ERIE — At the Ambassador Conference Center in Erie, stalwarts and head coaches from three local Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference football teams gathered to meet with the media. All three — Edinboro, Gannon and Mercyhurst — hope to prove doubters wrong and compete for the PSAC crown.
Edinboro plans to grow from a 6-5, 3-4 PSAC West record in 2018 through an offense bringing back key players and a consistently opportunistic defense.
“We’re going to be young, but hopefully our growth will be on offense. We had a really good running game, first in the league in terms of yards per carry,” said Edinboro third-year head coach Wayne Bradford. “But our passing game really struggled. We only completed 48 percent of our passes. We threw 23 interceptions versus 21 touchdowns. I think for us to win the big close games, we have to have more balance on offense and score touchdowns in the red zone.”
That really good running game was bolstered by star tailback Walter Fletcher, who ran for 1,624 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also factored into the passing game, catching 30 passes for 249 yards out of the backfield.
Fletcher transferred to Ball State University for a chance at the Division I level. That leaves opportunities for a new running back to fill in and make a name for himself.
Dorian Woody, a freshman out of Mercersburg Academy, may be the guy to emulate Fletcher this season.
“He’s much like Walter, shifty, great change of direction,” said Bradford.
Freshman CJ Reyes-Diggs and graduate student Nick Amone also factor into the backfield competition.
As for the passing game, incumbent starter Andrew Tomko needs to improve on an up-and-down season in 2018.
“Every position is open at camp and obviously quarterback is unique,” said Bradford. “Obviously, Andrew’s biggest asset is he knows the offense, but he’s got to do a better job of managing the game. He’s got to rely on those other skill sets, pull the ball down and run, throw it out of bounds and live for another down.”
Competing with Tomko is Jordan Castelli, who transferred from California (Pa.).
“They both have very similar skill sets. There are things that Jordan does really well. He throws the deep ball well and is athletic,” said Bradford.
A big help to whichever signal-caller is under center will be playmaking wideout Ta’Nauz Gregory. The senior is ready to lead the offense by example after posting a 10 touchdown, 796-yard season in 2018.
“This year I am going to have to step up to be that leader,” said Gregory, a Cathedral Prep graduate. “I’m more of an intense kind of guy. I think my intensity can help certain players. I just have to change my role with certain players to help us all move forward and just get better everyday.”
Offensively, the Fighting Scots also return three starting linemen Vitally Gurman, Ryan Pasternak and Kyle Schreiner as well as tight end AJ Turner.
On defense, the Scots do have to replace some players as they lost seven starters on that side of the ball.
The Edinboro defense was as opportunistic as ever, ranking in the top five in the country in takeaways and interceptions.
“The ball, the ball, the ball. Offensively we have to protect it and defensively we have to take it away,” said Bradford. “The way the game is played today, you have to create havoc plays. We had 117 tackles for loss which was first in the country, 10.6 per game and we took the ball away.”
“We practice that way. We start off flying around the ball. It doesn’t just happen on Saturdays,” said senior safety Brandon Anderson. “During the week, we’re having fun with it, we’re being coached as hard as possible. Then on Saturdays, it’s our day to have fun and just ball out, play with no regrets, play fast, don’t play like a robot.”
Anderson was a second-time first team All-PSAC West player and for good reason. The safety tallied 101 total tackles to lead the defense. He also added an interception and a sack.
Yet, Edinboro must replace sack leader Derek Dorr on the line as well as interception leader Zuril Hendrick. Dorr’s 10 sacks and Hendricks’ seven interceptions are going to be missed.
Linebacker Ryan Bischof and three secondary starters — Billy DePaul, DeAndre’ Dowdell and Maurice Sims — all return to bring some continuity back to the Fighting Scots.
Last year, Edinboro lost two tough games down the stretch to ranked opponents. A 13-6 loss to IUP and a heartbreaking 33-32 overtime loss to Kutztown in the season finale turned a possible 8-3 season into a 6-5 one. Getting those little plays down the stretch can mean all the difference for the 2019 Scots.
“We lost three games by a matter of six points, so it hurts when you think about it like that, but it goes back to the little things that I was talking about earlier,” said Anderson. “So if we take care of those things, we’re going to turn those (losses) into wins, so it’s going to be fun.”
“The little things, discipline, I know that’s coach speak and cliche, but we were five points away from California (Pa.) and on the final drive where we had a chance to win, we had a penalty,” said Bradford. “We were a two-point conversion away from beating Kutztown, we had a penalty on the two-point conversion. We were one play away from beating IUP and we had a ball knocked down.
“So our young men have to understand that we have to make every play count. We can’t have foolish penalties. We can’t self-destruct and we have to make sure we take care of our own business and not rely on someone else.”
There isn’t much separating Edinboro from the top of the PSAC and that’s where the Scots want to be.
“To win a championship, that should be every team’s expectations,” said Gregory.
“I’ve been doubted forever. I want to keep being doubted so that motivation doesn’t leave,” added Anderson. “I want to prove everybody wrong to show that we’re the best team in the PSAC, East and West.”
Jordan Hansgen can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.