SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University football team closed out the 2016 season on a high note, winning the Eastern College Athletic Conference Legacy Bowl against Carnegie Mellon University in impressive fashion, 52-20, with a punishing running game and a stifling defense.
The returners from that squad hope to take that feeling into 2017, riding the strong play to a tough campaign into the new year.
"It seems like in all phases of the game, we were firing on all cylinders during that last game of the year," Head Coach Sherman Wood said. "It was a great ride back from Philadelphia that day, and we decided to take that momentum into camp and into our first game. So far, the enthusiasm and the chemistry have been on point."
Late-season injuries allowed a few reserves to step up in that ECAC bowl victory, allowing those players to gain important game experience.
Senior quarterback Brandon Lewis is one of the players to benefit from the bowl game and injuries to those ahead of them in 2016. Lewis was able to see time when Ryan Jones went down, and was a key to the ECAC victory, completing 75 percent of his passes with a touchdown while rushing for 127 yards and getting in the end zone three times.
"You couldn't ask for three higher quality players in the back field," Wood said. "I call them the three-headed monster, and the best thing is they are really close. Their lockers are close together, they are on the same page offensively, they know where each other is supposed to be, and that experience spreads to everyone else on the field."
Kolb and Curley combined for 1,296 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2016.
The fourth member of that stellar senior back field on the first play from scrimmage this Friday at Albright College will be super back Dandre Dennis, who saw time in six games last season in a reserve role, rushing for 209 yards and three touchdowns.
On the outside, a trio of receivers are battling for time in a position that is as much about stretching the field in Salisbury's option offense as it is catching passes.
The men up front making the offense go will see just one starter returning in senior Joshua Lipowski, who spent much of the year at center, but will be moved to the outside and a tackle position this year.
Sophomore Tyler Rosello has impressed in camp and is slated to be the starting center this season, being flanked by classmate Owen Bolyard and junior Andrew Houck at the guard positions, with junior George Morton opposite Lipowski at the other tackle spot.
"I told the guys, no one is set at first team on the offensive line," Wood said. "We have guys that will compete, whether they're freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors, they all will battle for time."
Salisbury's 3-4 defense will revolve around its young veterans at the middle linebacker position. Sophomores Harold Kwigova and Patrick Bernardo may be youthful to be the focal point of the defense, but with each player appearing in 10 games during their freshman season – Bernardo starting seven and Kwigova starting four – the duo comes back ready to lead.
"You have two guys who were freshman last year and they play like seniors," Wood said. "To have those guys back in the middle of our defense is going to be a tremendous plus."
In front of the linebackers, a couple of seniors will anchor the defensive line in Brandon Robeson at nose guard and Devon McClain at defensive end. Junior Isaac Johnson, senior Malik Hollings, sophomore Matthew McFarland will be major contributors.
"I feel really good about the guys that will be up front, they are solid," Wood said. "We feel like we're three deep at each position on the defensive line so we can mix things up and alternate some of the guys."
In the secondary, junior Shane Gaines, a three-year starter at the safety position, will lead the squad.
"He's a vocal guy and he's doing a really good job for us," Wood said. "He's providing a lot of leadership there."
Senior transfer Dakarai Ellis is expected to start at the other safety position with Gaines, and has stepped in quickly to pick up the system, while senior Mark Davis Jr., and sophomore Keith Payne will get the early starts at the corner back spots.
Potocko will again assume the place kicking duties, coming off a season where he made 9-of-12 field goals and 51-of-54 extra points. Steindl will be key in the field position game as the starting punter, with a career average of 37.0 yards per punt while booting one of the longest punts in program history last season – a 71-yard kick.
The often overlooked position on the special teams unit is the long snapper, but "the glue that holds the unit together" Wood said is junior Ryan Malane, who will handle those duties for the third-straight year.
"What I like best about those guys is that they work together, trying to get better, all day," Wood said. "What more could you ask for: senior kicker, senior punter and a junior long snapper who has started since his freshman year. You can't ask for anything better than that."
The speedsters are back in the return game, as well, with Blake Joppy getting the call as the primary punt returner and Sean Rowland as the primary kick returner. Rowland was one of the top kick returners in the nation, taking the first kickoff of the year back for a touchdown and averaging 32.0 yards per return. However, teams avoided kicking the ball to him for much of the year, as he only returned a dozen kickoffs. Legue should be a contributor in the punt return game, as well.
The Sea Gulls open the 2017 campaign on Friday, September 1 at Albright College for a 7 p.m., contest in the team's only non-conference game of the year before moving into New Jersey Athletic Conference play.
Salisbury begins NJAC play in the only game at Sea Gull Stadium for the month of September in week 2 when the Sea Gulls host William Paterson University (September 9), beginning at noon.
The NJAC season is full of tough teams, but the two longest-running rivalry contests come in the final two weeks of the regular season when Salisbury will travel to Wesley College on November 4 and host Frostburg State University in the annual Regents Cup on November 11.
Each game will be key through the 2017 season as Salisbury looks for its 14th-consecutive postseason appearance.