UAlbany Primed To Bounce Back In '21
UAlbany Primed To Bounce Back In '21
UAlbany emerged as a major surprise in 2019. After a tough spring, the Great Danes regroup for a push back to the Playoffs in 2021.
Picked to finish last place before the 2019 season, UAlbany went on a history-making tear.
The Great Danes reached the FCS Playoffs for just the second time ever, and the first since joining the Colonial Athletic Association. Their ninth win came in the postseason, marking the program's first playoff victory. It was a season to remember — and with a host of key contributors back, looked like the start of a lot more.
COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the fall season and lingering into an unprecedented sprig slate made for a trying return to action. After winning a thriller at New Hampshire to kick things off, UAlbany dropped decisions to Maine and Rhode Island by a combined 11 points.
The loss in the Battle for the Golden Apple ended the Great Danes' spring with the final two games cancelled. But despite not returning to the Playoffs, the abbreviated campaign was a positive according to coach Greg Gattuso.
The UAlbany coach cited the reps newcomers and previously inexperienced players gained, and the forum to stay sharp more than a year after the Great Danes' remarkable 2019 season ended. Gattuso also noted the difficulty of the upcoming schedule, which includes matchups with juggernaut North Dakota State and Syracuse of the ACC.
"If we had not played any games for 18 months, I don't know how we could have gotten ready for the schedule we're about to play," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge this year, but a lot of fun."
The first month is a doozy, sending the Great Danes away from home for 3-of-4, including the aforementioned dates at NDSU and Syracuse. The third is a CAA matchup at Delaware, which went 7-1 and reached the national semifinals last spring. A much-improved Rhode Island is the only home game for UAlbany in that first month.
Coincidentally — or perhaps not — UAlbany opened 2019 with a remarkably tough first month. The lumps of losses at Central Michigan and against a Monmouth team that won the Big South readied UAlbany for a strong showing in CAA play.
A potent offense powered UAlbany's historic 2019, and no one phase was more responsible than the other. The Great Danes boasted one of the most balanced attacks thanks to the passing of quarterback Jeff Undercuffler to a deep and multifaceted corps of pass-catchers, and the hard-charging ball-carrying of running back Karl Mofor.
Both enter 2021 on the preseason watch list for CFPA Performer of the Year Trophy.
WATCH OUT 👀— UAlbany Football (@UAlbanyFootball) August 23, 2021
Karl Mofor (@MR__PLAYMAKER) and Jeff Undercuffler (@Jcuff13) have been named to the @CFPerformance #FCS National Performer of the Year Trophy Watch List!
Via CFPA ➡️ https://t.co/YZmaETxhFW#BeGreat #WinTheDay 🟪🟨 pic.twitter.com/9V5fybcJg1
Mofor racked up just below 1,300 yards on the ground with 10 touchdowns in 2019, while Undercuffler passed for 3,543 yards and 41 scores. Reproducing the same numbers is a big ask, but having a full season back in action at least provides the opportunity.
Having playmakers around them certainly helps. The Great Danes wide-receiving corps with Mike Gray, Tyler Oedekoven, Chris Potts and Jackson Parker all returning has the potential of meeting the standard set by an excellent 2019 group. The addition of Central Michigan transfer Julian Hicks gives UAlbany another rangy target.
Coupled with red-zone threat and tight end LJ Wesneski, Undercuffler has no shortage of options in the passing game.
The phase to watch will be the offensive line. UAlbany's dip from 31.4 points per game in 2019 to 18.8 points per game in the spring coincided with a slight uptick in sacks allowed (from 2.2 to 2.8 per game) and drop in almost 1 yard less per rushing attempt.
That's not necessarily surprising given the experience that graduated from the front five after 2019. That group was the CAA's most veteran. The 2021 unit isn't as experience as '19, but Kobe Thomas and Critt Johnson started throughout the spring.
The most difficult player for UAlbany to replace after 2019 was Eli Mencer, the All-American edge rusher. While duplicating Mencer's insane 24 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles remains a tall order, newcomer Jared Verse stepped in more than admirably.
Verse racked up 10 tackles for loss with four sacks in his spring-season debut. He's set a solid foundation on which to build and could be a force in conference play. Joined up front by Mazon Walker and Anthony Lang, UAlbany could quietly have one of the more intimidating defensive lines in the CAA.
Levi Metheny's transfer in the offseason is a ding to the defense, but the linebacker corps isn't lack for experience with Danny Damico and AJ Mistler returning. Likewise, the secondary features a variety of proven starters and key contributors back with Tyler Carswell and another pair of underclassmen who, in the same vein as Verse, earned the plaudits of Gattuso: Larry Walker Jr. and Christian Lewis.
Generating takeaways will be central to the 2021 defense replicating the success of 2019. Two years ago, UAlbany ranked eighth in the nation with 28 takeaways; the Great Danes created only three in the spring.
Placekicker Dylan Burns has been a stalwart of UAlbany special teams for years now. An All-CAA caliber performer, Burns went 4-of-5 on field-goal attempts in the spring with his sole miss coming on his only attempt beyond 40 yards. Burns also handles kickoff duties, and last season, forced touchbacks on seven attempts.
Punter Sean Ralls, a transfer from Eastern Kentucky, pinned 5-of-18 attempts inside the 20-yard line during the spring season. Christian Lewis handled the majority of kickoff returns.
Sept. 4 at North Dakota State
A trip to the Fargodome to face the most dominant dynasty in FCS history sets the tone for UAlbany's challenging schedule.
Sept. 11 vs. Rhode Island
The Great Danes and Rams went to overtime in a surprisingly low-scoring affair last March, which Rhode Island won by a touchdown.
Sept. 18 at Syracuse
Though just 140 miles separate their campuses, Syracuse and UAlbany have never played.
Oct. 2 at Delaware
UAlbany won a 21-17 nail-biter in 2019 on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Jeff Undercuffler to Jerah Reeves.
Oct. 9 at William & Mary
The 2019 encounter was one of the most exciting games of the season, with UAlbany rallying from a 24-22 deficit in the late third quarter with three straight touchdown possessions. William & Mary got its own touchdown late and had possession at game's end.
Oct. 16 vs. Villanova
What should be two of the nation's most explosive and well-rounded offenses meet for a midseason shootout that could go a long way in determining playoff positioning.
Oct. 23 vs. Maine
Another home date for the Great Danes with the potential to turn into a track meet, each team features potential Walter Payton Award contenders in Undercuffler and Mofor, and Maine's Joe Fagnano and Andre Miller.
Oct. 30 at Towson
A 38-21 win at Towson midway through the 2019 season set UAlbany on course for the postseason. That victory ignited a stretch for the Great Danes winning 6-of-7.
Nov. 6 vs. New Hampshire
The UAlbany defense came through to preserve the win in New Hampshire last March in what was Wildcats future Hall of Fame coach Sean McDonnell's first game on the sidelines in more than two years.
Nov. 13 vs. Morgan State
MEAC member Morgan State travels to UAlbany for its second meeting with a CAA opponent in 2021. The Bears open with Towson in the Battle for Greater Baltimore.
Nov. 20 at Stony Brook
Last March, Stony Brook ended UAlbany's two-game streak in the Battle for the Golden Apple. The Seawolves' methodical rushing attack is a stark contrast to the explosive offensive style of UAlbany.
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