Paul Tortorella knows his team has the talent to be really good. But what he’s been wondering is if it has the ability to compete at a high level.
Based on Thursday’s intrasquad scrimmage, he thinks he has his answer.
In the 77-play scrimmage that lasted a little more than an hour, Tortorella, the third-year IUP football coach, watched his team make a few mistakes, but then make up for them in a big way. That was a positive sight to see, considering a year ago, the Crimson Hawks didn’t have the ability to be better than the sum of their parts.
“From Day One until now, our compete level has grown tremendously,” Tortorella said. “It has to be better than our talent level, and I think we’re getting that.”
Quarterbacks Quinton Maxwell, Jalen Reese and Logan Horn combined to complete 21 of 42 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. True freshman running back Adam Houser dashed 18 yards for a touchdown, and Apollo-Ridge graduate Duane Brown caught just one pass — but turned it into a 61-yard touchdown catch from Maxwell.
Those were just the offensive highlights.
On the other side of the ball, Ernest Shockley had the game’s only sack, true freshman Javonte Haynes broke up two passes and nearly intercepted both, and veterans Dondrea Tillman, Damon Lloyd, Nick Amendola and Shaq Jones provided steady play.
Oh, and on special teams, kicker Dillon Sarka made all four field goal tries, and freshman punter Dylan Grubbs averaged 44.2 yards per kick, including one that traveled 72 yards before hitting the turf and bouncing into the end zone.
Senior wide receiver Dom McNeill dropped a sure-fire 62-yard touchdown pass from Maxwell, but his receiving mates picked him up, especially Dwine Walls, who made a spectacular diving catch over middle to gain a first down later in the scrimmage.
“We still made some mistakes that we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Tortorella said, “but the thing I thought that showed up was we did drop a touchdown but we also made a lot of good catches and ran well with the ball after the catch.”
Houser’s touchdown run from 18 yards out was 12 yards longer than any other rush during the scrimmage, and emphatically earned him a spot on the Crimson Hawks’ active roster. The original plan was to redshirt Houser, the freshman sensation who ran for 3,920 yards at Shippensburg High School, but he has been so good in preseason camp that Tortorella said the plan has changed.
Last year, IUP had five good running backs in preseason camp, but Drew Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in camp and Malik Anderson and Duane Brown were ruled academically ineligible. Justice Evans (741 yards) and Samir Bullock (426) ended up shouldering the load, and the lack of depth limited the Crimson Hawks’ effectiveness in the ground game.
Remembering this, Tortorella said it would be a bad idea to keep Houser on the sideline this fall.
“He’s a football player,” Tortorella said. “He has great speed. It’s not too big for him. We saw last year what the deal is with running backs. It’s a long season. You think three is enough, and it really isn’t. He’s our fourth, really 3-A, with Malik and then obviously Evans and Bullock. We feel comfortable with those four guys at running back. He’s going to play.”
A few other freshmen have also forced their way into playing time: linebacker Darrius Lloyd (the younger brother of Damon) and defensive backs Zayaan Cobb, Javonte Haynes and Mekhi Lang.
“I always use the statement that they don’t know that they don’t know,” Tortorella said. “That’s good, OK? They’re really physical. They’re really aggressive. They don’t play scared. … They have great attitudes. … They’re long-armed guys who are not afraid to tackle.”
Based on Thursday’s scrimmage, the Crimson Hawks will be balanced on offense, using the pass to set up the run just as often as they use the run to set up the pass. But considering the talent IUP has on offense, it wouldn’t be wise for teams to assume the Crimson Hawks will be a pass-first team.
“We’re still gonna run the football,” Tortorella said. “We still have a really good offensive line. We’ve got great running backs. I think teams will now be … not scared, but they won’t want to crowd that box as much as they have, especially last year, because our passing game … has grown tremendously.”
NOTES: Cornerback Nazir Streater, defensive end Will Mayr, offensive lineman Collin McAllister and running back Samir Bullock were held out because of minor injuries. Tortorella said all but Mayr have a very good chance of playing when the season opens next Saturday against New Haven. … Center Jeff Arnold (knee) practiced this week for the first time in camp and took part in the scrimmage.