David Borne | Staff Writer
After months of grinding through tough off-season workouts during the sweltering dog days of summer, the time has finally come: football season is upon us on the Bluff. The Duquesne football squad heads up to Brookings, South Dakota, on Thursday, Aug. 31, where they will face its first test of the 2017 season against No. 4 South Dakota State at 8:00 p.m ET.
Last season was yet another success for head coach Jerry Schmitt and his team, but even with an impressive 8-3 record and a share of the Northeast Conference regular season title, the Dukes missed out on an FCS playoff berth. St. Francis represented the conference in the FCS tournament as they handed Duquesne its only conference loss last season and thus, the Red Flash held the tiebreaker between the two teams.
The Dukes were selected as the favorite to win the NEC this season, but preseason rankings don’t mean much to Coach Schmitt and his team.
“In the past six years we’ve been picked for first or second and I think over the long haul, that shows where our program has gone,” Schmitt told a group of reporters on Tuesday during a media availability session. “We appreciate the respect that the other coaches have for our program and that’s a credit to our players and our coaches. Other than that, obviously, it’s the end of the year that we want to be at the top. We just look at it that way, we appreciate the respect, but we take that and move forward.”
Duquesne’s offensive unit will look a bit different this season after losing a number of last year’s top contributors to graduation. While last season’s FCS Jerry Rice Award winner A.J. Hines returns to man the backfield for Duquesne, complemented by fellow back P.J. Fulmore, the Dukes will rely on newcomers and younger talent in their passing game. With the loss of the NEC’s all-time passing leader Dillon Buechel, Duquesne will have a new quarterback under center for the first time since 2013.
Tommy Stuart, a graduate transfer from Boise State, has been named Duquesne’s starting quarterback for Thursday’s opener against the Jackrabbits. Stuart, a Baltimore, Maryland, native, joins the Dukes after appearing in 12 games during two seasons with Boise State. Coach Schmitt has been impressed with how Stuart has been able to adapt and learn the offense on the run in his short time here on the Bluff.
“He has an experience playing on a bigger stage that is helping our guys competitively,” Schmitt said. “He’s a great personality, a winning personality, and I think that’s going to help us this year.”
Stuart will be working with a bit of a new-look receiving corps this season. Duquesne will be without Wayne Capers, Jr. and Blair Roberts, who were both All-NEC First Team selections in 2016. Junior Nehari Crawford, who was the team’s third-leading receiver last season, returns and will fill the gap left by Capers and Roberts. Chavas Rawlins, a senior who saw limited action last season, will be back for the Dukes, as well.
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Dave Opfar welcomes back many key contributors from last year’s team. Despite losing All-American Christian Kuntz, Duquesne is still expected have to one of the conference’s top defensive units this year. Last season’s leading tacklers, Carter Henderson and Nathan Stone, are back again this season, and will be defensive anchors for Duquesne.
The secondary will again be strong for the Dukes, as Abner Roberts, Jr., Daquan Worley and Brandon Stanback all return for Duquesne. The trio of Roberts, Worley and Stanback did a great job of keeping opposing receivers at bay last season, and Duquesne will rely on them heavily again this year.
Following the opener against South Dakota State, Duquesne will play two more games on the road before returning to Rooney Field for its 2017 home opener against D-II West Virginia Wesleyan on Sept. 30 at 7:00 p.m. The Dukes play just four games at home this season, so the journey to clinching an FCS Playoff berth will be a bit more challenging than in previous years when the team may have seen more home contests.
Duquesne’s group of returning players will face challenges, but hope to be ready to be able to lead their squad around the obstacles that the 2017 campaign will inevitably bring.