Football team closes Spring practice on a high note

Andrew Holman | The Duquesne Duke

After finishing the 2014 season a modest 6-6, the Duquesne football team returned to Rooney Field on Saturday for the annual spring football game.

The game included a number of intensive drills, a full squad scrimmage and a heartfelt halftime ceremony celebrating the lives of two late Duquesne students.

“A lot of the young guys that got a lot of reps not only through spring practice, but today have done some really good things. We are excited about them and we think they are going to help us next year,” head coach Jerry Schmitt said.

During the scrimmage, many of the Dukes showed some promise and sparked some excitement going into next season. Redshirt sophomore Dillon Buechel started the scrimmage off in impressive fashion by throwing an 80-yard dart down the field for a touchdown to junior wide receiver Chris King. Buechel’s accuracy was remarkable for much of the afternoon, as the rehabbed quarterback looked like he was in midseason form. King was also a major bright spot for the Dukes and will look to be a big playmaker in the 2015 season.

On the ensuing kickoff, Trenton Coles displayed the spark he can provide as a kick returner when he took the ball from deep in his own end to near midfield. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Egolf, who filled in for Buechel after he suffered an upper rib injury that ended his season last year, took the snaps under center on the second drive, but sophomore running back Zach DeNardo shined the brightest on this drive showing off the power he provides to the Duquesne running game.

Buechel returned as quarterback on the next drive, but instead of using Buechel’s arm the Dukes relied on junior running back Klartel Claridy’s speed and power to march down the field. Claridy did a nice job keeping his feet moving by powering through the defense. The drive ended on a third and long, however, when junior linebacker Christian Kuntz batted Buechel’s pass down.

Egolf took the snaps at quarterback again on the following two drives, repeatedly targeting freshman wide receiver Sherman Harris. Harris was a big target throughout the day, and if he can become a little more sure-handed he has a chance to make a big impact for the Dukes next season. The Egolf-Harris combination worked well enough to get the offense into field goal range, where sophomore kicker Markus Colin tacked on three points.

The major defensive standout on the day was sophomore linebacker Carter Henderson, who recorded an interception during the two-minute drill to compliment the three sacks he racked up in the scrimmage.

Other players displaying noteworthy performances during Saturday’s festivities included junior wide receiver Dave Thomas and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Bobby Gustine.

“We wanted to develop some of our younger guys to build depth and get them hopefully in a position where they can play on the field,” Schmitt said.

This is the focus for the Dukes this offseason, according to Schmitt. Duquesne graduated six defensive backs last season, which opens up an opportunity for young guys to step up and fill those gaps. Additionally, Schmitt feels he has young reinforcements to build depth on the offensive and defensive lines as well.

Schmitt said he is pleased with the recruiting class he has coming in next fall.

“I’m really happy and ecstatic about it,” Schmitt said. “A lot of them were here and I am excited to get them in and add to the talent we already have.”

At the senior jersey presentation later that day, the seniors said their farewells. The 13 seniors ran through a tunnel of their former teammates and were honored at midfield with framed jerseys.

Saturday was not only about football though. It also gave the Duquesne community a chance to come together to celebrate the lives of late students Chris Johnson and Ryan Fleming. Johnson, the Dukes’ starting safety last season, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in February. Fleming, who served as assistant to the director of football operations from 2012 to 2014, died of natural causes in Jan. 2014. They were honored with a moment of silence and a balloon release during halftime.

“[Chris] was a passionate football player and an intensely focused football player who I loved coaching on the field, but as much as anything he was a great personality off the field,” said Coach Schmitt. “He was a quiet, unassuming type kid that smiled a lot. We’re going to miss him. We pray for him and his family. It was a tough loss for the Dukes.”