The sun was shining bright at Frank Cignetti Field this week, but no amount of blazing rays could top the heated atmosphere of Crimson Hawks football.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, aiming to capture its second Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title in three years, was merely at practice in advance of its Sept. 6 opener – but to say the team’s intensity level has already skyrocketed would be an understatement.
Expectations are understandably high for coach Curt Cignetti and his squad, and despite some question marks at a few positions, it’s clear the Crimson Hawks are hungry for some action.
So hungry that Cignetti had to work his magic in a speech Tuesday after some contact in drills resulted in a brief scuffle among players.
At quarterback, perhaps the most premier position in the sport, IUP has yet to name a winner of the three-way competition among Chase Haslett (graduate), Logan Weaver (sophomore, hospitality management) and Eddie Stockett (freshman, Eberly College of Business).
If the order in which the signal-callers take snaps at practice is any indication – and it probably isn’t, considering how much rotation takes place – Haslett would appear to be on track to start for the school his dad, Jim Haslett of the Washington Redskins, graduated from in 1978.
Weaver, however, still has the most experience in Cignetti’s offense and has been getting plenty of work with the first-team unit.
No matter who gets the call to be under center for IUP, the team can still move forward with confidence knowing that it may very well have the best depth of any team from the Cignetti era.
Granted, the Crimson Hawks’ deep lineup largely consists of unproven recruits; but if even a handful of the program’s new pieces contribute in 2014, the PSAC could once again be in for a treat – if, of course, going up against play-makers and mismatches were a treat.
Walt Pegues (freshman, communications media) is among the young additions who could be in for a big role this season.
A frequent target out of the backfield who figures to see time at both running back and wide receiver, he’s also taken reps on special teams as a punt returner.
Fellow freshman Tristan Davis (College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics) has also been a regular contributor at various roles in practice, while another first-year recruit, Chambersburg’s Jordan Brown (criminology), has been active at times.
Throw in University of Tennessee at Martin transfer Donte Harrell (freshman, accounting), running backs Luigi Lista-Brinza (freshman, kinesiology health and sport science), Shannon Jackson (freshman, College of Education and Education Technology) and walk-on Jared DeSensi (junior, kinesiology health and sport science); as well as big-bodied receivers Swahneek Brown (freshman, management) and Miles Williamson (freshman, Eberly College of Business), and there’s more than a few new faces to keep an eye on.
Don’t forget that returning players like running back Izzy Green (sophomore, computer science) and wide receiver Drew Carswell (senior, criminology) are still centerpieces of the team’s plans.
And to think we have yet to touch on the team’s strong suit: defense.
It’d be easy to just assume IUP’s “D” will once again rank among the best in Division II, but the team has shown no signs of slowing down in the practices leading up to the Crimson Hawks’ opening game against St. Augustine’s University.
Steve Franco (sophomore, marketing) just looks the part at the backend of the secondary despite only converting from quarterback to safety this year.
Opposite him, there isn’t as much certainty – but just as is the case on offense, there is no shortage of young options who could make an impact.
Of course, one of the biggest story lines on the defensive side of the ball is the return of linebacker Alex Berdahl (senior, marketing), who missed most of last season with an injury. His hard-nosed approach in the middle of the unit figures to be more obvious once the games get underway, but the athleticism of teammates like Dorian Lane (senior, accounting) is already in full display at practice.
The return of Berdahl’s presence, coupled with a physical D-line that’s headed by pass rusher Shane Meisner (senior, criminology), gives the defense confidence heading into the 2014 season.
The unit’s recent reputation for success might have been a reason for IUP’s appearance in D2Football.com’s top 25 national preseason poll Wednesday.
Comparing his physical style of play to that of fellow starting cornerback Jerell McFadden (senior, physical education) and crediting his familiarity with the defense to playing time he got as a true freshman, Jay Watkins (sophomore, health and physical education) epitomized the hype surrounding IUP by setting high standards for both himself and the team as a whole.
“The defense, we want to hold teams to at least under 10 points a game,” he said.
“I think our team has all the pieces necessary to go win a championship.”
Doing as Watkins said – winning a championship – takes a lot more than confidence and promising practice sessions.
Execution is crucial, and Cignetti will be the first to admit this come Saturdays.
But, if nothing else, one thing should be very clear. The Crimson Hawks are coming in hot, fired up and ready to give the rest of the nation a run for its money.