ALBANY — In a turnaround from a year ago at this time, there’s optimism surrounding the University at Albany football team and its chances in the upcoming season.
Off a 7-4 season that included a 4-4 mark in CAA play, UAlbany players have received ample individual recognition this preseason and the team was ranked No. 24 in the preseason media poll. As the program enters its fourth season with Greg Gattuso as its head coach, the expectation is for the Great Danes to make a strong run at an FCS postseason berth.
While the team has pressing concerns at several positions — quarterback and offensive line, to name the top couple — here are the top five reasons to feel bullish about the Great Danes’ upcoming campaign, which starts Sept. 2 at Old Dominion.
The pass rush
Everything starts this season with the guys up front on defense for the Great Danes.
“We’ve got experience and depth there, which is the key to it,” Gattuso said.
UAlbany has power and speed on its defensive line, too. Senior Malachi Hoskins was a preseason All-CAA selection, redshirt junior Brian Dolce was a breakout performer a year ago, while redshirt junior Antoine White — a Penn State transfer — and juniors Nick Dillon and Nick Griffin, plus redshirt senior DaeSean Timmons, help create an imposing group.
“We’re priding ourselves on being one of the best groups on the team and in the conference,” Hoskins said.
The run game
One way or another, the Great Danes are going to be able to move the ball on the ground this season.
Yes, the team’s offensive line and quarterback play remain serious questions — but junior Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, a national player of the year candidate, leads a pack of strong running backs.
“We went from no depth at running back to, I think, we have depth at running back now,” Gattuso said.
Ibitokun-Hanks, who rushed for 1,388 yards last season, is the team’s clear No. 1 rushing option, but he’s got a couple friends to help him this year. Redshirt junior Kendall Rodgers Jr. and freshman Karl Mofor have impressed during the offseason and preseason, and should earn carries for the Great Danes.
Last season, which ended for Ibitokun-Hanks with a torn ACL, UAlbany’s lead running back took 56.3 percent of the team’s carries.
Here, again, it needs to be noted: UAlbany’s offensive line and quarterback play are concerns.
Gattuso’s excitement about his program’s wide receivers is tempered by that, but not by much.
“It’s just a matter of getting them the ball,” Gattuso said of his wide receivers’ ability to impact games in 2017.
Redshirt senior Brad Harris is back after an injury derailed his 2016 season, while redshirt junior Jordan Crockett returns after leading the Great Danes in receiving yards and touchdowns a year ago.
Sophomore Jerah Reeves, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, is an intriguing option, while junior-college transfer Jerod Diggs gives UAlbany a dynamic threat.
Redshirt senior fullback/tight end Anthony Manzo-Lewis, who had 16 receptions a year ago, should also be more involved in the passing game this season to help out redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Brunson, the team’s likely starter.
UAlbany lost a major playmaker from last year’s secondary — Rayshan Clark, a senior who scored three touchdowns and had five interceptions — but the secondary is still a strength for the Great Danes.
Junior Mason Gray, perhaps the team’s best athlete, is back at safety. Meanwhile redshirt junior Kareem Brown, junior Jamal Robinson and junior Josh Wynn all contributed last season.
Outside of those four players, UAlbany has several defensive backs capable of playing this season.
“The main thing we’re focusing on is competing,” Brown said. “We play hard and want to have fun.”
The CAA schedule
Within the 12-team CAA, teams miss out on playing three conference foes each season.
This year’s league schedule broke pretty nicely for UAlbany. The Great Danes don’t play James Madison, the nation’s and conference’s preseason No. 1 team, and get to play CAA preseason No. 3 Villanova and No. 4 New Hampshire at home.
UAlbany’s toughest conference game is likely its Oct. 7 visit to Richmond, which is ranked No. 2 in the conference preseason poll. Last year, UAlbany fell to Richmond at Casey Stadium in triple-overtime.