By any measure, it was a rough year for the Bucknell Bison and head coach Joe Susan in 2010.
A 1-10 record, with the only victory a freaky 24-21 win at Georgetown, was certainly not the dream of the young Bison team that stepped onto the football field on Saturdays in the fall.
But the mood is still, in general, upbeat in Lewisburg about the Bison's hopes in turning things around. While 9-2 and a deep run in the playoffs might seem to be a bit unrealistic at this point, there's still a lot of bullishness that the Bison can re-find their winning ways in 2011 - and maybe, just maybe, beat a Top 25 team in Year Two of the Susan era. (more)
"Joe Susan expected nothing less, proof that there is still a lot of work left to do," William Bowman of the Daily Item mentioned in his coverage of Patriot League Media Day:
"Did I expect anything different [than getting picked sixth out of six teams]? No," Susan said simply. "But it certainly does light a fire under you. I told our guys, it is the postseason poll that counts."
Coach Susan, a tall, no-nonsense guy, still cut an imposing figure at Patriot League media day.
And it didn't help that he brought two jumbo-sized defensive linemen, senior DE Josh Eden and senior DT Robert De La Rosa, joined him at the Bucknell table.
Any questions about some of the defensive talent are quickly put to rest when viewing the 6'4, 280 lb Eden and the 6'2, 290 lb De La Rosa. These two linemen will be the highlight of the Bison defensive front, and should they remain healthy they will almost certainly be worthy of all-Patriot League status.
They seemed to brush off the last-place pick as well.
"It's a little disturbing being picked last," said Eden. "You play the game to see who wins. On any given day you never know and we feel like this is our year to make a run at it."
"It's preseason, but it does push you; it will push us in camp," said De La Rosa. "We will see at the end of the season where we end up, but hopefully we are near the top."
With horses like that up front, a 4-3 defense is a given - and coach Susan is well aware of it. "A defensive line that has someone who can squeeze the pocket from the outside (Eden) and someone who can push the pocket from the inside (De La Rosa) you have something special. It's hard to double-team both of them."
Indeed - and offensive linemen around the Patriot League would be right to be worried about this dynamic duo.
De La Rosa and Eden bring with them lots of game experience. Matter of fact, the young Bison team that was thrown to the wolves last year boasts the most experienced team in the Patriot League, with "a combined 266 career starts," according to another of Bowman's reports for the Daily Item:
A week out from his second fall camp, Joe Susan feels his Bucknell football team is farther ahead than it was at this point last summer.
For the second summer in a row, a large number of players stuck around Lewisburg.
And while that certainly is a plus, so is the continuity in the program heading into 2011.
Susan's staff returns nearly intact — only running backs coach Rich Scarantino is not back — and the Bison return experience all over the field.
"The easiest thing is knowing the level of ability of our kids," Susan said recently. "Going into last year, the only perspective I had was from spring practice. I didn't know how we matched up physically with our opponents and I have a better feel for that now.
"Another big advantage we have is that our staff stayed consistent."
The addition of so many returning starters, coupled with the more experienced coaching staff certainly gives Susan a good starting point as they try to turn things around from last year's 1-10 mark.
Backing up Eden and De La Rosa on the defensive line is a solid middle linebacker in senior LB Tim Bolte (57 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) and up-and-comer junior LB Beau Traber, a guy who was injured early on in camp in 2010 and only was able to contribute mostly on special teams. A self-described "high-energy player", if Traber's presence solidifies the outside linebacker position, it would seem to point to a formidable Bucknell front seven going into the 2011 campaign.
And the M*A*S*H unit that was the Bison secondary last year has a definite silver lining for 2011 as well - the return of four starters in the secondary, including junior DB Donald Quarles (24 tackles, 1 INT).
As with any team, a lot has to go right to make this the top defense in the Patriot League. But it's clear that this defense has the tools to actually do it. Really.
Defensively, the Bison look like they can hang with a lot of teams in FCS. But Bucknell's season will almost certainly make-or-break with any emergence of their offense, which by any measure was dismal last year. The Bucknell offense did not score more than two touchdowns in nine out of eleven games last year, and were 113th nationally in scoring offense. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that improvement is necessary.
Again, though, the silver lining for the Bison is that they return an eye-popping 10 of 11 starters from last year. And a lot of Bucknell's struggles came from an overhaul of the triple-option style offense that featured in Lewisburg for a long time. This year, they'll certainly be able to execute more of Susan's pro-style attack.
Sophomore QB Brandon Wesley (1,699 yards passing, 197 yards rushing, 8 TDs) last year cemented his place in the role of starter fairly early in camp last year, and started all 11 games for the Bison. The speedy, thin QB learned a lot last year and took some lumps, but also, for the most part, kept his mistakes to a minimum. It's fair to say that he'll be better in 2011. (A breakout year? We'll see.)
5'9 Junior RB Tyler Smith (426 yards, 3 TDs) was the lead rusher last year, while also becoming a dominant force in kick returns (802 yards, 1 TD). Highly touted junior RB Jeremiah Young, who saw a terrible ACL tear before ever putting on a Bucknell uniform in 2009, worked his way into some touches in 2010 as well. If 100% healthy, Young could really supercharge Susan's offense - but that's an awfully big "if".
Just like everywhere else on this Bison team, Bucknell boast their top two receivers returning in senior WR Frank DeNick (423 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Victor Walker (443 yards, 2 TDs). In addition, the Bison line also has four of five starters returning as well, with 6'1, 280 lb senior OL Ian Dal Bello up front, moving from guard to center in 2011.
"There is a lot of merit to experience and moving Ian to center really helps," Susan told the Daily Item. "He's a smart kid, one of the smartest, and your center has be smart. It also allows us to move [6'3, 280 lb] senior OL Carson Rohrbaugh inside to guard, which is a better fit for him."
Bucknell has the combination of experience and size that is a prime candidate for sneaking up on a team that's unprepared. If there was ever a team where one needs to ignore the record from the 2010 regular season, it's Bucknell. The only question isn't if the Bison will turn the corner: it's when.