Talk of real football -- running, blocking, and tackling -- and prospects for the new season monopolized the official opening of fall practice for Towson State University yesterday.
This in itself was a welcome relief from last year, when off-field distractions and on-field performances turned the program into an aberration, a mere shadow of its success of previous seasons.
Coaches and players spent as many hours trying to save a program that was in danger of being canceled by the school administration as they did trying to win games, and the 2-9 record, the school's worst since 1972, reflected it.
"Last year, it seemed everything that happened was part of a scenario," said Phil Albert, beginning his 20th season as head coach. "Certainly it was not a normal year, with the rash of injuries and the possibility of losing the program.
"However, since last Dec. 3, when the Faculty Senate voted to retain football, all our energies have been directed toward turning the program around -- getting some kind of success."
The "some kind of success" may not be able to be measured in W's and L's right away, but this is certainly a bigger, stronger, more experienced, and perhaps most importantly, happier family than it was a year ago.
At the outset, the team's strength is in the interior offensive line, where four starters and a veteran backup return. The starters are sophomore tackles Karl Nieberlein and John Loch, guards Greg Lohr and Mike Gunthrop, who moved over a notch from center. Senior Joe Field, who alternated with Gunthrop last year, will start at center.
Also back is starting tight end Sean Patterson and holdover wide receivers Kevin Howard and Ken Weeks, plus running back Robbie Jackson, on course to become the school's all-time rushing leader.
For only the second time in his 20 seasons, Albert has an unsettled situation at quarterback. Last spring, Albert moved defensive star Gary Worthington, letting him and two untested underclassmen, sophomore Bob Campbell and redshirt freshman Bill McDuffee, challenge for the position.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior played the position at Overbrook Regional High School in West Berlin, N.J., passing for 1,500 yards and running for 500 as a senior. "I had a good time in the spring. It brought back good memories," Worthington said.
"As coaches, we asked ourselves what one guy could come over from defense and get the job done, and Gary was the answer," Albert said. "He is a fifth-year senior and possesses outstanding leadership." Defensive coordinator Gordy Combs pointed out that Worthington has those "intangibles" that coaches like to talk about and, "the day after he made the switch, you could see him take control of the huddle."
Taking Worthington, a fifth-year senior who had played linebacker, cornerback and safety, out of the defense will hurt for a while, but Combs said, "We have a talented group in the secondary, and having a Kevin Williams made the switch possible."
Williams, a 5-8, 185-pound senior veteran, is a projected starter at strong safety in place of Worthington. A transfer from the Naval Academy, where he played a year, Williams played in the secondary last year.
Three players who had season-ending injuries last season are either at full strength or close to it. Senior fullback John O'Neill (knee) is ready to return, senior linebacker Jared Freeze (concussion) is scheduled to start and sophomore free safety Aaron Bates (knee) is still on the mend. All will be brought along slowly when contact work begins, with Bates questionable for the opener.
The season opens a week later than usual, Sept. 14 at home against Boston University. "We're happy about that because it gives us an extra week of preparation and we'll be able to see BU against William & Mary on the seventh," Albert said.
Sept. 14 -- Boston University, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 -- Delaware State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 -- Rhode Island, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 5 -- Indiana U. of Pa., 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 -- at James Madison, 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 -- at Northeastern, 1 p.m.
Oct. 26 -- at Liberty, TBA.Nov. 2 -- Hofstra, 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 9 -- at Howard, 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 16 -- at Maine, noon
Nov. 23 -- Youngstown State, 1:30 p.m.