In back to back seasons, Slippery Rock football has lost program defining players on the offensive side of the ball to the NFL (Wes Hills and likely Roland Rivers III).
Despite the loss of Hills in 2019, Slippery Rock advanced to the national semifinals and won a program-record 13 games. With the loss of Rivers in 2020, well, no one knows yet.
One of the 35 players that Slippery Rock welcomed to the program on Wednesday’s 2020 National Signing Day may make a lasting impact reminiscent of Hills or Rivers.
With Rivers departing for the NFL, currently training in San Diego, Ca. for the NFL Draft in April, the race is on to replace the best player in program history.
After a Harlon Hill Award-winning season in 2019, Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said the award did make it easier to entice potential quarterbacks to come play for SRU.
“I’m really proud of the team to get a national award like Roland [Rivers] got,” Lutz said. “No one looked at it as just about Roland, everybody looks at it as a reflection of the whole program.”
It appears that North Dakota transfer quarterback Noah Grover has the potential to be next in a line of highly successful transfer quarterbacks for Slippery Rock.
“Noah was a big get for us and was the quarterback we targeted as a mid-year transfer,” Lutz said to Rock Athletics. “He has great arm strength, is a strong leader and is a tough guy.”
Grover, a 6-2, 200-pound quarterback from Phoenix, Az., originally played a year of JUCO football at Phoenix College in 2017 before transferring to Division I North Dakota in 2018.
After sitting out in 2018, Grover made the most of his limited appearances in 2019, throwing for 19 yards on 3-of-3 passing and rushing for a touchdown on his only attempt.
Entering the 2020 season, with two remaining seasons of eligibility, Lutz said that Grover will battle with senior quarterback Andrew Koester for the starting gig. Koester notably lost his starting spot to Rivers in the 2018 season following an injury.
Joining Grover or Koester (or an incoming freshman like Brayden Long from New Oxford or Zaire Hart Hawkins from West Catholic Prep) in the backfield is likely still to be decided.
With starter Charles Snorweah exhausting his eligibility, backup DeSean Dinkins leaving the program and third-stringer Braden Focthman graduating, there is no true running back on the roster.
“We’ve got Cinque Sweeting, and Cam Marrett didn’t do a bad job,” Lutz said. “But, [right now], we’ve got nobody. Who wouldn’t want to play running back on our team?”
Welcome, Portland State transfer Evyn Holtz and Cardinal Newman signee Chris D’Or to the program.
Holtz, the presumptive starter entering spring camp this season, played his freshman and sophomore seasons at American River College in Sacramento, Ca. Following a freshman season with 799 yards and 12 touchdowns, he played through an injury-shortened sophomore campaign.
Transferring to Division I Portland State for his junior season, Holtz, a 5-9, 190-pounder from Conklin, Ca., featured sparingly, rushing for 159 yards on 30 attempts.
“Evyn is an immediate impact guy in our lineup,” Lutz said to Rock Athletics. “He is an explosive, speedy running back that can make people miss. He sees the game well, is put together and is a strong and physical runner.”
D’Or will likely have an instant impact as a true freshman complement to Holtz in the backfield, according to Lutz.
D’Or, who was ranked 11th on the Palm Beach Post’s Big Board of the Top 50 players in Palm Beach County, Fl., rushed for 1,271 yards and 17 touchdowns in just nine games during his senior season.
While former Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin was still at the university prior to departing for Ole Miss in early December, it appeared that FAU led the recruitment chase for D’Or. With an official offer from FAU, D’Or was reportedly considering UCF, UConn and Memphis as other options.
Ultimately, D’Or decided on Slippery Rock in a Twitter post that tagged Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz and offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer among others.
“Hold your breath when [Chris] gets the ball,” Lutz said to Rock Athletics. “He has tons of speed and skill and had Division I opportunities. We think he is a steal for us.”
Kenyon Johnson, an athlete from West Perry who played out of position at quarterback during his senior season, entered the program as a running back with the potential to make an immediate impact. Timothy Smith, a transfer running back from Fairmont State, also entered the program with an expected role in the offense, and Isaiah Taylor from Pottsgrove joined him.
With a wide receiver core that returns the best duo in Division II football, an electric deep threat in Sweeting and a huge possession receiver in Victor Talley, the offense will benefit from playmakers on the outside.
A deep group of incoming freshmen wide receivers in Andrew Miller from Huntingdon, Tyler Settle from Patriot High School in Va., Michael Beneski from Erie McDowell, Logan Ramper from Cumberland Valley and Evan Spann from North Penn will be joining a loaded receiving corps.
Kendrick Wesley, a 6-3, 240-pound tight end from Liberty High School, will be someone that Lutz said can compete for the starting role right away.
Replacing a couple of vacancies on the offensive line remains a task that weighs on Lutz and offensive line coach Chris Conrad.
“We’ve got to face how good Ryan Podgorksi and Chris Larsen were, too, those guys aren’t replaceable,” Lutz said.
With the losses of All-American Chris Larsen and All-PSAC Ryan Podgorski to graduation, Lutz pointed to a strong group of rising freshmen as potential fits for the vacant positions.
But the crown jewel of the offensive line class, and the heir apparent to Larsen, is Jacob Brunson from Dayton. A starter with Division I Dayton, Lutz said Brunson will slot into the starting left tackle position, opposite incumbent right tackle Jake Tecak.
Slippery Rock welcomed Sawyer Morgan from Bishop McDevitt, Mitchell Sweeney from Cathedral Prep and two-time state champion Melvin Hobson from Farrell.
Lutz lauded Joe Cooper, a 6-6, 300-pound offensive tackle from Bermudian Springs, as a potential game-changer on the offensive line.
“He is very athletic and has great size but is very raw and comes from a small school,” Lutz said to Rock Athletics. “He has huge upside and potential to be one of our top offensive lineman in his career.”
With the disparity in the trenches between the Minnesota State and Slippery Rock in the national semifinals last season, the offensive and defensive lines are areas that Lutz said will look to add strength and toughness in the offseason.
With the losses of defensive line stalwarts Trey Blandford and Zach Bader, Lutz said he will look internally for replacements.
Rising freshman Jevon Lang figures to feature heavily in the rotation next season, and incoming freshmen Michael Boyd from Sherwood High School, Chris Kaczwara from Cardinal Newman in Florida, Lance Craig from Grove City, Michael Voitus from Poland Seminary in Ohio and Henzloy McFarlane from Martin Luther King joined the team.
Matthew Wilhohl from Lake Mary in Florida is an incoming defensive lineman that Lutz said could see the field as a true freshman.
Despite the loss of last season’s best defensive player, linebacker Brad Zaffram, Lutz doesn’t expect much upheaval among the starters.
With rising juniors Tim Vernick, Shane Schuback and Trysten McDonald all returning, they slot into the starting slots.
Lutz said Slippery Rock will receive no transfers at linebacker but instead look to promote organically through the program.
Devyn Clair, another Bishop McDevitt recruit, is a guy that Lutz said had Division I offers and Power 5 walk-on offers. Lutz said that Clair will likely see the field as a freshman at linebacker but could be moved to defensive end in select packages.
Keegan Toner from South Forsyth in Georgia, Kyle Killiri from Salisbury Township and Brayden Prekop from North Allegheny highlight the incoming freshmen linebackers.
While the starting linebacking corps appears set, Lutz expressed concern with the secondary.
“Secondary is going to be the biggest loss,” Lutz said. “We lose Eric [Glover-Williams] and Tyree [Spearman], and we’ll be young back there.”
With rising freshmen Jalen Dangerfield and Selvin Haynes receiving starts in the secondary last season, the position will not be devoid of experience. Especially with rising juniors Dalton Holt and Khadir Roberts returning.
Slippery Rock will welcome a deep defensive backs group, headlined by former All-State running back Savion Harrison from York Suburban, Za-ki Lindo from Paramus Catholic in NJ., Josh Stokes from Huntingtown, Md.
Edgar Faulkner IV, the son of Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back coach Eddie Faulkner, might be the most prominent of the bunch of incoming defensive backs and not just because of his football coach father.
According to his Twitter page, Faulkner, from Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, received numerous offers from Division I programs, including Boston College, Southeastern Louisiana and Morehead State.
Slippery Rock will see a familiar face transfer into the program in former Long Island Post defensive back Kiyon Santos. While at LIU Post, Santos started against Slippery Rock into the 2018 NCAA Division II playoffs.
Lutz said that Santos will likely settle into a starting cornerback slot.
With the all-time leading scorer in conference history graduating, Slippery Rock will be forced to replace Jake Chapla at both kicker and punter.
Incumbent rising junior Jackson Gildea will get the first crack at both positions, according to Lutz.
Josh George, the brother of former Rock long snapper Jacob George, entered the program as a starting option at long snapper.
Compared to Lutz’s first year as the head coach of Slippery Rock, where he recruited 28 of 29 players from western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, he’s expanded this class further than ever.
With 22 recruits coming from Pennsylvania, although a majority come from the eastern end of the state, Lutz dipped heavily into his backyard, but he also brought in multiple recruits from Florida, Maryland, Georgia and New Jersey.
Lutz also pulled one recruit from each of Ohio, California, Arizona and Virginia.
With the 2020 spring game still months away, Lutz said the team is already back in the weight room working on strength and conditioning.
Already, the returners are being motivated to strive for bigger and better success.
“We just had our first team meeting yesterday and told the underclassmen, ‘you’ve got big shoes to fill,'” Lutz said.
Moving past the season-ending loss to Minnesota State, Lutz pointed to the positives in the program on and off the field — and to the field literally — as reasons to look forward to the coming season.
“We just got the [football field] done [at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium], the weight room is getting renovated and we’ve just got a lot of good things happening in the program,” Lutz said.