Football has its agenda as spring ball begins

Dave DeLuca, Managing Editor

Buffalo State opened spring practice March 30, the first of 15 practices the team will hold this spring.

Buffalo State is coming off its best season in 15 years, after going 8-3 and winning the ECAC Southwest Bowl in 2014. As head coach Jerry Boyes enters his seventh year of his second stint with the program, there’s a lot to be excited about.

Here are 10 things to keep an eye on as spring practice begins:

  1. Next Step for Hoppy?

It doesn’t matter what level it is, the quarterback is the face of a football team. Kyle Hoppy enters his third season with the Bengals and we’ll see if he can take another step forward after an up-and-down sophomore season.

The 23-year-old is still getting back to peak football form after spending four years playing professional baseball. Hoppy was benched often, in part because of his mediocre play, but also because the coaches were confident in his backup, Dan Serignese. Hoppy was benched in favor of Serignese three straight games during mid-season. However, Hoppy has showed flashes that, if turned into consistent play, would make him the clear-cut starter.

Hoppy carved up Waynesburg for 335 yards and five touchdowns in the ECAC bowl win and threw four touchdowns in wins over Cortland and Manchester.

  1. Replacement for Rich?

Much of Buffalo State’s offense remains intact, but the loss of running back Rich Pete is a big one. Pete finished an outstanding collegiate career as one of best running backs in program history, amassing 3,284 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns. His 42 total touchdowns are a school record. Boyes will need to find someone to take over Pete’s role.

Buffalo State landed a big-time transfer in Dale Stewart. Stewart originally signed to play at the University at Buffalo in 2011, but later found out he was academically ineligible. Stewart was a dynamic high school talent, playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He will be in the mix to replace Pete.

Trey Jones, a 5-foot-7, 170-pound sophomore, spelled Pete at times last season and figures to have an expanded role. Joe Oca, Antoinne Holloman and Will Woodley may be candidates, too.

  1. No Doherty, No Problem?

Along with Pete’s departure, Mike Doherty is another huge loss. The 6-foot-2 wide receiver broke school records in receptions in a game (15), receptions in a season (62) and receptions in a career (176). Doherty may be leaving, but 6-foot-3 junior Ryan Carney returns. Carney broke the school record for touchdown catches (12) last season, and it will be interesting to see what he can accomplish as the number one receiving option.

Carney has freakish athletic ability. He made a number of highlight reel catches over and around defenders last season. His size and basketball background made him a popular target for Hoppy. Teams often made an effort to shut down Doherty, and when they did, Carney typically had a huge game.

However, finding someone to play opposite of Carney is a must. Freshman Stephen Johnson, a transfer from Division II Assumption, had just two catches last season and was used primarily as a kick returner. At 5’11’’, Johnson doesn’t have great size, but he does have good speed and hands.

Junior Billy Joiner has the most experience of returning candidates vying for the starting outside receiver job. He had 19 catches and two touchdowns last year, but played primarily as the slot receiver. Boyes will have the option to keep him in the slot, or see what he can do on the outside. Other wide receivers that figure to be in the mix include Joe Motzer, D.J. Spencer and Madison Wesolowski.

  1. Need Another Nelson

The loss of Sherman Nelson will be felt on the defensive side of the ball. Nelson, who switched positions from wide receiver to cornerback last year, really came on in his first season on defense. Nelson used his size and receiver background to cover the opposing team’s top wideout every week. Finding a corner to play opposite sophomore Ish Height is a must. Sophomore Nick Anderson and freshman Nas Walker will both be options.

  1. Will the Takeaways Continue?

With Nelson a big part of it, Buffalo State finished 10th in the nation in takeaways with 31. The takeaways were a bright spot for a defense that struggled at times. Buffalo State finished third last in the Empire 8 in both total defense (400.1 yards against) and points against (28.3 per game). However, those stats can be a little misleading, as it was normal for the Bengals’ offense to score quickly and put their defense in a tough position. The Bengals really turned it up in the later part of the year and proved to be an aggressive, attacking defense.

Junior safety Mitch Thomas had a team-high five interceptions last year and will return, as will junior safety Will Cheshire, who posted three interceptions. Buffalo State’s trio of standout linebackers, juniors John Alessandra, Shaq Frederick and Marquis Artis, who was named Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Year, will all be back. With the defense returning seven starters, the turnover frenzy should continue.

  1. O-line Should Be Just Fine

The unit with the most experience coming back is the offensive line; all five starters return from a unit that was above average a year ago. The Bengals ranked fifth in the Empire 8 in sacks allowed and helped pave the way for Pete, who rushed for 1,129 yards and 13 touchdowns.

6-foot-6, 290-pound junior tackle Brandon Lathrop was an All-Empire 8 first team selection. Freshman Seth Britton and junior John Knudsen both had starts at tackle last season. Junior Jeremiah Luderman and sophomore Chad Vickers will be back as starting guards, while junior Jake Lipowski will play center. Those six saw significant time last season, although others on the roster should make for an interesting battle in training camp. The offensive line should be able to keep Hoppy upright and create holes for whoever takes the bulk of the carries.

  1. Defensive Line Shuffle

Two of the four defensive starters lost are defensive linemen — defensive tackle Tawone Williams and defensive end Andrew Cleveland, who led the defensive line with 48 tackles. Both Williams and Cleveland were by no means dominant, but they were solid, consistent and provided leadership to a fairly young defense.

Junior end Ryan Kowal could replace Cleveland at end, Kowal saw some playing time last year and even tied for the team lead in sacks with three. Junior Kendel Levy figures to fill Williams’ vacancy at ‘d-tackle.

  1. New Specialist Needed

Gone is punter Joe Going, who was third in the Empire 8 in net punting (38.97) and had four punts of 50 yards or more. Going was a four-year starter and an All-Empire 8 honorable mention as a junior.

Not only was Going one of the best in the conference, he was the only true punter on the Bengals’ roster. Kickers Alex Debbins and Nate Benoit were also seniors, so Boyes will have to either bring in a recruit or groom another player to take over the backup role.

  1. Montana Returns

Having a kicker that was practically automatic was a huge help for Buffalo State’s offense last season. Junior Marc Montana transferred in from Memphis University last season and broke school records for field goals in a season (11) and longest field goal (52) on his way to being named All-Empire 8 first team. Montana is elite, and is as much a weapon as a kicker can figure to be. His return is key.

  1. Culture Change?

After Buffalo State’s best season in 15 years, it’s apparent that things have changed quite a bit for the program. After a rough stretch, Boyes seems have the Bengals moving in the right direction. It’ll be interesting to see if the buzz starts making its way to recruiting. The Bengals have a talented junior class preparing for its senior year, but the coaching staff must be proactive and look to develop underclassmen and bring in recruits in order to prepare for a big turnover after this year.

Assistant coach Garrett McLaughlin may have given a little indication on how that recruiting is going when he tweeted out, “With the commits we have, the QB that just left campus and the LB here now…This could be a ridiculous class.”

Coming off a huge year that was capped off by a bowl win, the Bengals look poised to accomplish even bigger things in 2015.