5 steps in the right direction for UAlbany Football
By Shane Marshall
September 1, 2015
University at Albany head coach Greg Gattuso named DJ Crook the Great Danes starting quarterback for its season opener against University at Buffalo on Saturday. A new quarterback under center and an experienced defense will help bring a lot of attention to UAlbany football.
Here’s five highlights for this year’s Great Danes:
1-Experienced Offensive Line
An experienced offensive line will help Crook & Co. adapt and get into a rhythm. Four of five starters return in Kevin Malloy, Matt Campion, Tim Wade and Adam Wierbinski, and each was a part of a Great Danes rushing offense that averaged 140.8 yards per game.
“When the defense is running games and stuff like that you know what the guy next to you is doing,” Malloy said. “He feels the same thing you do because you guys are kind of connected. The leadership of the offensive line hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. The big guys upfront know they can make a huge impact on the production this year.
“The offensive line is really hungry to be leaders,” Gattuso said. “They want the pressure on them. They took a lot of pride last year in the improvement of our running game, and our pass protection. They’re ready to be leaders, and I’m happy with them right now.”
2-Youth at Skill Positions
Offensively, the Great Danes will have a young, new look at the skill positions. Crook, a sophomore transfer from Penn State, will replace UAlbany’s all-time leading passer, Will Fiacchi, at quarterback.
UAlbany will have a new starting running back in junior Andre Martin, while Brad Harris and Josh Gontarek, two sophomores, will anchor the wide receivers, giving Crook a set of young skill players to grow and build chemistry with.
“We’re young, yes, but we all know how to play ball,” Crook said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to each other. Me knowing where they’re going to be, and them knowing where I’m going to be throwing the ball.”
Gattuso is confident in his stable of running backs which includes redshirt freshman Elliot Croskey and redshirt junior Power Lawrence.
“We feel we have depth (at running back),” Gattuso said. “Running back is one of those positions where a committee can work. Until someone separates themselves, it’s going to be hard to replace Omar (Osbourne).”
UAlbany returns eight starters on defense from a unit that forced 34 fumbles, recovering 20 of them, and 10 interceptions. Anchored by redshirt junior middle linebacker Michael Nicastro, the Great Danes defense is confident in their ability to build on last year’s success.
“The kids on defense know what to expect from the running back and skill positions in the CAA,” Nicastro said. “It’ll be a good year defensively, we got everybody back. A bunch of guys have good chemistry and everything.”
The focal points for the UAlbany defense will be forcing turnovers, stopping offenses on third down and getting to the quarterback. The Great Danes topped the CAA in takeaways with 30, but ranked last in the CAA in opponent’s third-down conversion at 47.3 percent, and were eighth in sacks with 26.
“We really need to improve in third-down conversion, we need to improve in red zone defense, some critical indicators,” head coach Greg Gattuso said. “We’re a little bigger this year. We need to have a good year defensively. They need to step up.”
Two guys that the Great Danes need big efforts from on defense are Zach Troutman and Sam Gray, two of their defensive linemen. Troutman, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound nose guard had 27 tackles last season, including two sacks. Gray, a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive tackle played in nine games last season, totaling 21 tackles. With most of UAlbany’s returning starters in the linebacking corps and secondary, the play up will be crucial in 2015.
“We have some really good rushers off the edge,” Gray said. “(Troutman and I) like to tear it up with our power on the inside. Our main focus is stopping the run, we want teams to try to beat us with their arm.”
4-Going Through the Gauntlet
UAlbany opens the season Saturday at University at Buffalo, the Great Danes’ first Division I Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, and the aura around the locker room is that UAlbany could start the season with a huge upset.
“The kids are excited,” Gattuso said. “It would certainly be a big upset, you got a team that has 25 more scholarships. We’d certainly like to have a chance to win the game. (If it’s close) in the fourth quarter, who knows?”
On top of playing Buffalo, the Great Danes face the top four opponents in the CAA from a year ago in New Hampshire, Villanova, James Madison and Richmond. The latter two are road trips for the Great Danes, who were 3-2 on the road last year.
“I love challenges,” Crook said. “In order to get your name out there, you’ve got to play big opponents.”
Last week, UAlbany unveiled new alternate uniforms to be worn during their home opener against Rhode Island on Sept. 12. Injured tight end Nic Ketter was the model for the uniforms which consist of purple helmets with “UAlbany” in an arc. The jerseys are Nike’s anthracite gray with purple numbers and yellow outline to go with gray pants.
“The kids want to wear them as soon as possible,” Gattuso said in a statement. “They’d probably wear them at Buffalo if I’d let them, but we’re going to wear them against Rhode Island and then probably another game later in the year.”
Regardless of what uniforms UAlbany is wearing, the 2015 will bring a lot of excitement and energy around the Great Danes.