SRU's Mihalik optimistic about prospects for 2004 season
As an alumnus, thought I'd pass it along. Sounds like another rough year. Hopefully we can get back to the prominence we had a few years ago.
Rock roster will be filled with youth and enthusiasm
Dr. George Mihalik begins his 17th season as The Rock's head coach
July 13, 2004
Slippery Rock, Pa. - Veteran head coach Dr. George Mihalik, a former championship quarterback at The Rock, displays the same tenacity he exhibited as a player when he charges straight into the line with his expectations for the 2004 Rock football season.
"We are going to be young," the 17th-year Rock head coach says. "Sixty of the 86 players on this year's roster have never played a college football game because they are either true freshmen or redshirted freshmen.
"We're not going to use our youthfulness as an excuse, but we also have to be realistic. You can't teach experience, it's something you have to gain.
"It remains to be seen if we will be ready to play early in the season at the level we will need to in order to be successful. It's a given that we're not going to be as a good of a football team in Week 1 as we will be in Week 11."
The encouraging part for Mihalik and his staff is the level of talent included in this year's squad.
"We are very high on our 2003 recruiting class," Mihalik says of a group that includes 10 players who competed in the Pennsylvania East-West all-star game a year ago.
"You're going to see a lot of those players in key roles this year for Rock Football. They can play the game. And we might find a skilled player or two in our 2004 recruiting class who gets significant playing time this fall.
"But you can not live on one or two classes. We feel like we have a good mixture of senior leadership, juniors and sophomores who have playing experience that can lead the way for the freshmen, redshirted or true."
Adding to The Rock's challenge this fall is a schedule that affords little warmup time, but that's become routine procedure for the Green and White.
The Rock opens its 2004 schedule at home on August 27 with a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference "crossover game" against three-time defending Eastern Division champion Bloomsburg before facing NCAA Division I-AA power Youngstown State and perennial West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference contender Shepherd in back-to-back road games.
The final tuneup for the grueling PSAC-West season will be a home game against Fairmont State on Sept. 18.
"Obviously, you want to win every game, and enjoying success early in terms of wins and losses would help with our development," Mihalik says. "But I think it's important that, with so many young players on the team, we maintain confidence, play our best each week and then build on that week to week.
"If we do that, regardless of the outcome of the game, we will make the progress necessary to get back to the level on which we again compete for conference and regional honors.
"Patience will be an important virtue for us to maintain as our young talent develops," Mihalik stresses.
The return of four starters on the offensive line, including a trio of third-year starters, should provide a Rock-solid foundation upon which Mihalik and offensive coordinator Vic Campagna can build a productive attack.
The building blocks will come in the form of a returning second-team all-conference running back and a veteran corps of receivers. The only thing from the equation is the cement, a proven quarterback.
"We don't have a quarterback on our roster who has played a down in college football," Mihalik acknowledges. "That's not an ideal situation. Experience, we have none. Talent, we have an ample supply.
"When you have this scenario, it's imperative that veterans at other positions step up and take the pressure off the quarterback position. "If those experienced players produce, it will make it much easier for an inexperienced, talented quarterback to flourish," Mihalik adds.
Counted on to control the line of scrimmage will be third-year starting men in the trenches Don Harbison (6-foot-4, 280 pounds), Pat Oster (6-2, 270) and Noah Richards (6-2, 290) and second-year starter Ryan Travis (6-3, 260).
Harbison, a junior tackle, earned second-team All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-Western Division honors a year ago. Oster, a starter at tackle in his first two collegiate seasons, is the heir apparent to graduated All-America selection and three-time all-conference center Bill Ricks.
Travis, a starting tackle in his first collegiate campaign, will move to from left tackle to right tackle. Redshirted freshman Mike Butterworth (6-7, 335) is expected to step into Travis' former role at left tackle.
Richards will again man the right guard position.
Kniess leads the way
Skilled position-wise, the offensive load will be borne by a group of veterans led by redshirted junior running back Josh Kniess (5-9, 180), a second-team All-PSAC-West selection last year.
Kniess led The Rock in rushing last fall with 627 yards and five touchdowns.
The Rock's power running game will be led by senior Valdez Hails (5-10, 225), a proven special teams performer who got valuable playing experience a year ago as a backup running back.
The development of Hails and the potential of redshirted freshman Larvon Hines (5-10, 180) could result in The Rock using more two-back sets this fall than has been its custom.
The Rock passing game will feature senior H-back Brandon Richardson (6-3, 245), senior wide receiver Matt Tack (5-9, 160) and redshirted sophomore wideouts John Benca (5-9, 170) and Luke Wetzel (6-3, 200).
Richardson, a converted tight end, is described by Mihalik as "a difference maker. We have to find ways to get the ball in his hands this fall."
According to Mihalik, Richardson has the potential to continue the tradition established by players like Greg Hopkins and Ryan McKavish - the only players in Rock history to have 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Richardson was fifth on the team a year ago with 10 receptions for 165 yards and one touchdown.
Benca was The Rock's leading receiver with 16 receptions for 139 yards a year ago, Wetzel had eight receptions for 165 yards and one TD and Tack finished the 2003 season with 11 receptions for 155 yards.
Redshirted freshman A.J. Ruperto (6-2, 190), fresh off an impressive showing during spring workouts, enters preseason camp with a slight edge in the search for a starting quarterback. His primary challenger will be classmate Nate Crookshank (5-10, 190), a transfer from perennial Division I-AA national power Georgia Southern.
"Ruperto made good progress in grasping the offensive reins during spring ball," Mihalik says, "but Nate has an edge in terms of maturity in that he was in a college program a year ago."
Adding to the competition will be the infusion of a handful of athletic true freshmen quarterbacks. "That should make for an interesting first couple of weeks of preseason camp," Mihalik says. "At the end of those two weeks, it's imperative that we determine which two players will get the bulk of the repetitions at quarterback."
Rock-solid nose guard
The strength of The Rock defense figures to be its front wall, anchored by two-time first-team All-PSAC-West nose guard Brian Godfrey.
Joining Godfrey (6-3, 300) - arguably the top returning defensive performer in the conference - as a returning starter in the front four will be senior classmate Mike Jennings (6-3, 235), who will man the "rush end" position.
Helping to solidify the front wall of the unit coordinated by Jay Foster will be the shifting of graduate student Jesse Kelley (6-2, 235) from a linebacker spot. He is expected to push redshirted junior Josh Zeisloft (6-2, 220) for a starting nod at defensive end.
Junior Robert Minnie (6-1, 265) is the favorite to open at defensive tackle. Providing depth will be redshirted senior end Donald Potts (6-1, 225), senior tackle Greg Ames (6-0, 260) and redshirted freshman end Andrew Sharp (6-4, 275).
Redshirted senior Greg Baker (5-11, 200), the returning starter at "Sam," headlines a talented group of linebackers that also includes senior Justin Poorbaugh (5-11, 215), juniors Jerome Whiting (5-9, 240) and Mark Drango (6-1, 225), sophomore Seth Randall (6-1, 210) and redshirted freshmen Bill Lamb (6-2, 225), Ron Miller (6-0, 220) and Jared Palmer (6-0, 210).
"We have as much depth at linebacker as we've had there in the last seven or eight years," Mihalik says. "That's a big reason why we didn't hesitate to move Jesse Kelley to defensive end."
In the secondary, The Rock returns both of its starting safeties, seniors Asaad Allen (free, 5-10, 200) and Kevin Johnston (strong, 5-11, 205). They will be backed up by redshirted sophomore Brandon Rakszawski (6-3, 210), a converted wide receiver, and sophomore Andy Valentine (6-0, 200), who had a promising spring..
True sophomore Aaron Berarducci (5-9, 175), who started the final five games in 2003, is "the veteran" at cornerback and will be counted on to provide leadership to redshirted freshmen Raymond Campbell (5-11, 185), Willie Murel (5-10, 185) and James Rockymore (5-10, 180).
"All of our corners are very talented and athletic," Mihalik says, "but they lack experience and, at that position, that can be a big difference in the game. We need those players to step up and play well, and we have confidence they will do just that."
Mihalik minces no words when he analyzes his special teams' effort of a year ago.
"Our special teams effort hurt us more than it ever has last year," he says. "We have to get a better effort this year."
In that light, The Rock has a sizeable void to fill as it seeks to replace first-team All-PSAC-West place kicker John Katsaouni, the leading scorer on the team a year ago. The effort will be eased, though, by the return of sophomore punter Ray Rotell (5-11, 215).
Redshirted freshman kicking specialist Ryan Daniel (6-1, 185) showed in spring workouts that he has the leg strength and ability to be a good kicker and only needs to carry those performances over to game situations, Mihalik says.
Rotell had "a typical freshman season," Mihalik says, "in that he was inconsistent. We look for him to settle in and provide a strong punting game for us this fall."
The Rock return game will feature Kniess (2 punt return TDs a year ago), Rockymore and Tack, along with redshirted freshman wide receiver Lamarr Jackson (5-11, 170).
"We had three touchdowns on punt returns last year, but we will be better in the return game than we were a year ago," Mihalik says. We have to be if we are going to be a conference contender.
"The margin between teams in the Western Conference continues to shrink year by year," Mihalik says. "I can honestly see five legitimate contenders for this year's division title.
"On paper, people will say Slippery Rock is not one of those five teams, but we had a lot of surprises during the 2003 season and I think there could be just as many, if not more, in 2004."
Make no mistake about it, one season after seeing its Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-best string of winning seasons snapped at 12, The Rock enters the 2004 season with a renewed hunger and drive.
"We definitely want to get back on the winning side of the ledger, and we will build on that determination to improve as a team throughout the year while we gain experience and confidence."
Frustrating 2003 campaign
So close, yet so far.
Four losses by a combined margin of 10 points, the ultimate difference between a 13th successive winning season and a 4-7 final record.
"Last year was a long one," Mihalik says. "It was frustrating to see us keep finding ways to lose games in the final three minutes and not making big plays when we had the opportunity do so."
Adding to the frustration, according to Mihalik, was the fact that Rock coaches and players were not used to losing, "so we got outside our comfort zone early in the season."
Preparing for multiple night games, a unique experience for The Rock, was another factor that contributed to the absence of a comfort zone. "It's an entirely different routine you have to go through for night games as opposed to day games," he says.
"That's not a reason we lost more games than we were accustomed to, but having been through that new experience of night and day games, we will be better prepared to handle those differences in preparation this year.
The Rock will again play five night games this fall.
"I think one of the valuable lessons we learned last year was that you need to stay the course and maintain the work ethic and approach to things it takes to win week in and week out, year in and year out," Mihalik summarizes.