Although the University at Albany football team will be joining a new conference in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Great Danes’ non-league season opener will be against a team they know very well.
Duquesne, which hosts the Great Danes today at noon on Rooney Field in Pittsburgh, is a member of the same Northeast Conference that UAlbany just left after winning six championships in 14 seasons.
Despite the fact that both programs are now in different conferences, they each still have at least one thing in common — major graduation losses.
“The question for each of us is which team will the other face?” said UAlbany head coach Bob Ford, who begins his final season. “Each of us has lost a lot of quality players through graduation. We graduated four linebackers and a pretty decent running back in Drew Smith. We also lost two pretty good defensive linemen. They graduated one of their quarterbacks ever [Sean Patterson] and probably their best running back of all time [Larry McCoy], as well as a pretty good defensive player.”
Ford thinks the Danes might have an advantage in the skill positions, especially behind center.
“Both teams lost a lot of talent, but the difference is at quarterback,” said Ford. “We’ve got a redshirt sophomore coming back in Will Fiacchi, who is returning after a year of playing some pretty good football. They’ve got a redshirt freshman [Dillon Beuchel] who is making his first start. You never know what that means. It could mean he’s a great kid who will put on a show, or it could mean he has quite a bit of nerves. I do think the jump from high school to college is a big one, and he will find that out.”
Despite the loss of Smith, who scored 19 touchdowns and rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the Danes should be able to move the ball behind Fiacchi, who threw for 2,156 yards. Fiacchi completed 188 of 309 passes and was intercepted just five times. He has completed more passes than any other quarterback in program history for a single regular season. Dan Di Lella had 196 completions in 2011 with an extra game in the NCAA playoffs.
“I’m not worried about the numbers,” said Fiacchi. “The numbers will take care of themselves, depending on the type of team we play and the kind of execution we have against our opponent.”
Fiacchi will have several solid receivers to throw to, including Kevin Chillis and Cole King. Omar Osbourne will be the primary ball-carrier. He ran for 508 yards and scored five times as Smith’s backup.
“We know what we have in Fiacchi, King and Chillis. People are wondering if Omar will have to be another Drew Smith, but he can’t be,” said Ford. “Sure, Omar will pick up some of the slack, but we’ve got Cole and Kevin to help with that.”
“We’ve got a bunch of skill-position players who need to step up,” added Chillis, who accounted for 901 all-purpose yards last year, including 220 receiving, 383 rushing and 303 returning kicks.
Preseason All-America tackle Kadeem Williams (6-foot-7, 310 pounds) anchors the offensive line for the Great Danes.
It’s on defense, where UAlbany lost its top four linebackers, that the Danes will have to rebuild quickly.
Duquesne, picked to finish second in the NEC this year, features a solid defense led by senior linebacker Dorian Bell, who is on the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, as well as several preseason All-America teams.
Offensively, the Dukes will depend on running back Ryan Ho (184 yards last year) to help keep the pressure off Buechel.
UAlbany leads the series against Duquesne, 5-1, including a 38-31 win last November back at Rooney Field.
Ford believes UAlbany and Duquesne have different philosophies.
“Our philosophy has been to recruit home-grown types and continue to develop them as redshirts. Duquesne comes from a big football city, and they have a lot of kids who love their football,” Ford noted. “Many of their top players go away to school and then come back. They have a middle linebacker who went to Ohio State on a full ride, and then came back. They also have a kid who went to Florida on a full ride. We get some of those kids, but not as many.”
This is only the second time in program history that the Great Danes will play their opening game in August. They lost to Massachusetts, 28-16, in 2008.
UAlbany was 7-1 in the NEC and 9-2 overall last year. The Great Danes have moved up from 35 scholarships as a member of the NEC to 54 this year, but they are still under the 63 limit that the
majority of the CAA programs have.
“I like where we are at right now,” said Ford, who has a 255-159 record in 40 varsity seasons at UAlbany and 264 career wins overall, fourth on the all-time Division I FCS chart.