Picked to finish 12th out of 13 teams in the Colonial Athletic Association’s annual preseason poll of the conference’s head coaches and media relations directors, UAlbany head football coach Greg Gattuso laid out a somewhat bolder expectation for the 2022 season.
“We think we can win the conference,” Gattuso said Thursday during the CAA’s media day teleconference with reporters.
UAlbany, 2-9 a season ago, was picked ahead of only CAA newcomer Hampton in the league’s preseason poll, but Gattuso — who signed a two-year contract extension through 2024 following the 2021 season — doesn’t put much stock into such exercises.
“We vote on this,” Gattuso said. “I don’t know that I would use coaches to predict an order of finish. I don’t know that it works real well, because that’s not our thing. But, I’ve never believed in preseason voting or preseason All-American teams. I don’t like it. I just think it’s silly.”
Villanova topped the preseason poll with 270 points and 16 of the 26 first-palce votes. Delaware was second with 235 points, followed by Rhode Island, Richmond, William & Mary, Elon, Stony Brook, Maine, New Hampshire, Monmouth, Towson, UAlbany and Hampton.
UAlbany finished 2021 at the bottom of the CAA with a 1-7 mark in league play, though that included five losses by seven or fewer points.
Correcting those smaller errors that compounded into the Great Danes’ collection of close losses has been a major focus of the team’s offseason program.
“The biggest thing is to keep harping on that the devil’s in the details, and doing the little things right,” senior tight end Thomas Greaney said. “We saw so much last year, it wasn’t necessarily the biggest plays, it was the little things in the game that ended up being the difference . . . the little things are what’s going to make us CAA champions.”
UAlbany’s hope for a rebound from back-to-back losing campaigns — the Great Danes were 1-3 during their shortened spring 2021 season — will come from a cast of characters that’s been heavily changed, both on the field and the sidelines.
Gone on the field are the likes of leading rusher Karl Mofor to graduation and star defensive end Jared Verse via transfer to Florida State. The coaching staff, too, has shuffled, with offensive coordinator Joe Davis and offensive line coach Jim Sweeney out, and former Delaware offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose brought in to run the UAlbany offense.
Gattuso and his staff were also busy in the NCAA’s transfer portal, with newcomers including running back Todd Sibley from Pittsburgh and kicker/punter Tyler Pastula — who, along with sophomore linebacker Jackson Ambush was picked to the CAA Preseason All-Conference Team — from Delaware.
“Even though we lost some good players, we believe we’ve added more good players,” Gattuso said.
And then, there’s the quarterback situation.
The highest-profile position on the field was often in flux for the Great Danes in 2021, with 2019 All-American Jeff Undercuffler often struggling and sharing playing time with backup Joey Carino — who got his first career start against William & Mary when Undercuffler traveled with the team but didn’t suit up. Undercuffler, who had back-to-back tough seasons after rewriting UAlbany’s single-season passing record book in leading the Great Danes to the 2019 NCAA FCS playoffs, transferred to Akron during the offseason.
During the spring, it was an open three-way competition between Carino, returning third-stringer Tyler Szalkowski and graduate student Matt Valecce — a transfer from Colorado State — for the QB1 role.
The competition’s gotten even wider since then, with another transfer — sophomore Reese Poffenbarger from Old Dominion — joining the fray. Gattuso said all four will have a shot at being atop the depth chart when the Great Danes open their season Sept. 3 in Waco, Texas against Baylor.
“I just met with them yesterday,” Gattuso said. “Every one of them can win the job. There’s nothing that ever helps your football team more than competition. It makes everybody shine, or somebody’s going to melt. I don’t know who it’s going to be.”
Whomever’s under center, Gattuso said the Great Danes are ready to figuratively “bury” the disappointment of 2021 and move on, no matter the expectations from the rest of the CAA.
After all, in 2019 the Great Danes were picked dead-last in the CAA’s preseason poll, and that team went on to produce the most successful campaign in program history, finishing second in the conference and giving UAlbany its first FCS playoff game win.
“At the end of the day,” Ambush said, “you can only speak so much. You’ve got to show it through action. The preseason’s the preseason.
“We’ve got a lot of games ahead of us.”