Cal U coach Kellar enters season with confidence
During PSAC media day Aug. 11 at Slippery Rock, California University head coach Mike Kellar cast his first-place vote for his own team.
He said he wanted to show his players that he's confident in their on-field ability and the talent they have.
And why not?
The Vulcans return six starters on offense, including four on the offensive line, four starters on defense as well as five players who played key roles in their first year of defensive coordinator Mike Lopez's 3-3-5 scheme.
“Every coach is enthusiastic heading into the season, if not, you're not a very good football team,” Kellar said. “A lot of guys returned in great physical shape and once we get into practicing, they're going to be in even better shape.
“They put in the work during the offseason and it shows me that they're coming into this year focused and ready to go.”
Last season, the Vulcans had quarterback questions as Cody Schroeder and Wake Forest transfer James Harris split starts throughout the year.
Now Schroeder is gone having transferred to Urbana (Ohio) and Harris is entrenched as the starter.
“James stayed here at school all summer and relearned the offense,” Kellar said of the 6-foot-2 junior. “It makes it easier as a coach to push the envelope a little bit. In his first year he was a little apprehensive, but now I don't think that's the case. He'll be able to get all the first-team reps in practice.”
Harris said the big factor will be his maturity level.
“I've come into my own as a quarterback now,” Harris said. “I'm thinking faster and making up my mind quicker. I was able to absorb the offense over the summer and now I'm comfortable using what I know.”
Of course, one thing that is going to help Harris is the fact that nearly the entire offensive line returns.
“They don't get a lot of credit for the things they do,” Harris said of his linemen. “They've matured a lot as well, which is scary, because they were really good all last season.”
Kellar has seen a big change in Harris between last season and the start of this year.
“He's so much more confident,” Kellar said of his signal caller. “The game has really slowed down for him and he understands what we want to do offensively. He's seen all the teams in conference now and that will definitely help him. He knows what teams will try to do when they see us.
“Having that line back is really going to help him.”
Senior center Jack Abercrombie has started 22 straight games for the Vulcans and is a preseason All-American candidate. Junior guard Jeremy Seaman and tackle Tyler Peerson return on the right side of the line. On the left side of Abercrombie will be senior Mike Price, who started 10 games last year at guard and tackle.
He'll be joined by either 6–7 tackle Shareef Clinton, a sophomore, or Zach Morehead.
Running back Jeff Knox Jr. has been moved to a starter at linebacker, so Ringgold graduate Derrick Fiore, a junior who played in all 11 games last season, will see time as well as Nick Grissom, a sophomore. Both rushed for nearly 400 yards last season.
Kellar said that while the team doesn't have a preseason all-American returning at receiver for the first time in recent years, his team is deep at the position.
Kowan Scott returns after starting seven games last season and Garry Brown, a 6–1 sophomore, appeared in 10 games and caught two touchdowns.
“We also have Mark Thomas; he transferred in from Kansas,” Kellar said. “I expect him to play an important role for us on the outside.”
Former cornerback and return specialist Terrell Roberson and redshirt freshman John Franklin III will also move in and see time in the backfield.
The Vulcans lost seven starters from a defense that finished in the top 10 in NCAA Division II in both scoring defense and passing defense.
All three safeties, including All-American Dewey McDonald, who was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent, will need to be replaced.
Moving the hard-hitting Knox to linebacker will help as he'll join with returning junior Branko Busick, who finished with 45 tackles last season. Belle Vernon Area graduate Spencer Lynn looks to return to the starting lineup after leading the team in special teams tackles last season.
“Spencer's a hard-nosed kid that loves to hit,” Kellar said of the former Leopard. “He hit some tough luck with injuries and an illness after starting as a redshirt freshman. Last season, he had a whole new defense to learn. Now, though, he's caught up and I expect him to make an impact and see a lot of time defensively for us.”
Anthony McPoyle, a 300-pounder, is the lone starter returning on the defensive line. But Michigan transfer Kenny Wilkins, a junior, is expected to make an immediate impact. Sophomore Jawan Turner played in 10 games as a freshman last season.
Kellar said a lot of playing time will be up for grabs for a number of lineman during practice.
Junior Chaz Veal will get increased time at safety after playing in every game the last two seasons. Sophomore Jordan Bowman started three games as a freshman last fall. Junior James Williamson, a transfer from West Virginia Wesleyan, will also be counted on after having a breakout spring session.
Both starting cornerbacks return with seniors Cory Ford and Tyrone Taylor manning the outside. Sophomore Josh Page also saw significant playing time and is coming off a good spring performance.
Leading the team in scoring each of the past two seasons, senior kicker Cody Nuzzo returns to handle the kicking duties for the Vulcans. He joins with junior Andrew Cerett to give the Vulcans arguably the most reliable specialists in the PSAC. Cerett has averaged over 42.5 yards per punt and is a two-time All-PSAC West selection.
“Overall, I can say that we won't have any easy weeks,” Kellar said of his team's schedule. “We all recruit the same areas and we divide those recruits pretty evenly among the teams. I expect our team to compete each week, no matter who we play. I think it's all up for grabs in the (PSAC) West.
“We just have to worry about who we have in front of us each week.”
The Vulcans open the season Sept. 6 at home against Virginia State.
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2667.