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Annual spring game showcases UAlbany quarterback battle

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By Shane Marshall

Staff Writer

sports.asp@gmail.com

April 21, 2015

Photo from UAlbany Athletics. DJ Crook (green) is looking to be UAlbany's starting QB in 2015.
Photo from UAlbany Athletics. DJ Crook (green jersey) is looking to be UAlbany’s starting QB in 2015.

   The University at Albany hosted its annual spring game on Saturday, and all the attention was on the quarterback spot.

   No score was kept, but DJ Crook, Steve Shanley and Will Brunson each led scoring drives for the Great Danes offense.

Crook, a sophomore transfer from Penn State, is a 6-foot-1 native of West Barnstable, Mass.

   He played in two games for the Nittany Lions last season, but only threw passes against Massachusetts, completing six of nine for 57 yards and a touchdown in a 48-7 win.

   Crook says he saw an opportunity at Albany and took advantage of it.

   “I chose Albany because I saw a lot of opportunity here,” Crook said. “Education is good, and I knew I had an opportunity to have an extra year of college here. I need a restart, one that was close to home, so Albany was the best option for me.”

   Crook drove down the field in his first possession, and Andre Martin capped it off with a nine-yard touchdown run.

   “DJ is a mature kid, and he’s been around,” Danes head coach Greg Gattuso said. “He’s been out in front of fans before and has done pretty well. He’s got an edge right now because he’s more mature and he’s done it longer.”

   While it’s a different level of college football, Crook says there’s no difference in scheme or playbook, and that the quarterback competition doesn’t change much. Only difference is that Penn State has the “number one quarterback in the country” in Christian Hackenberg, according to Crook.

   As for his new teammates, the transfer says he was welcomed with open arms by the purple and gold.

   “I was definitely a little hesitant,” Crook said. “Here comes me walking in and not knowing a soul, but so far it’s been great. A lot of the guys are awesome, and I’m really excited to play with them.”

   Taking second team snaps to begin the day was true freshman Will Brunson from Myrtle Beach, S.C. Brunson graduated high school early to become a Great Dane.

   For a kid who is supposed to be going to the prom, it’s paying dividends.

   In a two-minute drill, Brunson led the Great Danes offense 65 yards in 34 seconds when he capped the drive with a 39-yard touchdown pass. Two plays earlier, Brunson connected with Russell Neverdon on a 25-yard completion in the middle of the field.

   At 6-foot-4, Brunson has the height for a prototypical quarterback, but Gattuso says he just needs to adjust to the physicality of the college game compared to high school.

   “Will Brunson is an exciting young freshman, and he’s got a lot of tools,” Gattuso said. “Physically, he might not be ready for the rigors of getting hit by the people he’s going to get hit by.”

   Gattuso said after Saturday’s spring game that Crook and Brunson had an edge, but there’s three others battling to become the next signal called.

   Dan Harding is a 6-foot-4 Nazareth, Pa. native who transferred to Albany for the 2014 season after spending his sophomore year at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif. Harding threw for 1,858 yards including 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He was Will Fiacchi’s backup last season.

   “Danny (Harding) is a very cerebral quarterback,” Gattuso said. “If we can get him to start translating all of his knowledge into his arm and make some of the throws, that’s his strength.”

Harding arguably has the most to lose at the position since this is his last chance to earn a starting job at the Division I level. Harding was a walk-on at Akron in 2012.

   “Just take it day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting, learn as much as possible and try to translate it onto the field,” the senior said. “(The greatest challenge) is just trying to make every rep count. When you have a bunch of guys reps are limited, but you try to get the most out of every one.”

   Steve Shanley enters this season as a sophomore who is coming off an injury from last season. Gattuso says they’re expecting a lot from the second-year man.

   Shanley led a scoring drive after converting a 3rd and 10 with a 13 yard completion to wide receiver Jordan Chroback. After a few attempts at the endzone, and a defensive pass interference call, Power Lawrence capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

   Rounding out the quarterbacks is Shane Sweeney, a graduate of Geneva High School in western New York. Sweeney loves to use his arm to make plays, but Gattuso says that making smarter plays is the focus for the redshirt sophomore.

   “I always tell Shane (Sweeney) he’s a gunslinger,” Gattuso said. “He doesn’t seem to have any nerves and just kind of wings it around. He needs to pick up the mental side of the game and get better at knowing where to go with the ball.”

   The quarterback position is just one of many new things for Coach Gattuso and Co. Unlike last season where UAlbany’s all-time leading passer Will Fiacchi was the front runner, all five guys have a chance at the starting spot.

   “You’d much rather have a guy that’s been here and played a lot,” Gattuso said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are young and inexperienced, but they’re learning and getting better. It’s exciting, but it’s also worrisome because you’d like to have an established starter out there.”

   The Great Danes are looking to improve on a 7-5 season in which they won their first CAA game, and finished a perfect 4-0 against non-conference opponents.

   While the quarterback position was the main focus of Saturday’s spring game, Gattuso is in no hurry to make a decision on his second quarterback in as many years.

   “It’s a huge part (of our team),” Gattuso said. “Every league in football nowadays is dominated by quarterbacks, if you have a good one or don’t have a good one. It’s a big thing for us, and that’s why we won’t rush it. We’ll take our time. This (battle) probably won’t be totally done until we get into camp.”

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