The Owls’ recent 42-7 win over the Villanova on Thursday showcased the versatility of upperclassmen, and the rise of several younger players looking to play a larger role for the Cherry and White.
“We have some guys that have played football, but we’ve lost a lot of impactful players,” coach Steve Addazio said. “We have some good young players who had a chance to come up through camp and develop, and we saw that development starting [Thursday].”
Addazio took what players were leftover from last year’s bowl-eligible team and instructed them to learn a new playbook during fall and spring training camps. After moving a couple offensive players to the defensive side and improving the younger talent, the team has restructured for a new season.
“If you’re going to be a good program, you have to have the ability for those younger guys that have played some football to step up and take the next steps,” Addazio said.
On offense, the Owls started a veteran-heavy lineup against the Wildcats for the season opener. But two underclassmen, sophomores wide receiver Deon Miller and tight end Cody Booth, proved they could see additional reps in the offensive rotation.
Booth, who appeared in five games last season, made his first career reception for 10 yards. It was a breakout performance for Miller, who caught four passes for a team-high of 74 yards, and scored his first career touchdown. Miller played in 11 games with one start in 2010 and registered a season total of six receptions for 65 total yards.
“We all have high expectations for ourselves,” Miller said, and added that he “definitely” believes that he is finding his role on the offense.
Defensively, the Owls limited the Wildcats to one rushing touchdown and only two red-zone visits throughout the game. The Cherry and White defense pressured Villanova redshirt-freshman quarterback Dustin Thomas throughout the game, as the defense generated four sacks, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Several young defensive players started for the Owls including sophomore linebacker Blaze Caponegro, defensive tackle Shahid Paulhill and cornerback Zamel Johnson. Caponegro, who had seen action in just two games in his career before Thursday, notched a career-high and team-high seven tackles.
Also, contributing off the bench were underclassmen redshirt freshman cornerback Anthony Robey, who registered three tackles, two forced fumbles, and a sack, and sophomore linebacker Olaniyi Adewole, who had three tackles and a forced fumble.
Caponegro said that the way in which players have been stepping up has given the team a confidence boost.
“We have great leaders like the older guys who have stepped up every day at practice,” Caponegro said. “It gives you something to look forward to and it kind of gives you an extra push to keep going hard because you watch how hard those guys go every play.”
Helping the Owls by converting from the offensive side of the ball to defense during training camp were senior defensive end Morkeith Brown and junior linebacker Ahkeem Smith. Brown and Smith played tight end and running back last season.
While Smith produced three tackles in his first start at his new position, Brown applied pressure by posting two total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
Brown said he enjoyed working alongside senior defensive end Adrian Robinson, a two-time All-Mid-American Conference honoree, during training camp.
“Competition is king when [Robinson] and me go at it,” Brown said. “All the time we see who can get to the quarterback first and see who can make the most plays each practice. We bring it up in the locker room.”
“[Brown] is a guy who goes hard every time,” Robinson said. “Every snap of the ball he’s always there. He’s just one of those players that you can depend on.”
The Owls’s special teams relies heavily on the prowess of junior placekicker Brandon McManus, who is expected not only to kick field goals again this year, but to also take on punting duties. McManus said during training camp that he accepts the challenge.
“I think it’s good, brings me back to the feel of my high school days,” said McManus, who kicked field goals, extra-points and punted during high school.
In the game against Villanova, McManus missed a 48-yard field goal attempt, but punted for a game-long 57 yards in one of his two attempts that averaged 55.5 yards. He also out kicked his opponent during kickoffs by averaging about 65 yards in seven kickoffs.
“I feel like it allows me to be involved in the game more and help out my team more,” McManus added about his new responsibility as a starting punter.
The Owls’ kick returner last year, James Nixon, transferred to California (Pa.) for his senior season after playing three seasons for Temple. Nixon ranked third in the MAC last season for his kick return average of 23.4 yards.
The kick returners for the Owls are currently senior wide receiver Joe Jones and junior running back Matt Brown, as each player returned a kickoff last Thursday. Matt Brown returned a kick for 23 yards, while Jones recorded a 14-yard return in the game.
Connor Showalter can be reached at email@example.com.