KUTZTOWN – The Kutztown University football team has put itself in contention for a division title the last three years. Returning 16 starters, expectations remain high for the 2018 Golden Bears. KU won five of its final six games last year and looks to its returning talent to pick up where the team left off.
Kutztown scored nearly 40 points per game last year on its way to an 8-3 record and 5-2 in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Eastern Division for a third-place finish. While the offense posted numbers among the program’s best in its 100+ year history, the Golden Bear defense held teams to less than 20 points per game for the first time since 2001.
While Kutztown was able to pull out some close wins – five-point win at Mercyhurst and a fourth-down stop inside the 5-yardline to defeat Slippery Rock by eight in the season finale – KU can also look at two of its three losses as ‘ones that got away’. Kutztown lost in the final minute against both Assumption and
West Chester, both of whom made the NCAA Tournament.
Fifth-year head coach Jim Clements certainly grasps what ‘could have been’ had a few plays gone the Golden Bears’ way, but also knows an eight-win season is one his program can build off while returning an experienced senior class and starting lineup.
“There are plays in each of those games we wish we could get back,” Clements said. “Slippery Rock was a great win for us to end the year and I feel we are heading into this season with some momentum. We’ll need to try and replicate some of the things we did well last year, and improve on the ones that got away.”
Clements’ program took down three PSAC West foes for the first time in his tenure last year.
Turning the page to 2018, Kutztown returns eight starters on both offense and defense with equally-high expectations on itself. While returning 16 starters gives Clements a sense of stability heading into the season, the uncertainty of player health and avoiding injuries will be vital to KU’s success. The depth that KU brings into preseason camp is not an experienced one, so Clements is looking to manage his team accordingly throughout the early part of the season to keep the big-picture goal within grasp.
A uniqueness has entered the 2018 schedule for the Golden Bears. With Cheyney University leaving the PSAC, Kutztown will have a bye week in Cheyney’s place – the first week of divisional play. KU will get to play its three non-conference teams, two of whom will be nationally-ranked, take a week off from play and prepare for a tough Bloomsburg University squad to open its PSAC East schedule.
“I think it’s a good spot for us – probably the best spot in the league,” Clements noted on KU’s Week 4 bye. “That bye week will break up our season. We’ll compete in our three non-conference games to see where we’re at as a program, reevaluate and reload at the break at Week 4, get healthy and head into Bloomsburg ready to make that six-game run through the division.”
Just as confident as Kutztown should feel in its large number of returning starters, the top contenders in the PSAC East find themselves in very similar waters. Bloomsburg returns a large group and will be poised for improvement. Defending PSAC East champ West Chester loses some key players on both sides of the ball, but still returns a significant majority. Shippensburg, who won a division-high 10 games last year, replaces its senior quarterback, but returns one of the strongest groups in the PSAC.
West Chester earned 6-of-7 first-place votes and is the preseason favorite to win the PSAC East. Shippensburg was voted second and Kutztown was picked third with the final first-place vote. Bloomsburg was picked fourth, East Stroudsburg was fifth, Millersville was sixth and Lock Haven was seventh. Notably, Shepherd University will be joining the PSAC in 2019 and will presumably be added to the PSAC East slate.
QUARTERBACK – Collin DiGalbo returns as a redshirt-junior and a two-year starting All-PSAC quarterback. Backing up his 2016 Freshman of the Year credentials, DiGalbo put up improved numbers in 2017, despite missing games late in the season due to injury. He went 6-3 as a starter last year and is 12-4 in his career as KU’s starting quarterback.
He passed for 1,976 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, adding 265 yards and four TDs on the ground. He ran for the second-most yards among PSAC quarterbacks and is on pace to run for more than 1,000 in his career. Through 20 career games, DiGalbo ranks on KU’s career leaderboards in career passing yards (3,619, 6th in KU history), touchdowns (29, 6th), completions (309, 7th) and pass attempts (496, 11th).
Eric Nickel saw time in his first year on the field last year and Kendall Elliott comes off a redshirt year to backup DiGalbo.
RUNNING BACK – Craig Reynolds established himself as one of the best all-around backs in the country last year. In addition to rushing, he was KU’s leading receiver and led the country in all-purpose yards and touchdowns through the first three weeks of the season; however, Reynolds struggled down the stretch with injuries, limiting his carries and ultimately forcing him to miss the final two games of the season.
He enters his senior season as a two-time All-PSAC and All-Region running back, who has also been a threat in punt and kick returns.
In 30 career games, Reynolds is on the brink of being the 13th player in school history to run for 2,000 yards. Even more of a representation of Reynolds’ value on the field, he ranks sixth in school history with 3,602 all-purpose yards with the chance of cracking the top-two. He ranks on 11 career leaderboards at KU, in addition to his single-game records for rushing and all-purpose yards.
Abdul-Hassan Neblett saw significant time as a sophomore last year and should complement Reynolds as KU’s 1-2 punch. Neblett totaled more than 500 all-purpose yards, contributing in both the passing game and special teams. KU’s honoree for Most Improved Player in the spring, look for Neblett to continue his progression this season.
Nate Jones and Austyn Borre redshirted last season and should battle for KU’s No. 3 back that has played a significant role in previous years.
WIDE RECEIVER – Kutztown returns three senior wide receivers and its entire receiving core. KU entered last year with uncertainty at the position with very little collegiate catches and experience on the roster, but saw substantial performances and leaders emerge. Nine players had 10+ catches last year, eight of whom return this season.
Conor Sullivan not only leads the wide receiver group, but has become one of the top leaders on the team. Coach Clements touts Sullivan as a ‘tough competitor who grinds and gives you everything he has on every snap’. Sullivan led the team with 37 catches for 470 yards and seven touchdowns and is also a strong run-blocker.
Fellow senior Josh Lee played his first season at KU last year and showed an abundance of potential. He had 27 catches with five touchdowns and has built himself into one of the most athletic players on the team. He finished last year strong and with good health, could have a breakout year.
Ryan Hubley rounds out the senior trio of receivers. He is coming off a redshirt year due to injury and enters his final year on the field. He has made a significant impact as KU’s best special teams player who plays physical and with 100 percent effort. As Hubley gets back into game shape, KU gains an additional weapon on the outside.
Amadou Barry had a strong freshman season with 400+ receiving yards on 26 catches. He consistently got better as he gained experience through his true freshman year and showed mental toughness early on. Barry gave KU a steady option as a freshman and can blossom into one of KU’s top targets as a sophomore. Fellow sophomore Mason McElroy and redshirt-junior Diego Torres add depth to the position group, as well as a strong freshman contingent coming to camp, who will all challenge for time.
TIGHT END – Kutztown graduates an all-conference tight end, but returns a promising pass-catching tight end. Jack Pilkerton is a redshirt-junior who posted 20 catches for 309 yards and three touchdowns in his first year at KU, including a 135-yard performance in the season-finale against Slippery Rock. Clements looks at Pilkerton as a good of a route-runner as KU’s wide receivers, and with increased blocking ability, feels Pilkerton can be one of the best in the PSAC.
OFFENSIVE LINE – 3-of-5 starters return on the offensive line, but the group as a whole is still very young in experience and depth. Those three starters got their first taste of starting time last year, some of them as freshmen. The positive – this group played significant football last year and has the potential to be KU’s starting offensive line the next two years. A cause for concern – outside of KU’s expected starting five, very few collegiate games have been played among KU’s remaining linemen, who have dwindled in numbers after graduating talented seniors in previous classes.
As a group, Kutztown’s offensive line paved the way for the fifth-ranked offense in the PSAC at 439 yards per game, but returns just seven linemen from a year ago.
On the left side, junior Justin Tindull returns at left tackle. He is KU’s most athletic lineman who started all 11 games last year and has the chance to be one of the better tackles in the conference. KU will likely have a redshirt-freshman at left guard this year. Luke Lozowicki and Brian Lloyd should contend for starting time.
Junior Jayson Williams started for the first time last year at left guard and will compete at guard and center for KU.
On the right side, Matt Cella enters his junior season after earning All-PSAC honors last year. He is one of KU’s top returning lineman and after starting the better part of the last two years, has established himself at right guard. Jake Adams will be looked upon to replace KU’s graduating all-conference right tackle. Adams has battled injuries early on in his career, but as a sophomore, is getting more athletic and is building for a potential move from guard to tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINE – While Kutztown’s defense returns eight starters, the defensive line will be the thinnest position group regarding depth. KU graduated both defensive ends and outside of its two tackles, few players have the experience and size to play outside.
The stability up front comes from KU’s two defensive tackles. Chris Kimbiz and Eric Miller are returning starters with the most experience and will be looked to for leadership roles on the line. Kimbiz got into the backfield with success last year with 13 tackles-for-loss, 10th in the PSAC, with 4.5 sacks. He enters his senior year with 25 games under his belt. Miller started as a freshman last year and will look for another year of progression as a starter.
Adam Krauter saw significant time and spot starts at defensive end last year. He enters his senior year with 32 games played, the most on the defensive line this year, with 35 career tackles and 4.5 tackles-for-loss. With additional playing time, Krauter could cap his time as a Golden Bear with career numbers as a senior.
Behind those three, Kutztown’s other options have seen limited snaps. Nick Vasger is a sophomore end who saw time last year. Christian Greene comes off an injury as a tackle. Ryan Meyers will be looked to for an increased role after seeing limited time as a freshman, and Togba Porte II and AJ Akins both come off a redshirt.
LINEBACKER – Tajier Jefferson is a returning team captain and enters his senior season at KU. He has proven to be one of the best and toughest linebackers in the conference and earned his first All-Region honor last year. The Team MVP last year, Jefferson increased his production to the tune of 86 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss and four forced fumbles. He is 15th in school history with 236 career tackles as another 80+ tackle season would make him the fourth Golden Bear to reach 300 tackles and the first since 1995.
In KU’s two-linebacker system, one of the biggest starting battles defensively will be for the second linebacker spot. Luke Snyder started as a sophomore last year and earned All-PSAC honors. He had 44 tackles in eight games with 5.5 tackles-for-loss, giving KU another physical option up front. TwyNique Chisholm-Wilkerson also enters his junior year and came on strong late in the season and throughout the spring. Last year was his first on the field at KU. He had 28 tackles, 6.5 for loss and three sacks, and could also be utilized at KU’s rover position.
Health will be pivotal at this position as the three are KU’s only linebackers with significant collegiate playing time.
CORNERBACK – Ahkee Cox-Cowan had a breakout season as a sophomore last year. He has been KU’s top cornerback each of his first two years and is coming off a school-record 17 pass breakups and 20 passes defended (BO+INT). He went on to earn All-PSAC First Team and All-Region Second Team honors and also tallied a career-high 56 tackles. He has six career interceptions and is the frontrunner for KU’s starting boundary corner.
Jhaloni Johnson and Nyiem Nevarez will contend for starting time at field corner. Johnson, a senior, was KU’s starter all last season with 23 tackles and four breakups. Also a school-record sprinter with the track & field team, Johnson’s quickness is one of his biggest assets. Nevarez, a junior, gained playing time and improved significantly as the season went on last year. He had 21 tackles and also served as one of KU’s top kick returners, highlighted by a 99-yard game-opening touchdown vs. Shippensburg.
Tyshyn Harmon will add depth to the group and brings an athletic presence who can also contribute in nickel packages and kick returns.
SAFETY – The leader in the back will be senior Jake Perry. Perry is a returning all-conference safety who enters his senior season and has started the last two years. He had 52 tackles for the second-straight year last year and rates 11th in school history with 10 career interceptions.
Shawn Turber-Ortiz started as a freshman last year and was one of KU’s most consistent defenders. He stepped up for 62 tackles and six interceptions, eighth in KU single-season history. Rotating in for a three-man safety group will be sophomore Nick Palmer. Palmer was KU’s best nickel corner last year and moves to safety as one of the teams’ most athletic players.
Kutztown’s rover position has played one of the more significant roles on the defense in past years. Having graduated its senior all-conference player at the position, Clements expects great competition for starting time at rover throughout the season.
Connor Maxwell played the whole season last year and enters his junior year. Chris Thomas got solid experience as a freshman and brings an athletic presence who should compete for time. Redshirt-freshman Chase Stephensen also has the potential to work his way into the mix at rover.
SPECIAL TEAMS – Kutztown returns one of the best punters in the league. Dean Krcic earned All-PSAC and All-Region honors as a freshman last year. He had a punting average of 42.3 yards, third in the PSAC, 10th in Division II and second in school history. He had 17 punts downed inside the 20-yardline with 12 punts of 50+ yards, including a long of 62.
Krcic can also be used in long field goal attempts.
Alec Rosenfeld enters his senior year as Kutztown’s starting kicker. Rosenfeld has proven that when healthy, he can be one of the most consistent kickers in the league and one of the best in school history. He made all 51 of his PAT’s last year and ranks first in KU history in career PAT’s made (142), third in field goals made (23), fifth in field goals attempted (32) and second in field goal percentage (71.9).
Kutztown will replace its four-year starting long-snapper from last year, and will work through camp to find top candidates.
On kick returns, Kutztown continues to utilize its three-man approach and returns all three leaders from last season. Harmon averaged nearly 30 yards per return, Neblett brings one of the faster skillsets to kick returns and Nevarez made headlines with a kick-return touchdown to open Homecoming vs. Shippensburg last year.
Reynolds has been KU’s top punt returner during his career and will continue to be as a senior. He returned his first punt for a touchdown last year, at home vs. Millersville.
UP NEXT – Kutztown opens its season on Saturday, Sept. 1, at nationally-ranked Assumption, whom KU has yet to beat the last three years. The home-opener is set for Saturday, Sept. 8, against California (PA) at 12:05 p.m. at University Field at Andre Reed Stadium.
Family Day is scheduled for Sept. 29 against Bloomsburg, Homecoming is Oct. 13, and Senior Day is Oct. 27.