Entering Friday’s season opener, there were few position groups within the UAlbany football team with greater question marks than the team’s receiving corps.
Consider a lot of those questions answered.
When it came to filling the void left by the graduation of Juwan Green and Jerrah Reeves, Tyler Oedekoven and Mike Gray stepped right in with aplomb in the Great Danes’ 24-20 win over New Hampshire.
Oedekoven, a late-season revelation in 2019, caught 10 passes for 81 yards — including the game-tying touchdown early in the third quarter — while Gray hauled in seven passes for 74 yards and a score in the first action of his collegiate career.
Whether the duo — along with graduate student Mohamed Jabbie — will approximate the 159 catches, 2,344 yards and 24 touchdowns produced by Green and Reeves in 2019 certainly remains to be seen, but Friday was a good start.
“Those guys definitely stepped up during the spring camp that we had,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff Undercuffler said during a post-game teleconference. “We knew that we lost a lot of guys last year on the offensive side of the ball, with the skill positions, but they did a great job.”
Green and Reeves accounted for 60% of UAlbany’s total receptions and 65.3% of the team’s receiving yards in 2019.
Throw in the dismissal of junior Dev Holmes — the team’s leading receiver in 2018 — from the program a few days before the game, and the position was certainly in flux.
Oedekoven’s spot was never in doubt. The redshirt sophomore broke out as the team’s third receiving option in the late stages of 2019, with 14 of his 17 catches coming in UAlbany’s final six games, but he showed off his chops with 10 catches Friday, with a knack for moving the sticks while operating against tight coverage.
“I felt like they took some liberties with [Tyler] on the field,” UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said. “They called one [penalty], but he made some big plays for us.”
Gray, a redshirt freshman, was the night’s surprise star. Lining up as the starter on the outside opposite Oedekoven, he caught four passes for 43 yards on UAlbany’s first drive of the night, including a nifty 23-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
Count Gattuso as a fan of the way Gray has transformed himself since arriving on campus as a walk-on.
“When the coaches kept saying he was the guy to start, I was very skeptical in the beginning,” Gattuso said. I kept saying, ‘Let’s let him prove it.’ He proved it in camp, and then he went out there and played a great game for us.”
As far as the Holmes situation, Gattuso declined to go into detail about the former Troy High star’s dismissal from the program. Holmes also had a rocky 2019 season at UAlbany, with a drop in production through three games before being suspended, then leaving the team following its fourth game before rejoining the program in January 2020.
“I’m not going to get into it,” Gattuso said. “I’ve got big shoulders, and if people want to criticize me for dismissing him off the team, I don’t take that lightly, but I’m not going to get into what happened. It’s not important to divulge that right now. At all.”
DEFENSE BUCKLES DOWN
New Hampshire’s first two drives Friday night lasted 14 plays apiece, netted 123 total yards and chewed up nearly 15 minutes of game clock. The Wildcats converted five of seven third-down opportunities during those two drives, and only a fourth-down stuff of running back Carlos Washington Jr. by Anthony Lang and Danny Damico prevented the Wildcats from converting both drives into points.
From that point on, the UNH offense was virtually silenced.
UAlbany allowed just 63 yards over its remaining nine possessions, with New Hampshire’s only touchdowns over the final two-and-a-half quarters coming on a blocked punt recovered in the end zone and a touchdown pass set up by a fumble that gave the Wildcats a short field.
Only one of New Hampshire’s final nine drives lasted more than four plays, and the Wildcats failed to convert a single third down after their second series on offense.
“It definitely was a slow start,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Mazon Walker, “but after we got in the flow of things, we started to play football how we know to.”