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Towson football excited for turnaround campaign

From left to right: Head Coach Rob Ambrose, long snapper Will Hayes, and safety Monty Fenner, attended CAA Media Day to discuss the upcoming 2017 Towson football season.

Officially, it’s a new era at Towson University. There are no players left who played in the 2013 season in which the Tigers made a run to the FCS Championship game, only a small handful of players who were redshirt freshmen. Since then, Towson had struggled through a program rebuild and are coming off their second four-win season since that special year.

But this year, despite the Tigers being picked to finished 10th out of 12 teams in the preseason CAA rankings, head coach Rob Ambrose believes this is the year they will bounce back and return to the FCS playoffs. While this year’s team will have to replace many starters from last year’s squad, they are also a bit more solidified in key positions have what was Ambrose believes to be one of the deepest and most fluid teams he’s had in a long time at Towson.

This is the first year since that title game run that Towson coming into the season settled at quarterback, with Oregon transfer Morgan Mahalak entering his second season with the team. Last year he only played in five games because of injury, but Towson won their last three games of the season when he was back under center. In only five games, Mahalak passed for 890 yards and four touchdowns with another 105 yards on the ground.

And once again, Towson had a very settled situation at running back. Shane Simpson appears to be the next great back in a long line of successful Tigers backs that include Ravens running back Terrance West and current New York Saint Darius Victor. Simpson was named the CAA Rookie of the Year in 2016 after rushing for 784 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Simpson also enters the year as a Preseason All-CAA return man after totaling 915 kick return yards with one touchdown at a 26.9 yards per return average.

Defensively, Towson may face the challenge of having to replace a lot of starters, but have plenty of returning players who have a lot of experience, including redshirt junior safety Monty Fenner, who has been an accomplished starter each of the last two seasons.

While Ambrose said he thoroughly understands, based on last year’s performance, why his team might rank so low in the preseason polls, he also knows that the opposing coaches have yet to see where the Tigers are after spring and summer practices and workouts. And the progressions they have made has set up a fall that he things can be another special one.

Head Coach Rob Ambrose on…

His and his team’s excitement for this upcoming season:

“This is the time of the year where every football player in America looks at it like their birthday or Christmas. It’s been a great year, probably one of the best offseason’s we’ve ever had. To say that our guys are excited about this fall would be a massive understatement.”

What makes it so exciting:

“We had a large graduating group last year and when those guys graduate they were 4-7. What’s left doesn’t like 4-7. What’s left doesn’t like that we haven’t been in the playoffs in three years. In 2011 we had a team meeting in January, and in that team meeting, you would have thought we were 10-2. The kids were confident, they were together, and they worked hard. Proof is in the pudding, 2011 turned great. I have not seen an offseason like that since this year. The kids are hungry, and they are together. Anytime you can get a large group of people working hard and having fun doing it good things are going to happen.”

What is different about this year’s team:

“Offensive linemen probably have the most thankless job, outside of trash men or plumbers, for them to have fun on their heels, it’s a mindset, a philosophy, and personality that every group has to have and when they do they tend to be very, very good. I haven’t seen guys have this much fun on an offensive line in at least five years.

“Right now this is one of the tightest groups I’ve had, and they are having fun. Division I football is one of the most physically and emotionally challenging things you can do and to have fun doing it when you have fun it shows good things are going to happen.”

What was gained out of spring practice that sets them up well for the fall:

“We took all these great guys who graduated and had to fill spots and find an identity as a team. We’re not there yet, but we made probably greater strides than I would have anticipated. We were beat up on defense and didn’t have a lot of guys in the spring, but as far as the reps go, we are probably deeper, healthier and stronger than we ever have been.”

The depth and fluidity of this year’s team:

“There are spots that are relatively solidified, but somebody asked me who is going to be our starting wide outs. I don’t care. That group is so talented and so deep, if you don’t want to come to work today, no problem, somebody is going to take your reps.”

The ease of having a settled quarterback situation coming into this fall as opposed to questions the past few seasons:

“Morgan (Mahalak)’s obviously talented, and he’s a very good quarterback, and he’s getting better. Ryan Stover and Tristian Harris behind him were true freshmen last year, and we weren’t breaking redshirts. Ellis (Knudson) was standing out there on an island, and God bless him, he did a hell of a job considering, but now to have Morgan a year in the program, understanding exactly what we’re trying to get done and having those two guys behind him, they get it. We’re smart, we’re athletic, we can throw the ball, and we have depth that can play. I plan on sleeping a hair better knowing the guy is taking snaps has got some more experience under his belt.”

Confidence in his running backs with Shane Simpson coming off a CAA Rookie of the Year campaign:

“To have a chance to win a championship you got to be able to run the ball. Period. To have those guys returning with that mentality of success in the run game, it should bode well for us.”

What this team’s transfers bring to the team:

“They bring positional experience at another school. They’ve shown they can play football at the Division I level, and each one of them have decided they’d like to finish their career here. The personality of our team is something they like to associate with.”

Veteran’s taking over leadership roles:

“It’s a little human condition. You take the guys who graduate the last couple years, these are the guys who walked away with a conference championship ring and trip to the national championship, but they were practice players and not the guy who were starting on the field, for the most part. It’s human nature that they though we just win here. The young guys watched what we didn’t get done. There is a different mentality of how we go about practice. We don’t talk about obligations or complain about going to practice. We talk about opportunity. Every single rep we get is a chance for us to get better and a chance for us to well represent this program within the University and nationally. It’s just a different mindset. I give these guys credit. They learned from the ones who come before them, good and bad. The great part of the guys here now are they learned from that, and it’s going to give us a chance to be successful.”

How they can turn around last year’s poor turnover differential:

“A lot of that last year was offense. I love Ellis to death, but he might have set a record for most touchdown by the opposing team ever; if we take that away, that alone helps us statistically. We’ve also been bad on third down, and we’ve been bad on takeaways, and that’s something we’ve been working on in camp.”

How Monty Fenner’s is prepared to take over as the leader of the team’s defense:

“I get the opportunity to coach young men, and eventually they all get the opportunity to be grown men. Look at Monty. He used to look like he was a 12-year-old boy. Now he looks like a man now. It’s about how he goes about his days, practice, his academic career, his social life. He is a grown up and someone who is responsible. That is what I’ve been looking for a long time. He wants to stand up and take the mantle of leadership of the defense and say ‘this is how we do what we do’ and ‘this is why we do what we do.’ Instead of him looking at it as a job, he’s excited to do it because he knows if he does it well, we’re going to go somewhere.”

What is take about his team’s mindset that long snapper Will Hayes is a captain and true leader of the team:

“Will is the number one long snapper in this league. … Will is so good at his craft, works so hard at it. … That just shows you the team, and our kids don’t care (about stats). Our kids do not care. Stats don’t win games; teams win games. All of a sudden, I got don’t got some snap guys, I got some team guys.”

Long Snapper Will Hayes on…

What this year means to him being a senior:

“I just want to go out with a bang. I’ve stayed perfect for three years and want to stay that way; crouch under the profile and do my job. It’s kind of surreal. I’ve been playing since I was six years old and I either have a shot in the NFL or this is it.”

Hearing his coaches’ praise, calling him the best long snapper on the east coast:

“It’s surreal to hear that kind of praise from my coach, especially being a long snapper. I’ve done the right thing and really put in the time and effort. I’m glad he sees that, but I see it myself. Obviously, as a head coach, you want the best for your players. I appreciate him saying that.”

What it says about the team’s mindset that he as a long snapper has become one of the most respected players and a captain on the squad:

“There are no individuals. There are zero individuals on this team. It’s an honor to be a captain. In this year, we may be young and have a lot of new guys coming in, but through the spring and summer, this is the most gelled group since I’ve been here. It’s a nose on the grindstone kind of thing, and we really put the work on during the summer and spring. This year could be special.”

Safety Monty Fenner on…

His excitement for this year:

”I’m excited to see how we progressed from the end of the season last year to winter workouts, spring ball, and summer training and now that we’re about to start up camp. Trying to see how all the pieces are put together and tie up some missing end that were loose from last season.”

Stepping into a leadership role:

”I feel like we lacked consistency (last year). The games we were losing, we lost a play here and play there, and didn’t stay healthy. We also have to take care of business of the field. I just try to lead by example. I’m not one of the outspoken guys on the team, but I try to lead by example like how I was taught by the guys I played behind. That’s the type of leadership I insist. Everybody respects everybody, and I make sure I’m one of the guys who everybody looks up to.”

Why he believes this year is the year for Towson to get back into the playoffs:

”It’s been a rebuilding process. That team before I came in was great. Not everybody comes in winning. I feel like my year as a freshman was a rebuilding process but now we are all veterans and even have young guys that have a lot of game experience that can take part in this run we will have.

“Then the quarterback situation, when Morgan came back we won three straight and beat William & Mary, and we haven’t beaten them in three years.”

How a more settled offense will help the defense:

”I trust those guys to do what they do and they trust us to do what we do. Shane coming off an All-CAA year and Morgan is just as good; having that back there is a problem for other defenses. Morgan can run, and he can throws and Shane can do what he wants with the ball. If everybody can take care of their side of the ball, it will definitely be good. On defense, we have a lot of kids with game experience.”

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Corey Johns

Editor in Chief
You could say Corey was born to become a sports journalist. His father won a national championship coaching college soccer. His mother is a baseball fanatic who hasn't missed seeing an Orioles game since 1983 (literally, sometimes it's annoying). His great uncle was a big-time boxing promoter and his maternal grandfather was once a department head at the Baltimore Sun. Basically, sports and journalism run through his blood. He played just about every little league sports there was when he was a kid and was a multi-sport athlete in high school; even playing in the first-ever high school sanction Rugby game in the country. Eventually he retired from sports as an undefeated Maryland state Rugby champion as a high school senior. Perhaps lack of athletic talent has more to do with the retirement, but he will tell you that it more had to do with a great desire to jump right into media. Upon his graduation from University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a triple communications major, Corey started the So Much Sports network and has continued to grow his websites and continues to work to make them premier sports media outlets.

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