Feb 11, 2013, 10:12 AM EST
Editor’s Note: With National Signing Day officially in the books, over the next three weeks we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we cover the Albany Great Danes with Andrew Santillo of The Troy Record.
You were there for Coach Bob Ford’s National Signing Day press conference, where he appeared pleased with his signing class. What were your thoughts upon seeing the list of signees and hearing from Coach Ford?
I think he is pretty pleased with the recruiting class. We’re venturing into unchartered waters here since they’re joining a new league. He just mentioned the other day that their coaches are now able to talk to players that they may not have been able to in the past. People have heard of the program, and they have a new stadium and are going into a new league.
So, I think he’s pretty pleased with the class. I’m not sure that he has a great deal to base it on. Obviously he can base it on past classes, but that was a different level of competition that the team was going up against.
Also, the program has significantly increased its scholarships. They only offered 35 last year, and this year they’ll be offering 54. Obviously you’re looking at different types of players when you can offer them different amounts of scholarships.
UAlbany’s signing class size of 21 players is relatively large for an FCS program. Why is this number significant?
I don’t know if that number is necessarily significant. I know they had a lot of senior guys who they were sending out the door, so they’re trying to plug a lot of holes like a lot of people are. I’m not sure if that number is bigger than in years past. I think it possibly just has to do with the addition of the scholarships or they’re just trying to plug some holes.
Coach mentioned depth a few times. He knows he’s going to be tested with the CAA schedule, whereas in years past you had games that you could put down on the ledger as likely wins. I don’t feel like going into this year he sees any of those, at least right away. But they did graduate a large class, so I think that’s why they’re brining in a large group of players.
Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
He did mention the other day that they’re still looking to try to maybe get two more offensive linemen, one defensive lineman and then maybe another running back recruit. So I think we may see them add some more people. He didn’t say that they’re going to necessarily add new people, but those are positions that they’re on the lookout for.
What other particular holes were the Great Danes looking to fill with this year’s class?
The most troublesome spot is linebacker. They graduated four linebackers that played a lot last year, and I know that was a big hole. Also, they graduated one of the best running backs in school history in Ryan Kirchner and a couple offensive linemen. So they have a lot of places that they can plug. I think linebacker is the biggest in terms of just looking at who graduated since they had four guys leaving. I think that is probably the biggest spot that the coaching staff was focused on.
How significant of a role did UAlbany’s move to CAA Football play in this year’s recruiting process?
I think it played a big role. This program is just a year removed from its first FCS postseason bid, so people see the program as one that’s on the upswing. Moving to the CAA is just another step in that process. They want to be able to be at the best level that they can be. That is shown by the commitment to the new stadium.
And as Coach Ford said on Signing Day, the coaching staff was able to talk to a lot of players that they may not have been able to in the past. I think some of that is what the athletic department is putting into the program and some of that is because of the CAA.
What has the general consensus been in and around the Great Danes community about the program’s conference move?
I think everyone is pretty excited, especially on campus. There’s no real big-time college football around here. Syracuse is off to our west and Army is down south. But those are significant drives, and those are really the only FBS programs around.
UAlbany taking this next step up to one of the top leagues in the FCS is exciting, especially for people in and around the program. People keep seeing this field that’s being built, and I know just by following the message board that fans are excited for a lot of these CAA opponents to come to town. They think it’s going to be a big deal around here.
If a conference like CAA Football is going to lose two teams and replace them with two others, both UAlbany and Stony Brook are very quality additions. Would you speak to that?
I think the natural rivalry that those two schools have is big. I saw one of the former UAlbany players who just graduated this past year, and he said he’s already looking to going to that season finale down in Stony Brook. Those two teams played in the FCS Playoffs a couple years ago, and they’re both in the SUNY (State University of New York) system, so they do have a natural rivalry. Also, many UAlbany students come from down in the Long Island area, so it really does shape up to be a natural rivalry between the two programs.
At first glance, how do you think UAlbany’s class stacks up to others around CAA Football?
I think it’s kind of a wait-and-feel kind of process. I think UAlbany has some talented guys for sure, but I’d also say they may be playing a bit of catch up to those established CAA programs like a Delaware, Maine or New Hampshire. When it came to the guys who did sign, the coaches were saying that they were also looked at by some of these other conference schools.
So, they’re probably trying to play a little bit of catch-up, and I think as these next few years go along they’ll be able to get their footing at this level. The class as a whole is probably behind some of the established programs, but they certainly feel like they have some pretty good players coming in.
The depth of the class is also a factor because UAlbany increased its scholarships by 19, so they may have more to play with. They may have gotten a guy who they’re not that high on now, but the guy may come in and make a lot of impact. That may happen when you’ve got more scholarship money to offer to more guys.
How big of a draw was UAlbany’s new $18 million stadium to this year’s signees?
I don’t think it can be understated. Coach Ford has told us media guys this many times that they used to bring a recruit on campus and the last thing they would show him is the stadium. They would show him the weight room and other facilities and talk to him about other things because the stadium they were playing in was the same stadium that the program started with in the 1970s. There have been a few cosmetic changes, but basically the field they had been playing on was the same one Coach Ford had started with when coaching a club team in 1970.
Now it’s the first thing that they show recruits. I was just over there the other day for the Signing Day event, and the stadium looks incredible. I know they’re really pushing that now to recruits. It’s a huge draw, and I’m sure it was key to getting a couple of these guys to sign.
Who in this year’s signing class stands out to you?
The coaching staff did mention a couple guys. They do like both of the quarterbacks that they brought in. Kyle Downer from Virginia and Shane Sweeney from here in New York. They feel both of those guys will be pretty good players. I know Kyle was recruited by a few other schools like Maine and VMI. He may redshirt next year because they do have a starting quarterback coming back in Will Fiacchi. There’s a few other guys like one of the linebackers, Marcel Ngachie, who turned down some FBS programs that were initially on them.
And something that may change with the program as it moves into the CAA is that Coach Ford doesn’t typically play true freshmen. He either redshirts guys who he thinks will be significant impact players or they don’t and just wait their turn behind other guys. That may change now as you get more talented players coming in with the scholarships. That’s something that Coach Ford mentioned the other day: That he may end up playing some more freshmen earlier as we get some more talented guys in there, which is not something he’s done often in the past. I don’t know if any of these guys will be immediate impact players this season, but they hope that they’ll have an impact down the road.
Five players, including a pair of transfers from UMass and Utah, are already on campus. What kind of advantage will this early enrollment afford them?
It’s big because Coach Ford mentioned that you get freshmen on campus and they’re somewhat out of their environment after being in high school. But with these guys having already been up here, it allows them to get accustomed to the weight room, being on campus and college life. The transfers are obviously a little more accustomed to that. It just puts them ahead of the game, and I know Coach Ford likes to do that since they have a chance to go ahead and get acclimated to the program, and the staff can begin setting expectations for what they want out of them. Also, they can get their adjustments out of the way in terms of if there’s any homesickness, and by the time the season rolls around they can really start gearing up for practice.
This year’s signees hailed from seven different states. Is this kind of pull typical for the program?
It is. I think they’ve increased the number. The majority are from New York, New Jersey and Florida. That’s 16 of the 21. And Coach Ford has called that their “tier one.”
They do have an interesting connection to Florida, as running backs coach Jamie Casullo’s brother actually coaches down there at Saint Thomas Aquinas, which is a huge program in Florida. So they kind of have a little pipeline built in down there. They’ve been bringing in Florida kids the last few years and obviously there’s a lot of talent to be had down there.
As I said, Coach Ford has called this their tier one. New York and New Jersey are no-brainers because they’re right there, and with Florida they’ve been pipelining that area. They’ve also typically looked at Ohio, but they didn’t bring in any guys from there this year. And I think they’re starting to carve out further down south. What will help is being in the CAA and in that conference footprint. So if the team goes down for a road game at James Madison or even farther north of that to say Villanova, the name kind of gets out about the program. I think you’ll begin seeing them moving further south and their recruiting base widen.
How did the program do in terms of local talent? Is that something they tend to focus on?
It is to an extent. Coach Ford obviously knows that you’ve got to get the talented guys who are here closer to home. He mentioned the other day that there aren’t too many other schools that are coming to recruit in their territory up here, or at least he hasn’t seen many doing so in the last few years.
They’re trying to keep the home talent here and then also work outwards. But they did bring in two local recruits: Ryan Griffin from nearby Latham, N.Y., and J.P. McCauley from up in Queensbury. So they’ve got two guys signed there, and they’re heavily recruiting guys locally that are going to be with the team but didn’t sign NLIs.
And if you actually take a look at the record books, a number of running backs, including three of the best running backs in school history, have been local products.
CAA Football fans may not be familiar with UAlbany given that this will be the program’s first year in the league…
Is there anything in particular that we should know about the program?
I think probably just that it all starts with Coach Ford. He started this program and stayed here. You don’t often see that anymore. He started this program as a club team in 1970. He has more than 250 wins and those are big numbers in football. They’re going to be playing this season on Bob Ford Field, which is kind of weird to think about since he’ll be the coach.
So this program really begins and ends with him. He’s really built it from the ground up as a club team starting in 1970, and now here they are offering more than 50 scholarships in 2013.
This program also expects to do well and they’ve done really well in the NEC these last few years. There may be some growing pains these next few years with this move to the CAA, but I know they intend to compete and eventually try to win a league championship.
Can you talk a little bit about the fan base? I know you’ve mentioned that there aren’t a ton of other bigger college programs in the area.
I think it’s growing. They do get pretty good crowds – I’d say between 4,000 and 5,000 – which is a lot for their old stadium. This new stadium will hold about 8,500 from what I’m told, so I think they’re trying to build steam. There are a few Division III schools around here, but local college football isn’t that big of a deal.
It’s also hard for UAlbany because the past few years they have taken these games where they play at a Montana, for example, so they’ll start with their first three games on the road. So, by the time they’re ready to open at home, people have almost forgotten about the preseason hype.
So, as they move into this league, I would expect the crowds to grow and the Capital District to embrace this team as they ascend the ranks, as you will, with this move to CAA Football. There is a lot of buzz about that and this new stadium, which I’m sure will attract some new fans.
What should we anticipate from the Great Danes in 2013?
I think that’s really the big question this year. They had a great team last year and finished as co-champions in the NEC to almost return to the postseason. I think they’ve got a strong program and they should have a good program. How good compared to some of these other teams around the league, I’m not sure. Will they have the same level of success they’ve had the last few years in the NEC? – Probably not right away. But I think they’ll be competitive in every game. Now, could they lose three, four, five games in the CAA? – Of course. But I know that every game will be competitive and that if they’re losing games, no one will be trying harder to turn things around in a hurry than Coach Ford.
Finally, there’s been a recent shuffle in the coaching staff up there. Can you speak to that?
They did release that big news today [Friday] that Mike Simpson, their defensive coordinator who’s been there for 27 years, is stepping down from that position but will still be with the team as the linebackers coach. So they’re going to elevate Drew Christ from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator, which is an interesting move because Mike Simpson has been there for nearly 30 years and Christ is a young, up-and-coming guy. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that at this point, but it’s certainly an interesting move because you have a guy who’s been with this program forever and taking a smaller position now. That might be something to note moving forward.
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