The Slippery Rock football team isn’t sneaking up on anyone this year.
Not after reaching the NCAA Division II quarterfinals last season, and not with 6-foot-3, 235-pound quarterback Roland Rivers III.
“Going into this season, we know we have targets on our back,” said Rivers, whose team is ranked No. 10 in the American Football Coaches Association preseason poll. “It’s national championship or bust. That’s our mentality.”
Rivers has come a long way in a year. He didn’t arrive at Slippery Rock until the third day of training camp last summer after transferring from Valdosta State in Georgia. He began the season as the third-stringer before injuries forced him into action in Week 2.
“That’s a lesson everyone can learn,” Rivers said. “When it’s your time to make a play, you gotta step up and be ready.”
Rivers went on to throw for 2,721 yards and 28 touchdowns and run for 597 yards and seven touchdowns. He earned first-team All-PSAC West honors.
“I think he has all the intangibles,” Rock coach Shawn Lutz said of Rivers, who has drawn interest from NFL scouts. “He can run. He can just freaking throw the ball. The biggest thing with him will be decision-making. He has NFL potential.”
Slippery Rock ranked second in the PSAC with 458.4 yards per game last season and third with 37.2 points per game. Those numbers could go up under new offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer, a North Allegheny graduate and former All-American QB at West Virginia Wesleyan.
“We’re a true air raid offense, and we’re going to be 100 miles per hour, so our quarterback has got to think pretty quick,” Lutz said. “If we get to 80-100 plays a game, we’ll try to do it if we can.”
Rivers will be throwing to a deep and talented receiving corps. Juniors Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn Jr. (Woodland Hills) combined for 102 catches, 1,586 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Rivers calls Litwin “just a trustworthy guy,” and said Wynn “has taken his game to another level with his explosiveness.”
Others expected to make an impact include Seton Hill junior transfer Cinque Sweeting, who led the Griffins with 672 rushing yards last season, 6-4 Tiffin junior transfer Victor Talley and Lincoln senior transfer Reggie Mays Jr.
The biggest challenge on offense will be replacing All-American running back Wes Hills, who ran for 1,714 yards and is competing for a roster spot with the Arizona Cardinals.
“You can’t just bring in another Wes Hills, but we’ve got a great stable of running backs,” Rivers said.
That stable features Rutgers transfer Charles Snorweah, junior college transfer DeSean Dinkins and junior Braden Fochtman. The most intriguing option could be Snorweah, who ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ spring game but transferred to Slippery Rock so he could get more playing time.
“What Charlie has is every time you give him the ball, you have to hold your breath because he’s a breakaway guy,” Lutz said. “He was the fastest guy on Rutgers. He can take it 80 yards. He’s a difference-maker. We just haven’t seen enough of him.”
Defensively, The Rock bring back 10 starters, including a pair of first-team all-conference players: senior linebacker Brad Zaffram and sophomore defensive tackle Jeff Marx.
Slippery Rock received six of eight first-place votes in the PSAC preseason poll — IUP and Cal (Pa.) received the others — so The Rock has the attention of the rest of the league, too. But Lutz said his team is ready to manage the expectations.
“We have to put it all together,” Lutz said. “I like where we’re at. I think we’re one of the powerhouses of Division II, but we haven’t done anything this year. We have to start over.”