The Slippery Rock University football team will look to continue their long-running team success into the 2018 season by taking on Kentucky State University on Saturday afternoon in a nonconference matchup.
The Rock, coming off an 8-3 (5-2) record last season and just missing the playoffs in the process, are currently ranked third in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West Division, coming in behind California (Pa.) University and Indiana (Pa.) University, who are ranked in second and first place, respectively.
Leading The Rock at the helm, is head coach Shawn Lutz. Lutz, entering his third season leading the Green and White, has compiled a record of 15-7 (.682) since taking over for long-time coach George Mihalik. Although recording winning seasons in each of his first two years as head coach, Lutz has failed to lead his team to the PSAC playoffs in either of the two years. The last playoff appearance for The Rock came in 2015 when they repeated as PSAC Champions. In order to get back to the playoffs, Lutz said that his team has to come out fast in each of the games they play.
“We got to come out fast against Kentucky State, but we got to win our first couple games to get confidence in this football team,” Lutz said. “We only have eight seniors, so we’re a relatively young football team, so it’s getting confidence in these guys and getting them to believe in themselves.”
Junior Andrew Koester has been announced as the starting quarterback for The Rock, beating out transfers Taylor King and Roland Rivers, a sophomore and junior, respectively, and Kameron Patterson, a redshirt freshman. Serving as last year’s backup to Tanner Garry, Koester threw for 90 yards, averaging 30 per game, and two touchdowns in three games played. Koester played two seasons (the first sitting out as a redshirt freshman) at Division I Saint Francis University (Pa.) before transferring to The Rock for the 2017 season. Lutz said that in addition to the Division I experience Koester has, what he “really likes” about him is that he was on the team last season.
“[Andrew] understand the culture here, he understands the system, and he was a backup to Tanner Garry,” Lutz said. “We just named him the starting quarterback this past weekend because we have four pretty good quarterbacks. What makes Andrew the starter, is that he just understands the offense so much better; he can run and he’s a little bit more strategic.”
Perhaps the biggest name to come to The Rock this season is transfer running back Wes Hills. Hills, a transfer from the University of Delaware, last played in the 2016 season, during which, he rushed for 728 yards, scoring seven touchdowns, as well as serving as a team captain.
Lutz said Hills is “as good as advertised.”
“He is a freak of an athlete,” said Lutz, enthusiastically. “He is a big, powerful running back, that can run like a small, fast tailback. “If he stays healthy, I actually have not seen a running back like him in all of my years in Division II football.”
Although Hills is “special,” he has never made it through an entire season healthy, Lutz explained. Hills has been injury prone in the past, but he has done a good job so far staying healthy and working hard in the weight room, Lutz continued. The addition of Hills will help Slippery Rock become more of a running team this year, something that Lutz said they haven’t really been in years past.
In addition to Hills, The Rock has seen an influx of transfers this season to help their offense, including slot receiver Eric Glover-Williams and tight end A.J. Alexander, both juniors coming in from Ohio State. Junior Tony Pilato transfers in from the University of Pittsburgh to help bolster an offensive line that Lutz considers his team’s weakest link.
The Rock will have to do without wide receivers Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye, who graduated after last season. Johnson and Raye combined for 4,675 yards in their careers at The Rock. Hoping to pick up on part of the wide receiver vacancy left by Johnson and Raye will be Alderson Broddus transfer Jermaine Wynn Jr.
Returning to help Wynn Jr. adjust to the new offense are redshirts Henry Litwin and Dakota Clanagan, a sophomore and senior, respectively, who will take turns filling the slot positions. Redshirt junior Mike Merhaut returns as a slot receiver as well, while also being the team’s place holder on special teams.
Defensively, the Rock lost the 2017 National Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Martin to graduation. Martin, currently playing in the Los Angeles Rams system, led the NCAA in sacks last season with 15.5 and tackles for loss per game (2.4). He currently holds the NCAA record for career sacks with 56.
Even with the loss of Martin this year, Lutz believes that the overall depth of his team’s defense this year is stronger and more durable.
Lutz said that he expects transfer Tyree Spearman to play a pivotal role in The Rock’s secondary. At the moment, Spearman, a transfer from Butte College, is positioned to be the starting cornerback for Slippery Rock, Lutz said.
Key returners for The Rock defense this year include linemen Zach Bader and Trey Blanford, both redshirt juniors, redshirt sophomore Chad Kuhn, and senior Tim Soave. Returning linebackers include sophomores Trysten McDonald, Tim Vernick, and Dylan Whiteman. The Rock also returns three starting defensive backs in seniors Kyle Hall and Tavarus Sample and sophomore Khadir Roberts.
Perhaps the biggest loss for The Rock defense this year, besides Martin, is Dylan Stapleton. Stapleton, 6-5 tight end, transferred to James Madison University (Va.) for the upcoming season. Stapleton, according to Lutz, gained about 20 lbs. over the offseason and would have been a formidable force for The Rock this season.
Lutz said that although the defense was his team’s Achilles heel last season, allowing their opponents, on average, 32.64 points per game, it has been the biggest improvement leaving camp and heading into week one.
“The biggest surprise I saw going into camp was how much more experienced we are on defense,” he said. “As bad as our stats were last year, with how young we were on defense, it seemed like all those guys got so much better. You can see it through them getting bigger, more mature, and also them being more understanding of the defense.”
Perhaps the strongest facet of the football team this year is the special teams. Junior Jake Chapla returns as Slippery Rock’s kicker/punter. He finished the 2017 season third in the PSAC with a 68.8% field goal percentage, behind Indiana’s Dillon Sarka (78.9%) and California’s Will Brazill (83.3%). Chapla, an All-PSAC kicker/punter, will work with placeholder Merhaut and longsnapper Jacob George, the latter of the two being a teammate of Chapla’s at Plum High School, to complete a very confident kicking/punting unit, according to Lutz. On the receiving end of special teams, SRU lost their two primary returners, in Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye. For the first couple of games, there will be a mix of players getting opportunities to return the ball, including but not limited to Wynn Jr., redshirt freshman Elijah Jackson, and Kyle Hall, Lutz said. Lutz said he is confident in any one of the guys because they are “fast and explosive.”
With week one for The Rock beginning on Saturday against Kentucky State, Lutz said he needs his team to come out fast to hopefully exhaust the Thorobreds offensively and defensively early on in the game. Last season, Slippery Rock beat Kentucky State 42-21 on the Thorobeds’ home turf. Although the last year’s win was a solid victory, Lutz said his team can’t come in “just expecting win.” Kentucky State, coming off a 3-8 record last season, is returning their quarterback, all of their receivers, their starting tailback, the latter of two considered as one of the top offensive stars on the team, according to Rock Athletics, as well as a new coach and two new coordinators.
Lutz said the quickest way to take down Kentucky State will be by stopping their running game.
“The name of the game for the defense is stopping the tailback,” he said. “It does everything. [Kentucky State] is returning some great and talented kids, and who even knows who else will be showing up.”
Lutz believes a “big” week one win against Kentucky State will be huge for his team because it will give them confidence, especially with the game being played at home.
“We’re playing at home, we’re playing a team from another conference, and let’s face it, some of these young guys, these transfers, have not played football in a long time,” Lutz explained. “What I want to get out of this, is to see what kind of football team we are. I don’t know who we really are yet, except on special teams, because we have one of the best kickers in the country.”
The Rock is just days away from their first home game of the season and will get to see what kind of team they have for the rest of the season. Kickoff against Kentucky State is slated for 1 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in Slippery Rock.