Five things to watch in Division II district football in 2018
The Coal Bowl is more than a month away, but it’s easy to see the Sept. 29 rivalry game between IUP and Cal (Pa.) determining the PSAC West and the spot in the conference championships.
Both teams are coming off berths in the NCAA Division II playoffs, and they were picked to finish first and second, respectively, in the division.
The Crimson Hawks, who went 13-1 last season and reached the national semifinals, are ranked fourth in the AFCA and d2football.com preseason polls.
Here are five things to watch this season in D-II:
Lenny’s last stand
While many PSAC schools must break in new QBs this season, IUP is in the safe hands of Lenny Williams.
The redshirt senior from Sto-Rox has a 30-4 record as starter and holds 16 school records. He began his career as more of a runner, totaling 1,229 yards on the ground as a freshman. Since then, he has rounded himself into one of the best dual threats in the nation. He threw for a career-best 31 touchdowns and 2,789 yards last season.
“When he came here, he was a great athlete that happened to be a quarterback,” Crimson Hawks coach Paul Tortorella said. “Now he’s a great quarterback that’s still a great athlete.”
Backfield of dreams
IUP might be the only team in the nation that brings back three 1,000-yard running backs.
The top returning runner is junior Samir Bullock, the speedster of the group who totaled 1,252 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Redshirt senior Chris Temple plays more of a punishing style and serves as the short-yardage back. He missed last season with a knee injury but gained 1,217 yards as a sophomore in 2015.
Sophomore Justice Evans (Central Catholic), the PSAC West Freshman of the Year last season after rushing for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns, combines power and speed.
“All three do things in a different way, and it makes it tough for a defense to really plan for a certain back,” Tortorella said.
Cal (Pa.) seeks 3rd straight NCAA playoff berth
Consistency is a hallmark for the Vulcans, who are the only PSAC program to win at least seven games every season since 2005.
Cal must replace numerous key skill position players, most notably former All-PSAC quarterback Michael Keir, but it brings back 10 starters from a team that went 9-3 last fall. The defense will be led by a pair of all-conference selections: senior defensive lineman Malik Akins (Aliquippa) and junior defensive back Lamont McPhatter (New Castle).
Keeping up with Jones
It’s no secret what Gannon will be doing with the ball this season: getting it to Marcus Jones. The senior running back was the runner-up for the 2017 Harlon Hill Trophy (D-II’s version of the Heisman) after rushing for 2,176 yards and 29 touchdowns.
All those numbers, though, translated into only a 5-6 record for the Golden Knights, who bring back 19 starters.
Major changes for Slippery Rock
Perhaps no PSAC team must remake itself more than The Rock, who went 8-3 last season. They lost Division II National Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Martin (West Mifflin), top receivers Marcus Johnson (University Prep) and Milly Raye (Allderdice) and the PSAC’s leading passer, Tanner Garry (Fort Cherry).
Slippery Rock will turn to several transfers at the skill positions, including senior running back Wes Hills, a two-year captain at Delaware who ran for 728 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016 and earned all-conference honors. Junior receiver Eric Glover-Williams, a former four-star recruit, joins The Rock after starting his career at Ohio State.