It’s been a little less than four months since UAlbany football coach Greg Gattuso made the excruciating decision to pull the plug on the injury-riddled Great Danes’ spring 2021 season with two regular-season games remaining.
It’s a move Gattuso called “the right thing to do” at the time, and one he still stands resolutely by.
“The big thing,” Gattuso said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette, “was to get our kids healthy. . . . At the end of the day, we got another three to four weeks of training, which we wouldn’t have gotten normally.”
He’s also ready to move forward, and believes his team is, too.
UAlbany went 1-3 in its truncated spring season, ending on three straight losses as injuries mounted throughout the team. Gattuso attributed many of the struggles and the health problems to an offseason plan completely disrupted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With spring and summer practice canceled, followed by numerous pandemic-related pauses throughout the UAlbany athletic department during the fall 2020 semester, the Great Danes “didn’t wear pads in 2020, not one time,” and started the spring season hampered by their lack of preparation, especially with radically changed casts at wide receiver, offensive line and cornerback from the Great Danes’ run to the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2019.
As the Great Danes prepare to report for preseason camp on Aug. 5 ahead of their Sept. 4 opener at North Dakota State, Gattuso sees his team in a much better spot than it was heading into the spring.
“Our kids look good. They look happy,” he said. “They look excited about everything. I think, in the long term, we were able to get healthier. We missed almost all of our training in 2020, so I feel good about the progress we’ve made.”
Part of Gattuso’s optimism comes from the return of several key players who are utilizing the extra year of eligibility granted to all NCAA athletes in 2020-21 due to the pandemic. Workhorse running back Karl Mofor, who averaged 115 rushing yards per game in the spring and ran for 1,290 yards in 2019, is back for another season, as are defensive tackle Ibn Foster and tight end LJ Wesneski, among others.
As it stands, Gattuso said, the Great Danes are slated to open the season with 10 returning starters on offensive, nine or 10 on defense and all three of its specialists.
“That’s the silver lining about this,” he said, “is that we were able to bring some people in that could really help our football team. All in all, we’re in good shape and excited about getting to camp.”
The other element bolstering Gattuso’s spirits heading into the fall is the experience gained by a number of UAlbany’s younger players in the spring. An inexperienced offensive line got a chance to jell, redshirt freshmen like linebacker Jackson Ambush and wide receiver Mike Gray made significant impact in their first action on the field, and redshirt freshman defensive end Jared Verse emerged as a star, taking CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after putting up four sacks and a conference-best 10 tackles for loss.
The four games worth of experience for those young players should prove crucial as the Great Danes are immediately thrown into the fire with a brutal start to the season in what Gattuso called the “without a doubt, the most challenging scheduled Albany football’s ever had to play.”
UAlbany opens in Fargo, North Dakota, against a North Dakota State team that’s won eight FCS championships in the past decade, followed by a Sept. 11 home opener against a tough Rhode Island team to kick off CAA play, then a Sept. 18 trip to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse.
“If we would’ve had those guys not do anything for 18 months,” Gattuso said, “it would’ve been difficult to regroup.”
To navigate that tough start, UAlbany will need quarterback Jeff Undercuffler to return to the form he showed during his breakout redshirt freshman season in 2019. After breaking every major single-season program passing record that season, Undercuffler’s production fell off this past spring while working with a brand-new receiving corps and offensive line as he threw for 556 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in three games before missing UAlbany’s fourth game due to injury.
Since UAlbany pulled the plug on the spring season, Gattuso has seen a reinvigorated Undercuffler.
“He looks great. You can see the difference in Jeff right now,” Gattuso said. “He’s so fired up and becoming the leader that I really have been waiting for and expecting out of him.”