Pat Higgins | Asst. Sports Editor
While the men’s basketball team traveled to Brooklyn to compete in the opening round of the Atlantic 10 Championship at the Barclays Center earlier this month, head coach Jerry Schmitt opened the football program’s spring practices heading into his 10th season on the Bluff.
The Dukes, who have earned a share of the NEC Title in two of the past three years, returned to Rooney Field on March 12 with plenty of motivation heading into the fall.
With 13 returning starters, including nine of 11 on defense, Schmitt says he senses the older players on the roster have their eyes on “unfinished business” in 2014, given the Dukes shared the conference title with both Albany in 2011 and Sacred Heart in 2013.
It’s been a “motivating factor through the offseason,” according to Schmitt, who’s helped the Red & Blue establish themselves as a perennial conference power, especially at home. Since 2010, the Dukes have won more overall games (28) and conference games (19) than any other program in the NEC. The team finished unbeaten at Rooney Field in both 2011 and 2013 and is 13-2 overall in the last three seasons.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Dillion Buechel set school records on the offensive side of the ball for pass completions (217) and attempts (373). He also finished with 2,569 passing yards, a freshman record and the sixth-highest total in school history. He was also the first player in program history to be named to the Jerry Rice Award Watch List presented to the top freshman in the FCS.
With a defense that ranked fifth in the FCS in first downs allowed and 16th in total defense (325.5 yards per game), the Dukes bolstered their coaching staff last July to help mold an even better unit in 2013. Linebackers coach Matt Raich, who spent the previous six seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, joined the program just before the 2013 season opened. Schmitt also named former Slippery Rock defensive backs coach Jason Makrinos to the staff on Feb. 26 at the same position. Makrinos will also serve as the co-Defensive Coordinator alongside Dave Opfar.
With 2013 in the rearview, Makrinos and Opfar return their top four tacklers from last season, including Sports Network Third-Team All-American selection Christian Kuntz, who became the first sophomore in school history to garner All-American accolades. He was also the sole player from last year’s squad to be named First Team All-NEC.
Schmitt said the wealth of experienced players returning for 2014 will be instrumental in the defense’s progression.
“Coach Opfar is tinkering with the schemes to utilize the skills and talents that we have for this year. I know it won’t change a lot, but there are some things we can do differently now that these guys are a year older [and] have some experience under their belt,” he said.
Schmitt also stressed the importance of developing depth across the board because of the impact injuries have over the course of the season. Wide receiver Sean Brady broke his wrist in Week 2 against Dayton, but five receivers still recorded 24 or more catches over the course of the season.
Schmitt said the team is trying “to get as close to being too deep as possible at each position” in spring practice to minimize the gap in skill level and familiarity with the scheme between starters and backups.
Depth is key in maintaining consistency from week to week during the season, but improving the non-conference schedule is a key variable in improving the program’s bigger picture. The Red & Blue will open the season with two tough non-conference road games at Division I Buffalo on Aug. 30 and at Youngstown State the following week on Sept. 6. After that, the Dukes will look to continue their success at Rooney Field with three consecutive home games against Dayton, Monmouth and West Liberty, before kicking off the conference schedule on the road against Central Connecticut on Oct. 11.
They’ll take on Robert Morris in the season finale at home, a game that’s sure to have conference title implications. They escaped Moon Township in 2013 with a 22-21 victory after Robert Morris botched an extra point that would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
Spring practices are open to the public. The Dukes will practice three more times this Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday before the annual Spring Game on April 12 at 2 p.m. at Rooney Field.