SALISBURY, Md. – Salisbury University Head Coach Sherman Wood was on the golf course when he received the message that his football team was picked by the New Jersey Athletic Conference coaches to win the league in 2016.
He enjoyed it for a moment then forwarded the message to his team captains to let them know it was time to work even harder, because the Sea Gulls now had a target on their backs.
Salisbury looks to a seasoned offense and a number of new faces on both sides of the ball to defend its 2015 league title and prove to the league's coaches correct, that the Sea Gulls can stand atop the standings again at the end of the 2016 season.
Senior quarterback Ryan Jones, who has played in 14 games in his career, enters the season opener this Friday night in a new spot – the clear-cut number one at the signal caller position. Jones has been in the mix for the past few years, but there was no set starters heading into training camp, until 2016.
"Having a year of knowing that he's the guy, I'm so proud of him to be so poised and patient," Wood said. "He's the prime example of when your name is called, one should be ready to compete. I think that has spread to the other players on the team as well."
Jones threw for 1,232, and heads into the season not just with the starting job and experience, but with a veteran offensive line blocking for him.
The five expected starters in the trenches are all juniors or seniors, with Joshua Lipowski taking over the center spot, with senior Riley Cannon and junior Andrew Nickell at the guard spots and seniors Justin Field and Daniel McHugh at the tackles spots. All have game experience and all know what they need to do.
"When I think about that group at practice, I just turn my back because I know they will be ready to get the job done". They are the glue to our program," Wood said. "In our situation, the offensive line is incredibly close and they're very unselfish."
In the backfield, Jones will be flanked by three veterans with a lot of time under their belts. Senior Connor Canonico will start at superback for the second year in a row, following a 852-yard season which included 10 touchdowns last year.
Juniors Brady Curley and Ryan Kolb are expected to start at the two slot positions, but with a great deal of depth, Wood plans on a rotation of six players or more to see time on a regular basis. Senior Aarron Moore, juniors Brian Legue and Blake Joppy, Sophomores Michael Fowler and Corey Brown are all in the mix to get reps as the season goes on.
"What a backfield!" Wood said. "They are so close off the field. They're together, walking all the time and the other players are catching on to their habits. Those guys are going to have a great year."
The wide receiver position is one where the Sea Gulls lost both starters, and will have less experience, but players who have been in the program, juniors Josh McClain and Brad Rose are slated to get the early snaps, but sophomores Sean Rowland and Matt Scott as well as freshman Damien King and junior Trevor McManus will be in the mix out wide.
"That's an area where we're young," Wood said. "We lost Isaiah Taylor from last year, and you're not going to replace Isaiah. But we have more guys that are solid. They will do small things well."
Paradysz is a power lineman, able to command and handle the double team, while Handy has the speed coming off the end and Vercilien is almost a perfect combination of the two, setting the defensive front.
"That's another area where we're pretty deep, we're going to play a lot of people, at least six or seven," Wood said. "Our goal is to be more aggressive, do more things to get to the quarterback and make some things happen."
The line carries the size, skill and experience that helps set the tone for the rest of the defense, particularly at the linebacker spot where graduations have brought the team into 2016 with new faces in the starting lineup.
Freshman Andre Boone looks to start at the other safety spot opposite 2015 NJAC Defensive Rookie of the Year Gaines.
At the other corner slot, junior Mark Davis Jr. will get the early call, but senior transfer Jorry Matherson is pushing for time with his play-making ability.
In the game of field position, the Sea Gulls will have returners handling the ball, starting with junior kicker Alex Potocko and punter Timothy Steindl. The two were among the top in the league in 2015 with Potocko's 83.3 success rate on field goals the best in the league among kickers who attempted more than five, while Steindl was third in the NJAC, averaging 37.8 yards per boot.
Curley and Joppy are slated to return kicks, while junior Brian Legue will field punts. Curley ranked third in the NJAC last season, notching 23.9 yards per return.
The Sea Gulls kick off the 2016 season on Friday, September 2 hosting Albright College at Sea Gull Stadium. The only non-conference game on the regular-season slate for Salisbury begins at 7 p.m.
After an early bye week, the Sea Gulls get into NJAC play with a matchup against Montclair State University on September 17 at Sea Gull Stadium. After a pair of road games, The College of New Jersey comes to town for Homecoming on October 1, and Salisbury closes out its home schedule with games against Kean University (October 22) and Wesley College (November 5).
Salisbury closes out the regular season in the annual Regents Cup contest at Frostburg State University on November 12, looking to advance to the postseason for the 13th-straight season.