May 1, 2013, 2:30 PM EST
Editor’s Note: Over the course of April and early May, CAA Football will check in with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on their respective teams’ spring practices and spring games. Today we talk UAlbany with Andrew Santillo of The Troy Record. For more on the Great Danes’ spring, including recaps, video and more, visit our CAA Football Spring Ball Central page.
CAAFB: You’ve followed the Great Danes over the course of the spring. What were some of your observations and questions heading into the spring?
AS: The biggest question in front of UAlbany will be if the Great Danes can compete week in and week out with the competition in the CAA. It was even been mentioned by players – on Saturday at the spring game – as they stress how important depth will be for the team this upcoming season. I would also like to see how the Capital District embraces this team once their new stadium is complete and they have some big games this fall. Bob Ford Field is under construction and expected to be completed by the first game against Rhode Island on Sept. 14. In fact, they are just laying down the field turf this week and the stadium looks incredible.
CAAFB: You were on hand for Saturday’s spring game. How would you describe the atmosphere at University Field?
AS: It was a good atmosphere – there was a good turnout from the fans and it ended up being a spirited game, much to the delight of coach Bob Ford. As in years past, the game pitted the offense against the defense, with the offense prevailing, 45-40. The game came right down to the very last play, a touchdown pass from backup quarterback and Colgate transfer Ryan Smith to Nic Ketter. Even though a few starters didn’t play due to minor injuries, the game was quite spirited.
CAAFB: What were your general impressions of Saturday’s game?
AS: I was really impressed with the first team defense. This unit graduated its top four tacklers from last season, including linebacker Jon Morgan who just signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Lions. Playing without three starters, the defense started the game with three three-and-outs and an interception to race out to a 15-0 lead. The defense played without what are arguably its two best players, linebacker Kyle Jordan and lineman Tim Kologrivov, along with starting defensive back Justinian Mason. If this unit, led by newly elevated coordinator Drew Christ, can be tough this season, they’ll keep the team in a lot of games.
CAAFB: You just touched on Drew Christ, who was the team’s defensive backs coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator in the offseason. What kinds of changes have you observed on defense this spring?
AS: I asked Coach Ford how he sees the defense playing out with Christ having been elevated and longtime coach Mike Simpson moving back to coach the linebackers. His response was that he thinks those coaches will be just as strong. Christ has been with the program for a number of years, and I don’t see anything huge changing.
Another coaching note is that the program hired two new faces three weeks ago in Aaron Smith (wide receivers) and Kevin Ross (tight ends). Smith was the wide receivers coach at Boston College, while Ross is the son of former NFL coach Bobby Ross.
CAAFB: The Danes return their 2012 starting QB in rising junior Will Fiacchi. I’m assuming there’s not much of a battle at quarterback?
AS: In a word, no. Fiacchi threw for 2,156 yards and 11 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 and he is firmly entrenched in the starting role. We saw him in a limited role on Saturday, as the program only played its veterans for about a quarter and a half. Coach Ford said that Fiacchi had an incredible spring, noting that at times he thought he was watching a pro. He is a smart kid who should only get better with a full season under his belt. That being said, Ryan Smith played well in the spring game and I think he’s certainly a solid No. 2. A Colgate transfer and nearby Guilderland High grad, Smith threw for 287 yards on Saturday and led the team on the game-winning drive. I think this team will be set at the quarterback position no matter who is under center.
CAAFB: One major loss was RB Drew Smith, so would you comment on who we might expect to step in to fill that void?
AS: Smith leaves a big hole at running back, as he rushed for 1,001 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Soon after the NFL Draft, Smith signed a three-year free agent contract with the Buffalo Bills, which shows you how talented he is and how much the Great Dames will miss him. They do have Omar Osbourne, who is very talented and rushed for 503 yards and five touchdowns last season. He does have something to prove, though, and in Coach Ford’s run-heavy offense he’ll have to display that he can be the workhorse type of running back.
CAAFB: Looking across the positions, then, what do you anticipate as some of the Danes’ strengths and weaknesses coming out of the spring?
AS: Quarterback will certainly be a strength, as should wide receiver. Cole King is a big, talented wideout and the son of NFL player Emanuel King. Kevin Chillis will bring some explosiveness to that group as well. UAlbany should also be strong up front on the offensive line with an anchor in Kadeem Williams, who is 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds. He has already been targeted by pro teams and is the real deal.
CAAFB: You spoke to this back in February, but what role do you now see UAlbany’s sizeable incoming class having on the team?
AS: I think the Great Danes will need those incoming players to provide something because this team will need the depth this season. The CAA will test this team unlike never before and these incoming student-athletes will need to step in and contribute. A handful of the incoming players were at the spring game on Saturday and at the end of the game went on the field to applause from the crowd.
CAAFB: Expectations for the Danes have been somewhat unclear given the team’s move to CAA Football this fall. Have expectations become any clearer with the team’s spring schedule now behind us?
AS: Coach Ford has been in this game for more than four decades, but I think even he isn’t quite sure what the expectations are as the team moves up to the CAA. I’m sure the goal is to compete for a league crown, but how realistic that is in season one is a question that I’m not sure anyone is able to answer.
UAlbany has started increasing the number of scholarships it offers and will be at a full 63 in two years, so I think the talent will get better and better. In a one game vacuum, I think the Great Danes can compete with any team on their schedule, but how will the task of matching up with these programs on a week in and week out basis affect them is anyone’s guess.
CAAFB: What have you heard from Coach Ford this spring? Can you give us some insight into his take on his team’s spring?
AS: I believe Coach Ford is looking forward to this new challenge and very much looking forward to the new stadium. The team has been playing at University Field since he started the program back in the 1960s. Now they move into a brand new 8,000-seat stadium with his name on the entrance. It shows how far the program has come, and the team should now get even more support from the school and the community. Overall, Ford was happy with the team’s play on Saturday, but he knows how difficult this season will be.
CAAFB: What questions still remain in your mind moving forward?
AS: The biggest question mark for me is how will this team compete weekly with the top teams in the country. The CAA is arguably the best FCS league in the nation and UAlbany has been the best team in the Northeast Conference for the last decade. Now they have to bring their game to the next level. It should be a fun season.