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UAlbany has a football season to build on

UAlbany has a football season to build on

Best campaign since joining CAA
UAlbany has a football season to build on
UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso will have several key contributors returning next season, including defensive lineman Malachi Hoskins.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

One tweet Sunday from UAlbany football head coach Greg Gattuso noted his disappointment and frustration with his Great Danes not being included in this year’s FCS postseason.

The next one started to look forward to 2017.

“We will be back ready to go next year,” Gattuso’s next tweet finished.

And there is momentum for the Great Danes as they move forward. Despite a three-game losing streak during the middle of its season, UAlbany’s 2016 campaign was its best since joining the Colonial Athletic Association for the 2013 season. After never finishing higher than ninth place in the CAA and being picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams this season, the Great Danes (4-4, 7-4) tied for sixth place and finished two games out of second place.

UAlbany’s 2016 season also included its first-ever win against an FBS opponent with its opening-game victory against Buffalo and earning its highest-ever national ranking at No. 16 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll after its 4-0 start.

With the 2016 season just completed, here’s a look at what’s up next for UAlbany.

SKILLED EXPERIENCE

As the Great Danes transition into their offseason and remodeling their roster for 2017, it does so knowing that it will enter next season with a group of players at the offensive skill positions that gained lots of experience.

Running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks proved himself as a workhorse during his sophomore season in rushing for 1,388 yards and 16 touchdowns, totals that ranked him in the top five in the country in both categories. Ibitokun-Hanks led the CAA in rushing yards.

Meanwhile, the team’s leaders in receptions (sophomore Zee Roberson with 19) and receiving yards (redshirt sophomore Jordan Crockett with 339) should be back.

The starting quarterback position, though, remains a question for the Great Danes. Sophomore Neven Sussman started the team’s first nine games and redshirt freshman Will Brunson started the last two, and neither will head into spring practice with a firm grasp on the position. Sussman completed 45 percent of his passes and paired seven passing touchdowns with eight interceptions in 2016, while Brunson was solid in his first start (12 of 20 passing for 146 yards and a touchdown) and shaky in the season finale (10 of 22 passing for 137 yards and three interceptions).

DEFENSIVE PLAYMAKERS return

Two of the three UAlbany defensive anchors will return in 2017, as sophomore safety Mason Gray and junior defensive lineman Malachi Hoskins are coming off strong seasons.

Hoskins finished with seven sacks and 82 tackles despite facing double-teams often in 2016, ranking him 11th in tackles and third in sacks in the CAA.

Gray tied for third in the CAA with four interceptions and forced the second-most fumbles with three. He also made 64 tackles as part of a productive safety pairing with sophomore Josh Wynn, who recorded 81 tackles despite not entering the season as a starting defensive back.

HOLES TO FILL

Besides continuing to figure out the quarterback situation, much of the spring practice season for UAlbany will be aimed at reconfiguring itself at linebacker and the offensive line.

Only one regular starter for UAlbany on its offensive line — redshirt junior Tim Wade — has any eligibility left. The Great Danes will need to find replacements for Matt Campion, Kevin Malloy, Michael Senn and Adam Wierbinski, who combined to help lead UAlbany’s potent rushing attack.

All three starting linebackers need to be replaced, too, as the valuable trio of Abner Logan, Neil Morrison and Michael Nicastro will depart. Logan recorded the fifth-most tackles in the CAA with 93, while Nicastro led the conference with 121.

Nicastro also led the conference in fumbles recovered and was ninth in interceptions with three apiece, while scoring a pair of touchdowns.

Another pair of key seniors leaving the UAlbany program are defensive back Rayshan Clark and punter Jon Martin.

Clark, finished second in the conference with five interceptions, earned the CAA Defensive Player of the Week in the regular season’s final week after a game in which he recorded two interceptions and recovered a fumble for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Martin — who had a career-long 81-yard punt in the Great Danes’ finale — helped UAlbany to the nation’s eighth-best net punting ranking at 39.6 yards per attempt.

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