By Chris Mackowiak
With school back in session Monday, students now fill the previously empty voids of the Salisbury University campus. Academic Commons and Red Square are lively once again with students starting a new journey in a new semester. As always, the start of a new school year marks the return of football at all levels as students and fans eagerly await the opening snap.
However, while students were packing bins with the necessities to return to campus, one team hard at work has been the Salisbury University football team. Over on East Campus in Sea Gull Stadium pads have collided on the gridiron for a few weeks now. Morale is high as the team puts together another preseason under head coach Sherman Wood.
“I think everyone is pretty fresh. We came out with minimal injuries so that’s always a good thing going into the season. I think everyone’s just excited to hit another colored jersey,” SU senior quarterback Brandon Lewis said.
Salisbury has not collided with another team in real game action since Nov. 20 when the Sea Gulls won the ECAC Legacy Bowl 52-20 over Carnegie Mellon in Philadelphia, Pa. The 2016 season finished strong for SU, but the team yearns for more after finishing 8-3 including losing their final two regular season games.
After a 4-0 start in 2016, injuries and wear began to take their toll on Salisbury. Now in 2017, the team returns with many of the same faces including ones that are looked to step up into starting roles this season. One player stepping into a larger role is Lewis who takes over under center for two-year starter Ryan Jones.
“He is a confident person, him more particularly after having the summer to know that he is the guy. He knew that he had to get stronger, faster, and be a leader. He knew that from the time we met in the spring. He hasn’t let me down at all,” Wood said of his quarterback.
Lewis was the front-runner for the position coming into the offseason after accumulating a balanced three passing touchdowns and 394 rushing yards in 2016. Specifically, Lewis gained a key start in a 34-30 loss to Rowan University when Jones went down with an injury.
“I think we learn more from losses than we do from wins so looking back at it, I really take a lot from that Rowan game and I now value every possession that we have. I’ve been preaching to the offense all year on every drive,” Lewis said.
Lewis will certainly have the tools around him to succeed in 2017. Both senior slot backs Ryan Kolb and Brady Curley return after rushing for 863 yards and 433 yards respectively. The two players are once again dynamic backs for Lewis to pitch to in the triple option attack.
“Having Kolb and Curley back is definitely a big help with their veteran leadership and just getting the young guys on board with everything they’ve been doing,” Lewis said.
With Connor Canonico and his 955 rushing yards graduating, senior superback Dandre Dennis’ name is called upon to keep the production rolling. The Pleasantville, N.J. native faced true adversity during the 2016 season. Six games in he suffered a season-ending injury.
“He’s a tough kid. He never let’s anything gets him down. Even when he was in the hospital when I went to visit him, he was trying to keep me up saying ‘Coach, don’t worry about it, it’s going to be fine. He’s a very cerebral person and a very very tough kid.,” Wood said of his superback.
“You haven’t seen his true potential and I’m hoping this will be the year that we get to see that.”
On the outside, Salisbury’s top four wide receivers return in 2017. Senior Josh McClain and junior Sean Rowland continue after earning top receiving yards and most receptions on the team respectively. For Rowland, his upperclassman status brings a leadership opportunity.
“It’s about us now taking another group and teaching them the ropes,” Rowland said.
Despite all of the firepower lining up at multiple positions for SU, one concern may be the offensive line with multiple big men graduating in 2016. Senior Josh Lipowski returns as the only starter from 2016. Several players will get new starting time in 2017, so Lewis’ protection is definitely something to watch.
“We don’t have a host of experience up there, but we do have guys that have played in games. The light is going to shine on them,” Wood said.
While the Sea Gulls do hope to keep the score rising against opponents, SU are deep with returning starters on the defensive side of the football. Salisbury returns seven starters from the 2016 squad.
Despite now-sophomore Andre Boone being out for the 2017 season with an injury, the Sea Gulls secondary is still a very talented group that will test opponents. Most notably, junior free safety Shane Gaines and senior cornerback Mark Davis return to the fold and are poised to start with their veteran leadership.
Gaines sees the two contributing that experience and also a sense of resiliency for the group after moving up from near bottom of NCAA Division III to near ninetieth in pass defense over his time as a Sea Gull. Senior strong safety Dakarai Ellis and sophomore cornerback Keith Payne are projected to see the starting time at the other two defensive back spots.
“The defense has picked up and really done a great job at focusing on what that job is and really honing in on that. I would say the defense this year is more intelligent, more experienced. The defense this year is very good and very disciplined at doing their job,” Gaines said.
The Salisbury defense was one of the best in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), giving up only 20.5 points-per-game in 2016. Most of the linebacking core also returns with senior Zach Wolfrey continuing to stalk opponents from the outside linebacker spot. Freshman standouts Patrick Bernardo and Harold Kwigova return to man the inside linebacker spots.
The rare concern on the defensive side of the football is the defensive line, but familiar players return in that sector. Senior defensive end Devon ‘Bubba’ McClain returns as a leading veteran on the line.
“He’s a man. He’s a military guy. He’s a leader of this entire team. When he speaks, everyone listens. You should come to a team meeting. If there’s noise and he speaks, there’s nothing else. Even I’m quiet. He’s another kid that offers great examples all around,” Wood said.
Senior Brandon Robeson and junior Isaac Johnson will see much time at the other two spots on the three-man defensive line.
One of the strongest cores for the Sea Gulls may just be special teams, which should not be a surprise to SU fans recently. The return team will continue to be strong with Rowland continuing his time with the kick return squad, but a true strength for Salisbury has always been the kicking team under coach Dan Gregory.
SU is extremely deep at kicker with senior punter Tim Steindl returning alongside his teammate and kicker Alex Potocko. Despite facing some injury issues throughout 2016, Steindl is back healthy with the squad after recording a 35.8 yards per punt average and landing nine punts inside the 20 yardline.
Potocko features as Salisbury’s starting place kicker after taking all 12 field goal attempts in 2016, missing three of them and going 51-for-54 on extra point attempts. What really impresses Wood is Potocko’s leadership on and off-the-field with student activities and in the classroom.
“Everything we do as a program centers around special teams. That message is delivered to the team. It starts with a kicker. Who listens to a kicker? Well, Alex [Potocko] stands up and people listen because not only has he done a great job on the field but also off-the-field,” Wood said.
If one of the two were to go down, junior Trevor Skoglund is there waiting in the wings. The Easton, Md. native is providing competition for both starting jobs this preseason and also saw time punting for SU while Steindl recovered from injuries in 2016.
As always, there is a sense of an energy with this squad. An energy ready to change course back towards competing for a second NJAC title in three years. In the recent NJAC preseason football poll, Salisbury was picked to finish third. Having that underdog title may just be what this team needs in order to band together and succeed.
As a veteran upperclassman, Gaines summed it up well and what it means for these Sea Gulls to succeed in 2017. They start their season under the Friday night lights of Shirk Stadium in Reading, Pa. at Albright College this week.
“If we’re winning, then it means that I’m accomplishing my personal goals,” Gaines said.