NEW BRITAIN - As he headed off to the locker room after another afternoon practice, J'Von Brown made it clear, he was tired of hitting the same people - in scrimmages and in practice.
“I’m really excited,” Central Connecticut State’s senior offensive lineman said. “I want to go hit someone else.”
The feeling was a mutual one for many of Brown’s teammates. But the Blue Devils won’t have to wait long as they get set for the season opener Saturday night at Fordham. Things will just be a little bit different on the field and on the sideline for a football team that fell one game short of winning its second consecutive Northeast Conference title last year.
Gone are head coach Pete Rossomando and quarterback Jacob Dolegala. The former is now the offensive line coach at Rutgers, the latter is now trying to make an NFL roster with the Cincinnati Bengals. In steps Ryan McCarthy, the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator the past four seasons, as the interim head coach and Aaron Winchester, a graduate transfer from Georgia State, as quarterback.
This will be a first for both. McCarthy has yet to be a head coach at the collegiate level. Winchester has yet to be a full-time starter. CCSU also has two new coordinators with offensive line coach Jeff Ambrosie promoted to McCarthy’s old spot and inside linebackers coach Ron DiGravio taking over for Andrew Christ, who is now the defensive quality control coach at Ohio State.
The preseason polls have the Blue Devils finishing third in the NEC behind last season’s co-champions Duquesne and Sacred Heart, partly due to all the new pieces. But the returning players are more than comfortable with the coaches in place as they seek out their third straight winning season, after going 8-4 in 2017 and 6-5 in 2018.
“I think continuity was important to a lot of the players,” McCarthy said. “They wanted someone who was familiar with them and the program and continue to lead it in the right direction.”
On Saturday, CCSU is hoping it will begin the McCarthy era in the right direction. The Blue Devils and Rams played last season with CCSU coming away with 24-13 win. Fordham finished that year just 2-9, which included a losing streak of five games to start the season and lost another four in a row towards the end before it won its season finale. The Rams only wins came against Lehigh (43-14) and Bucknell (17-14).
Over the course of those 11 games, Fordham averaged just 15.8 points per game, while allowing 28.2, and often lacked the ability to make a big play. But the Blue Devils are expecting a much better team this time around.
“[They have] a new coaching staff,” said senior safety Tajik Bagley, who recorded 50 tackles, an interception and nine pass breakups to earn First-Team All-NEC honors in 2018. Bagley is a preseason pick to earn an all-conference selection again this season. “They have a new offensive coordinator, so we have to be ready to tricks, all kind of things. We can’t go in there thinking everything should go how it’s supposed to [for us]. They have new beliefs. We have to trust ourselves and just play ball.”
Tim DeMorat returns as the Rams starting signal caller. As a freshman last season, DeMorat completed 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,633 yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with six interceptions in 10 games.
Outside of that, there isn’t much experience for Fordham on the offensive side of the ball. Zach Davis is listed as the starting tailback, but only carried the ball 26 times for 94 yards last year. Hamze El-Zaya, Dequece Carter and Joe Ferraro are listed as DeMorat’s starting trio of receivers. Ferraro is the team’s leading returner in receiving. His numbers, however, were only 13 catches for 144 yards and a score.
But that should only work in CCSU’s favor, even with the players it has to replace.
Linebacker Kenneth Keen, safety Tymir Hinton and defensive tackle Chris Tinkham highlight some of the losses on defense. All three were key pieces and veteran presences in the locker room. Running back Drew Jean-Guillaume is no longer with the team after choosing to step away from the game due to injuries. He led the team in all-purpose yards with 1,211 (756 rushing, 360 receiving, 8 total touchdowns), while the Blue Devils’ top two receiving threats in Courtney Rush (27 catches, 567 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Jose Garcia (34, 384, 1) graduated. Along with Dolegala, the three highlight the offensive losses.
But The Blue Devils bring back five of their top seven tacklers to a defense that allowed 25.5 points per game last season. In addition to Bagley, junior defensive back DJ Exilhomme is another preseason All-NEC pick. He led the team with 74 tackles. He also added four forced fumbles, an interception and five pass break-ups. Outside linebacker Tre Jones (63 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss) is another defensive standout.
Offensively, Aaron Dawson, the team’s leading rusher (896 yards, 13 touchdowns) returns, while junior wide receiver Tyshaun James, who finished 2018 with 20 catches for 218 yards and four touchdowns, and All-NEC tight end Arthur Gilmore, who recorded 16 catches for 223 yards and four scores, will most likely be Winchester’s top targets.
The new quarterback will also be surrounded by a veteran offensive line that includes three more preseason all-conference picks in Brown, Connor Mignone and Cole Phelps.
For Winchester, who started three games and appeared in 15 more at Georgia State where he finished with 721 career passing yards, 405 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns, the offseason was important to developing the chemistry needed to make another run at a conference championship.
“The summer was crucial [for me],” Winchester said. “I got up here in May, talked to some of the guys and watched film with them and being here every day in the summer built up that connection with the receivers and the offensive line.”
It will also be important on Saturday as the Blue Devils look to take advantage of a defense that allowed 415.2 yards per game last season and 5.8 yards per play. But Fordham still has a number of quality players, including its inside linebackers Glenn Cunningham and Ryan Greenhagen. Cunningham led the Rams with 92 total tackles (20/5 for loss) and three sacks. Greenhagen finished with 65 total tackles and a team-high eight sacks.
Overall, it should lead to an interesting opening weekend for CCSU, especially once it gets the chance to hit someone else.
“They’re a very good team,” Winchester said. “Their team defense is fast laterally, from sideline to sideline. It’s going to challenge us … But as long as we control the ball and control the clock, I think we’ll be good.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org