ALBANY — The schedule is ambitious, to say the least.
But from head coach Greg Gattuso on down, the message from the UAlbany football team heading into the meat grinder that is the 2021 season — especially the grueling three-week starting stretch — is simple.
Bring it on.
“If we’re all on the same page and we’re all prepared,” UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler said, “we’re going to go shock the world.”
One of Gattuso’s constant refrains is that there’s never an easy game on the Great Danes’ schedule as members of the CAA, but what UAlbany has on the menu this year is extra spicy.
In addition to the team’s nine CAA games, UAlbany’s two nonconference games are both doozies — and they’re just 14 days apart.
The season opens Sept. 4 with a trip to Fargo, North Dakota, to take on a North Dakota State team that’s won eight of the last 10 FCS national championships, and is followed two weeks later with a rather shorter trip west on the NYS Thruway to face Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
Oh, and the game in between those two — the Sept. 11 home and CAA opener against Rhode Island — won’t be a picnic, either.
“The scheduling is unrelenting this year,” Gattuso said, “and that’s fine. We know what it’s going to be.”
UAlbany is coming off a rough spring season, where the team went 1-3 after the schedule was moved to the spring because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Great Danes’ spring, which ended with three consecutive losses, was cut even shorter as the team opted to cancel its final two games due to mounting injuries.
Returning a far healthier bunch has vastly improved the mood for the Great Danes since the team reported for its preseason camp earlier this month.
“My first day coming back, I was all happy,” defensive end Jared Verse said. “Everyone’s back healthy and smiling. People got the surgeries that they needed, some got the rehab that they needed. Everyone’s back full go, hitting the gas pedal.”
Verse is one of the Great Danes most anticipating the spotlight the team will be under at the start of the season.
From all the frustrations the program suffered through in the spring, Verse was one of the team’s biggest bright spots, racking up four sacks and a conference-best 10 tackles for loss in the spring en route to claiming CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The games against North Dakota State and Syracuse will represent the highest talent level Verse has gotten the chance to pit himself against — North Dakota State has produced a pair of top-three NFL draft picks at quarterback in the last five years in Carson Wentz and Trey Lance — and will give the 6-foot-4 defensive end a chance to showcase his considerable athletic talent.
“Personally, for me, I can see what I’m able to do against a team that’s that good,” Verse said. “They’ve got NFL prospects every year. I think it’s going to be the best way to show my skills on a big stage.”
Verse was one of several younger Great Danes who got their first game action with the program in the spring, along with the likes of wide receiver Mike Gray and defensive backs Christian Lewis and Larry Walker Jr.
Those players are all expected to play major roles this fall, and knowing the gauntlet that awaits the Great Danes early in the year, Gattuso is pleased they’ll be starting the season with a little bit of valuable experience under their belts.
Throw in standout returning contributors from UAlbany’s 9-4 2019 team — including Undercuffler, running back Karl Mofor and defensive tackle Ibn Foster — and the Great Danes will head to Fargo with a team that’s as deep and talented — if not moreso — than any Gattuso’s had before.
“If we can stay healthy,” Gattuso said, “we can be a good football team. We have components to be a good football team. We have the most talent we’ve had and I would say, at most positions, we’re as deep as we could be.”