By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Following a two-game road trip, the Salisbury University football team (3-1, 3-0 NJAC) enters their annual bye week, a halftime during the 2017 season. With a perfect 3-0 record in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), it’s a perfect time to refresh and regroup for the road ahead.
“It’s a great opportunity to sit down with the team. Just relax, sit back and let’s talk about [things.] For example, yesterday I sat down with the captains. For the last few weeks, they heard everything from us,” Salisbury head coach Sherman Wood said.
“My approach to them was ‘you guys give me your opinions about things, how’s practice going, is there something we need to improve on?’ That’s the opportunity. I want to get them to speak.”
For the 19-season SU head coach, the bye week offers an opportunity for the team to focus on themselves instead of an upcoming opponent. This way the team can fix the little things in order to prepare for a big stretch along the way.
Starting on Saturday Oct. 7, Salisbury will enter six straight weeks of football to end out the season. The stretch includes four teams that finished above .500 in the conference a season ago: CNU, Wesley, Frostburg State and Montclair State. Wesley and Frostburg State are currently tied with SU for the NJAC lead.
A big part of making it through that stretch is improving morale and a healthy team relationship. This comes from Wood asking the captains what the coaching staff needs to do in order to improve too
“They challenged me to challenge them. ‘Coach give us more. Give it to us. Beat us up a little bit.’ So that was pretty interesting, so I gained something from that conversation,” Wood said.
The Bye Week comes with other opportunities to such as getting healthy. Following three conference games and a non-conference loss to Albright College, the Sea Gulls have been banged up along the way especially in the backfield.
“The number one goal with the bye week is to get healthy. We have some tough physical games. We’re still just starting so to speak because we have people in new positions,” Wood said.
Wood notes that primary names that come to mind for recovering are his primary senior slot backs Brady Curley and Ryan Kolb. Curley has played in all four games this season, currently third in rushing, but he has taken it slow this week after hits have taken the toll on him this past week.
Kolb has been out since Week One when he rushed for 78 yards at Albright. An injury has hampered the Manassas Park, Va. native, but the team is hopeful for him to return this Saturday vs. CNU. Kolb also top-target wide receiver Sean Rowland were out last week vs. TCNJ. Rowland faced concussion symptoms two weeks ago.
This prime recovery opportunity in the middle of the season was a long plan in the making for Wood. After having their bye week earlier on in Week Two during the past two seasons, Salisbury sought to move it a few weeks back to gain that extra advantage. Wood first asked the Salisbury athletic trainers for their thoughts.
“From an injury prevention perspective, would you rather have week two or this week? He said, ‘Coach if you can get William Paterson to move, it will help our program, it will help the kids because it’s close to middle of the season,” Wood said.
With a little help from William Paterson head football coach Jerry Flora, Salisbury moved their game vs. WPU up in the season upon approval from the NJAC. Wood also gained permission from SU field hockey coach Dawn Chamberlin to have a football game ahead of the field hockey team’s big primetime game against No. 1 Messiah.
Other than re-cooperation, Wood notes that the bye week benefits include scouting high school prospects, family time for students and studying opportunities.
“The third piece is to give the kids an opportunity to study more. That’s the reason for having Monday off, and that’s the reason for having Friday off. Some programs just don’t want to lose the timing,” Wood said.
With the off-day of practice this past Friday, members of the SU coaching staff were allowed to travel out to high school games to scout players and get a first-hand look at prospects. While the coaches continue to work, the student-athletes can hit the books for mid-term exams or enjoy some much-needed family time.
“For the kids who are out of state, we have some New York kids. We have some Jersey kids. They haven’t gone home since camp. Now it’s an opportunity for them to get on the road, get home and see their family,” Wood said.
That family-time can spur on needed individual morale for the tough second half of the season.
Captains just off the Bow
After their bye week, SU’s first opponent is their regional rival Christopher Newport (4-1, 3-1 NJAC) for Homecoming this Saturday. The Captains are a threat once again in the NJAC, a team that took down SU in Sea Gull Stadium two seasons ago. Despite their undefeated record in conference, Wood sees much room for improvement.
“We’re undefeated in the conference, but it just doesn’t feel that way because there are still a lot of things we have to work on. That has been the message this past week,” Wood said.
“We continue our drill work, our technique work. We want to polish certain things. The practices have been heightened a little, intensity-wise.”
CNU’s defense was sharp in their last game, shutting out Rowan 30-0. Under new head coach Art Link, the team is firing on all cylinders with their only loss to top-15 ranked Frostburg State by three points earlier this season.
Link came to CNU after spending three seasons as the defensive coordinator at D1 FCS school Lafayette College. The Gainesville, Florida native played his college football at the University of Florida as part of the 1996 National Championship squad under head coach Steve Spurrier.
“He’s going to have those kids ready to go. Whatever they thought of Salisbury in the past, they’re going to be heightened a little bit about what this program is all about. They’re going to be pretty good. They’re big and physical,” Wood said.
On the offensive side of the ball, veteran quarterback K.J. Kearney returns for his senior campaign. Through five games in 2017, Kearney now has over 3,500 passing yards in his career alongside 29 touchdowns. A former SU recruit, freshman wide receiver Cole Blais has become Kearney’s top-target, catching 28 passes for 321 yards and one touchdown in 2017.
Senior linebacker Brennan Gary leads the strong defense out onto the field. The Hanover, Va. native has 39 tackles, including five tackles-for-loss, as part of a CNU defense allowing only 13 points-per-game.
Away from the on-the-field action, this SU vs. CNU match-up always has a little more meaning to Wood. His roots are in the Tidewater Region, growing up in Norfolk, Va.
“For Homecoming, my family always attends no matter who we play. I have 50 family members come every Homecoming. To have Homecoming against our local neighborhood team, it’s going to be pretty special,” Wood said.
“It is a little personal to be honest with you because the Tidewater area takes football very seriously. You don’t want to go back home with that feeling.”
Wood says that emails from his southeast Virginia buddies are already rolling in offering scouting ‘from trees’ on the Captains. Those thoughts give the veteran head coach a chuckle. Those 19 years as a head coach have given Wood a great respect for his opponents and these regional rivals.
That respect spreads across his team. With that respect for CNU in mind, do not expect this bye week to be a week off for the Sea Gulls. They’re getting prepared just like any other week.
“We’re trying to prepare them for what’s about to happen in terms of competition. So, we’ll take it. We’ll take the record right now, but in order for us to still feel that way, we’ll work a little harder,” Wood said.