By Frank Foreman
Ready or not, Sept. 7 is less than three weeks away.
Experienced football teams relish the 24 practices during training camp allotted to Division III schools, eager to fine tune a few areas and gear up for the first game of the season.
The 2013 Allegheny Gators are not one of those teams.
“I wish Sept. 7 would come three months from now,” 12th year head coach Mark Matlak said about his youthful Gators squad.
That’s not to say that the Gators don’t have high expectations. It’s simply a matter of being just four days into training camp with players void of anything but a helmet and shoulder pads.
It’s safe to say there are still a few wrinkles to iron out. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of time to do it in.
“It’s been just four days. You can’t see much in shorts,” Matlak said. “Football isn’t played in shorts.”
An overcast afternoon played host to the Gators’ final practice before full contact begins today. Just under 80 players walked through drills, literally taking the first steps in what appears to be a rebuilding year for Allegheny.
The Gators, who were 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the North Coast Athletic Conference a season ago, have more than enough upside thanks to the return of 14 starters. Unfortunately, none of those starters plays quarterback.
The race to find out who will be taking snaps under center when Allegheny hosts Kenyon opening day begins now, as multiple signal callers took snaps with the first team offense Monday. Sophomore Joe Dawida seems to have the inside track to become the starterafter playing in six games last season, completing 44 of 73 attempts.
Dawida has the most experience of any of the candidates, which include junior Stephen Nymick, and sophomores Tanner Allen and Kyle Smith.
But this early in camp, Matlak’s response as to whether one of the four quarterbacks are a leading candidate for the opening is short and to the point: “No, absolutely not.”
“We have a lot of question marks. We need to get a lot of things squared away,” Matlak said. “Our biggest issue right now is finding a quarterback.”
With plenty of unknowns on the field, one position that looks to be secured is at tailback, as sophomore Tyler Smith is showing early on that it’s his job to lose in the backfield.
Smith is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him late during his freshman season. Despite the injury, Smith still tallied the second most yards on the ground last year behind starter Tim Werley, who graduated.
“I really feel like we’ve got some good skill kids,” Matlak said. “I was impressed with Tyler Smith last year, but he hurt his ankle and didn’t play five games at the end of the year.”
Matlak’s praise for Smith was equaled by his feelings toward junior wide receiver Andrew Niklaus.
“I’ve always been impressed by Andrew, we just haven’t been able to get him the ball,” Matlak said.
Allegheny finished last in the league in total offense in 2012, making it a good place to start for Matlak and his coaching staff on an area to improve upon.
Improvement for the Gators isn’t confined to just the offense, as defensively, Matlak said his team needs to fill in the holes of a slew of graduated players.
Gone are Bill Devlin, Rudy DeStefano and Ryan Vietmeler, the top three leading tacklers in 2012. Together, the three tallied 230 tackles, a total that took the next seven top tacklers combined to equal.
“Good recruiting, that’s how you replace that,” Matlak said on filling the holes on defense. “That’s one of the question marks we have. The linebacker group is a muddle. We’ll see how it shakes out during camp.”
Allegheny was picked to finish fourth out of 10 teams in the NCAC preseason poll, a position that Matlak could care less about.
For Matlak, it’s a one-day-at-a-time approach, and with a young football team, it is likely the correct approach.
“It doesn’t mean anything. I think you just have to improve daily and try to get better,” Matlak said. “When the preparation is good, we’ll make some improvements, and then see success on the field. I don’t take much stock in (the preseason poll).
While Matlak works to figure out just how his roster will shake down, the one constant with all of his Allegheny teams is developing a committed squad.
Once the Gators buy in to Matlak’s direction, which is inevitable, the true success for the team will show.
“The big thing for me is creating a culture of effort and commitment,” Matlak said. “I’m not going to watch the scoreboard so much, as we need a committed effort from our football team. If we get that, we’ll get better, and the results will show.”
The Gators have 19 practices left to make that happen.