to need to buy a few more bags of gummy worms this season.
Playing on the road Sept. 5 to start the season in Detroit, Michigan, Rivers orchestrated seven first half touchdowns in as many possessions on the way to a night of prolific passing against Wayne State University.
Despite being pulled midway through the third quarter, when leading by 42 points and missing two offensive series, Rivers completed 23 of 30 passes, good for a 76.6 percent completion percentage, for 405 passing yards and six touchdowns. He also led SRU with 67 rushing yards on nine carries, good for 7.4 yards per carry, and a touchdown on the ground.
Through a week of Division II football, he leads every D-II player in points responsible for (42), passing yards (405), total offense (472), and passing touchdowns (6) while ranking second in passing efficiency (256.1) and fourth in passing yards per attempt (13.5).
Even though the statistics are awarded to Rivers, he said he is just one piece on the offense, and the real credit goes to the offensive players around him.
“Jermaine took a pass 78 yards for a touchdown,” River said. “Having guys make plays like that definitely helps. Guys like Cinque Sweeting, Henry coming back and doing what he does, the offensive line protecting me and coach [Neugebauer] drawing plays up … I’m just one player out of 11 on the offensive side of the ball. I just try to do my job because if we all do our job collectively, no one can stop us.”
While ranked No. 11 in the country with a real shot at making an even deeper run in the national playoffs this season, Rivers’ journey to where he is now has not proven easy. And that’s not even accounting for his transfer from Valdosta State University and eventual ascension of the SRU quarterback depth chart.
A tightly contested 21-17 loss to Notre Dame last December, for a place in the NCAA semifinals, ultimately led to a long half year away from organized football for Rivers.
That feeling of leaving points out on the field against Notre Dame stuck with Rivers, he said and letting down the defense weighed on his mind all offseason.
“We knew that we had to be better as an offense and guys took that approach this summer with everything we did in the weight room … the team as a whole knew that we left plays out there on that field and that we were a few plays away from competing for the national championship,” Rivers said.
But while his team was able to train together and work on strenghening those bonds during the offseason, Rivers was unable to be involved with team activities until very recently due to an eligibility issue.
However, during the offseason, Rivers made it a priority to keep up to date with the workouts and activities his teammates were doing each day and work the same routine at the Aebersold Recreation Center (ARC) on his own.
“This offseason, not being able to work out with the team, it was a solo grind,” Rivers said. “Day in and day out, I wanted to stay in shape. I knew what the guys were doing in workouts so I would go to the ARC on my own and do the workout. I was in there every day, seven days a week.”
Unable to build a rapport with new offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer this summer, Rivers took the opportunity to work with TEST Football Academy, an academy that boasts clients such as Joe Flacco, Brian Hoyer and Mark Sanchez, in order to refine a few areas he felt needed work in order to improve upon last season.
“Over the summer, I was able to train in New Jersey with TEST Football Academy. They’ve trained a lot of top NFL guys and collegiate guys, and I was able to work with a quarterback trainer named Tony Racioppi. He has trained quarterbacks like Davis Webb and other NFL guys, so I was able to work on my mechanics and a lot of the small things I wanted to work on going into the season,” Rivers said.
A tailored approach to reworking his mechanics combined with newfound freedom and responsibility Neugebauer has afforded him in leading the offense has led to a new feeling of comfortability within the system this year, according to Rivers.
“I wouldn’t say I run the show, but with me being the quarterback and the ball being in my hands, coach [Neugebauer] is giving me the responsibility to know if I see something to go with it. Giving me the ability to do that has given me some confidence and just making sure that I’m prepared every week,” Rivers said.
While SRU head coach Shawn Lutz said the transition from former offensive coordinator Justin Roper’s offense to Neugebauer’s was initially a challenge for Rivers, the relationship between Neugebauer and Rivers has blossomed, and Rivers feels as though his OC has done a good job in preparing him for a season of career-highs.
“Coach [Neugebauer] does a great job of making sure that we’re all prepared going into the first game and in every practice, knowing what we’re doing. Coach Roper was a great coach as well, but I think the biggest thing between the two would be our playing speed. We play a lot quicker this year as opposed to last year and that’s beneficial because it gets defenses winded and they’re not able to make their checks and get out of plays. It allows us to play faster and get the ball out to our athletes quicker,” Rivers said.
Under Neugebauer’s scheme, more designed runs can be expected from Rivers. Despite rushing for nearly 600 yards last season, Rivers said most of his rushing yards stemmed from scrambling out of the pocket.
Neugebauer’s quicker up-tempo offense, and the emergence of designed quarterback runs has allowed Rivers to showcase more of his athleticism as a running quarterback, he said.
In addition, a full offseason of studying and preparing has granted Rivers with more control over the offense during in-game situations, he said.
“I get to make checks at the line of scrimmage and I get to get in and out of plays that put us in certain situations,” Rivers said. “If I see something, I’m able to give my receiver a hot route or something like that.”
Once Rivers was finally able to rejoin team activities, he discovered how differently practices under Neugebauer were compared to Roper. He said the intensity of the practices allowed him to prepare for the season more effectively.
“The way we practice is different; we treat our practices like they’re games,” Rivers said. “Coach [Neugebauer] does a great job of making sure that our practices are intense like we’re in a game. The game felt like practice since we practice so hard.”
Finally back in rhythm with the offense, Rivers has a goal in store for his final season at SRU: winning the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title.
Although SRU won the PSAC-West last season with a perfect division record, a lopsided loss to PSAC-East winner West Chester University in the PSAC championship game denied The Rock its first unified PSAC title since 2015.
As a way of getting back to that point, Rivers said he hopes to cut down on his turnovers this season after throwing 12 interceptions last season.
“I was fortunate not to have any turnovers last game. We need to keep putting up points and outscoring the other team,” Rivers said. “We do that every week for 15 weeks; we know what the end result will be.”
However, despite talk earlier this season of having a “championship or bust” narrative surrounding this season, Rivers was quick to dismiss that.
“I know I mentioned that earlier in the year about being championship or bust, but with the talent we have on this team, we know that anything less than a championship, we can’t blame on talent. We can’t say, ‘if we had one more player, if we had this guy.’ That’s not the case this season,” Rivers said.
Instead, Rivers reiterated how Lutz has made accountability and discipline huge teaching points this season.
Opposed to championship or bust, Rivers said it’s accountability and discipline or bust with this team.
Having watched Marcus Martin and Wes Hills parlay strong play into NFL shots over the past couple season, Rivers said he doesn’t have sights set on the NFL, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about it.
“Growing up and playing football since I was nine years old, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the NFL is the highest level of football,” Rivers said. “This year, I’m just focused on enjoying my senior year with my teammates and taking advantage of the opportunity I have to play the game I love.”
Living by the motto, “one play at a time,” Rivers said if he keeps doing what he’s coached to do, an opportunity will present itself in the future.
In the meantime, Rivers is only worried about doing everything in his power to bring a championship back to The Rock.
And maybe even getting another bag of sour gummy worms.