Despite winning four of the last five conference titles and making it to the NCAA quarterfinals last year, the Slippery Rock football team is not dwelling on its past successes.
The Rock starts this season ranked as the ninth-best team in the nation and second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West coaches poll. With a lot of new faces on offense and special teams and a new coaching staff, this year’s Rock team looks a lot different than last year’s.
For the first time in 28 years, Slippery Rock football will be led by someone other than Dr. George Mihalik. Long-time assistant coach Shawn Lutz was promoted to take over as head coach, Domenick Razzano was promoted to replace Lutz as defensive coordinator and Justin Roper was hired to be the new offensive coordinator.
“The biggest thing is, I’ve been here a long time,” Lutz said. “Being here over 20 plus years, it’s such an easier transition because I know the university so well, I’ve been behind the scenes of everything that we do. So I’ve learned a lot from a legend –a great coach– Coach Mihalik, but I also can’t be him. I’ve got to be who I am.”
Lutz says his coaching style is going to focus a lot on accountability, hard work and reaching expectations.
Offensively, the Green and White return only one starting offensive lineman and a handful of skill position players who saw playing time in 2015.
Senior Joe LoSchiavo is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, which he is expected to anchor this season. LoSchiavo will primarily play center this year and has been named to the Sporting News Preseason All-American list. Filling in around LoSchiavo will be sophomore Steve Gaviglia, who’s moving over from defense, and either freshman Chris Larson or senior Dean Ketter at the tackle spots. Junior Jim Popa and sophomore Austin Fields are at the guard positions.
“The offensive line, it’s one of those things leading into camp we were nervous, we were real nervous,” Lutz said. “But they’ve come together in our last scrimmage and it’s to the point where they’re getting better and they’re getting confidence.”
Also returning on offense is All-PSAC running back Shamar Greene, who rushed 273 times for 1,545 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Backing Greene up will be senior Dominic Dingle, junior Isiah Neely and true freshman Dontez Rash.
Rounding out the offensive returners are senior wide receivers Leroy McClain, Drew Scales and Taishan Tucker and junior Cornelius Raye. Raye led the group last year with 770 yards and eight touchdown receptions. Joining the mix will be transfers–sophomore Landon Yeartie from Division-I school Akron and senior Darren Massey from Edinboro.
The biggest position battle on the team through spring practices and fall camp has been at quarterback. Fifth-year senior quarterback Zack Newsock and senior transfer Don King III have been competing for months to win the starting job. Newsock has appeared in 26 games for The Rock, totaling 2357 passing yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. King, coming from Sam Houston State University, has 315 career passing yards and 155 rushing yards.
New to the offense this year is the use of tight end, something SRU rarely did under Mihalik.
“We haven’t use tight ends in the past. The new offense coordinator we brought in, Coach Roper, he’s got to have his blueprint on the offense and he like the tight end.”
Junior Brian McNally and freshman Zach Cirillo are expected to split time at tight end, but true freshman Dylan Stapelton may be able to work his way into that rotation according to Lutz.
Defensively, Slippery Rock was one of the teams in the nation in 2015, leading all Division-II schools in takeaways and having the second best run defense in the nation. With seven returning starters, the defense looks to be a strength for this team yet again.
The leader on The Rock defense is junior defensive end Marcus Martin, who has led the entire PSAC in sack each of the last two years. Martin has 31.5 career sacks in 26 games for SRU.
Joining Martin on the defensive line will be seniors Cody Conway and Joe Phillips. Phillips had 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position last year and Conway put up eight sacks as the defensive end opposite of Martin.
In the linebacking corps, only All-Conference senior Bob Vernick returns as a starter from last year. Vernick was second on the team in tackles in 2015 with 90 and had five sacks and one interception. Vernick will play in the middle and on either side of him will be senior transfer Anthony Zappone and converted safety senior John Conglose. Zappone transfers in from Division-I Eastern Michigan, where he was a captain on their defense and totaled 50 tackles a year ago. Conglose played in all 14 games as a backup safety last year, but will transition to play linebacker in 2016.
Of Zappone, Lutz said, “It’s a guy that we needed on defense, we felt is the last piece of the puzzle to really help us. He’s a Cleveland kid, we knew about him, he just wanted to put himself in a better atmosphere, a better environment.”
In the secondary, the Green and White return starting cornerbacks senior Alfon Cook and junior Titus Howard and senior safety Derrick Fulmore. Cook and Howard combined for seven interceptions as the starting outside corners last year and Fulmore was putting up great numbers before being injured seven games into the season last fall.
Lutz believes the defense is loaded with play makers and can see any number of guys having big seasons. He lists Fulmore, Vernick and Phillips as players who he is going to look to make plays.
After graduating both its kicking and punting specialists last year, the team will rely on true freshman Jake Chapla out of Plum High School to handle the special team’s duties.
The Rock opens their season September third at home against the University of New Haven, will begin PSAC-West play at home on Sept. 24 against Gannon University and will host SRU homecoming Oct. 22 against Edinboro University.
Other big games on the schedule include a rematch of the PSAC title game from last year when Slippery Rock travels to West Chester on Sept. 10 and rivalry match-ups on the road against number four ranked Indiana University (Pa.) on Oct. 15 and Clarion University on Oct. 29.