Colgate football coach Dan Hunt lists his heroes as Tom Landry, the Dallas Cowboys’ late coach, and singer Jimmy Buffett.
Strange companions, it would appear. But not to him.
“A football coach and a life-liver,” Hunt said on the eve of spring practice last month. “What more do you want?”
Fittingly, perhaps, he oversees a team that last fall changed its attitude without changing latitude.
A team that started the season 0-3, and was down by 11 points in Week Four. A team that rallied to win that game, won nine of 14 in all (seven by a touchdown or less), captured the Patriot League championship and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals, where it fell to Sam Houston State.
It is also one that appears eager for a Buffett-like encore.
“We know what we did last year was special,” said nose tackle Alex Campbell, the Raiders’ defensive MVP in ’15, “and we know that we want to one-up it this year.”
Eighteen starters return, as do two 2014 regulars who missed last season because of injury, defensive tackle Victor Steffen and cornerback Adam Bridgeforth. Hunt has nonetheless cautioned his players that no team is the same from year to year — that the ball never bounces the same way, that health is never guaranteed and that, yes, attitudes can change.
“One of the things I’ve said to them many times is this isn’t boxing,” he said. “What I mean by that is, we don’t own a championship right now, going into next year. We don’t have any more claim to it than anyone else in the league.”
To drive that point home, he had T-shirts made up for his guys to wear in winter conditioning, each of which had a target stenciled on the back. Because every other PL team will surely be taking aim at the Raiders.
“The hardest part to me after having a great year,” Hunt said, “is hitting that reset button and realizing, ‘All right, that’s in the past. We’ve got to do it all over again.’ … Hopefully the kids that have been there and have gone through it understand that. I think they do.”
The offense remains intact. Quarterback Jake Melville, Colgate’s offensive MVP in 2015, rushed for 1,073 yards and threw for 2,552, while generating 11 touchdowns each way.
James Holland picked up 732 yards on the ground and scored 16 TDs, and as a team the Raiders ran for a PL-best 206.4 yards a game.
They also led the league in sacks, with 36, and had the top individual sacker in defensive end Pat Afriyie, with 9.5. Linebackers Kyle Diener and Chris Morgan collected 129 and 93 tackles, respectively.
Yet Campbell was the acknowledged ringleader, after finishing with 70 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
“It is strange to see a nose guard be a defensive MVP,” Hunt said, “but to be honest with you it was a pretty easy call.”
Campbell appreciated it greatly, but did in fact find it strange. For one thing, he said, his spot is “not really a position of glory.” One other thing, too.
“I feel like our whole defense was MVP,” he said.
That unit certainly found itself in one stressful situation after another, and escaped most of them. But retreat for a moment to the season’s tipping point. To Week Four, at Holy Cross. The Raiders had dropped their first three games, at Navy and at home to New Hampshire and Yale — the latter on Colgate’s homecoming weekend.
Then they fell into a 14-3 hole against the Crusaders. In the mind of a certain Jimmy Buffett devotee, it certainly appeared that the season was wasting away … in Worcester, Mass.
“I was scratching my head as much as anyone else at the end of the first quarter of that game,” Hunt said.
“It was a personal challenge to all our team,” Melville said, “to see what we were made of.”
They reeled off 28 unanswered points to win, and the following week at Cornell began their high-wire act, stopping the Big Red after it moved to a first-and-goal at the 10 in the final minute of a 28-21 game.
There was a hiccup at Princeton, but a week later the Raiders exhausted the final 4:34 to protect a 17-13 lead at Georgetown, after the Hoyas reeled off 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
The week after that, Diener batted down a two-point conversion pass on the game’s final play to preserve a 31-29 victory over Fordham. And two weeks after that, Afriyie tackled Lehigh fullback Mackenzie Crawford for a 6-yard loss on fourth down after the Mountain Hawks drove to the 5 in the closing minutes. That enabled the Raiders to escape with a 49-42 victory and clinch the PL title.
“I think if it happens enough, you start to believe,” Hunt said of his team’s clutch plays.
They closed out the regular season with a 14-10 victory over Bucknell — a game that was in doubt until safety Joe Figueroa’s late interception — then won at New Hampshire and James Madison in NCAAs. By seven and six, naturally.
Hard to imagine how they one-up that. Yet that’s the idea.
“It’s a different team,” Melville said, “but we still have the same goals and the same expectations.”
Beyond that, though, nothing remains quite the same. That’s what a certain song says, anyway.
As Hunt well knows.
RETURNERS TO WATCH
An early list of 10 ASN-affiliated returning players — not including quarterbacks and running backs — to watch in 2016:
- WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee: Earned first-team Freshman All-American honors by the FWAA, USA Today and Athlon Sports after finishing with 108 receptions for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns, becoming the second player in school history to reach 1,000 receiving yards.
- OL Dennis Lamp, Western Kentucky: Did not allow a tackle and just 11 quarterback pressures while also anchoring a line that finished the year No. 19 nationally in Sacks Allowed, with just 16 despite 554 dropbacks,
- S Kishawn McClain, North Texas: Had 110 tackles to lead the Mean Greem, including a Conference USA-leading 77 solo stops, also the most UNT defensive back since Aaron Weathers (113) in 2005.
- TE Jonnu Smith, Florida International: The school's all-time leader in receptions (136), yards (1,495) and touchdowns (14) by a tight end earned All-CUSA honorable mention despite being limited to eight games because of injury.
- WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech: Coming off a 99-catch season in which he registered 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns with seven 100-yard game.
- WR Brian Brown, Richmond: Finished third in FCS with 1,450 yards receiving, along with six touchdowns, to earn first-team All-CAA Football and third-team STATS FCS All-American.
- DB Dee Delaney, The Citadel: Earned first-team STATS FCS All-American and second-team Associated Press All-American honors after recording 46 tackles, five interceptions, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one blocked kick.
- DE Anthony Ellis, Charleston Southern: Emerged as one of the dominant defensive lineman in FCS last season led the Big South with 18 tackles for loss, and finished tied for second with 7.5 sacks.
- DE P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State: The Bearkats’ all-time leader in tackles for loss (52 career stops for 205 yards) earned first-team All-Southland Conference, second-team STATS FCS All-American and third-team Associated Press All-America honors.
- OL Corey Levin, Chattanooga: Earned the Southern Conference’s Jacobs Blocking Award for the second consecutive year after paving the way for 1,000-yard rushers Jacob Huesman and first-team all-conference running back Derrick Craine.
Above: Colgate’s Jake Melville kept defenses off balance last season, rushing for 1,000 yards and passing for 2,000 yards. (Courtesy of Colgate Athletics)
Middle: Linebacker Kyle Diener led Colgate with 129 tackles last season. (Courtesy of Colgate Athletics)