NEW BRITAIN - As the Central Connecticut State football team stepped out onto their turf field for another afternoon practice, music starting to blare over the sound system, everything suddenly became business like.
It was time to get to work and the players approached it as such with the season beginning tonight at ACC opponent Syracuse.
“What I like about these guys is there’s not fluff and a lot of rah-rah,” Blue Devils head coach Pete Rossomando said. “They’re very consistent. They’re excited about playing and being together. That’s great. That’s what we want. We haven’t had many lulls. In camp, you always have peaks and valleys and we haven’t had too many valleys, just a lot of peaks, so I think that’s always good sign coming out of the preseason.”
To say it was a disappointing season in 2016 for CCSU would be an understatement. After going 4-7 in 2015, the program took a step back last year, seeing its record drop to 2-9. Among those nine losses were a stretch of four straight games that all ended by eight points or less.
This season, the Blue Devils are looking to shift that narrative from a team not being able to win close games to one that can. But first, CCSU will have to get past the Orange at the Carrier Dome in what will be the program’s first game against a Division I FBS opponent since 2007, when it played Western Michigan. That game ended in a 51-14 Blue Devils loss.
Syracuse finished out its 2016 campaign 4-8, ending the season with four straight losses to then No. 2 Clemson, who would go on to win the College Football Playoff national title, NC State, No. 17 Florida State and a 76-61 shootout to Pitt.
Over those 12 games, the Orange averaged just under 26 points per game. CCSU, meanwhile, allowed 34.8 points per game.
“They like playing fast,” said senior linebacker Randall Laguerre, who led CCSU with 116 tackles last season. “They like spreading their guys out. They have pretty good skill players. [Quarterback Eric] Dungey is a pretty good scrambler. He makes something out of nothing. They like playing high tempo.”
In order to combat the Orange’s quick style of play, the Blue Devils will have to first and foremost contain Dungey. The junior completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,679 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine games last season, while also running for another 293 yards and six scores.
Dungey also has plenty of weapons on the outside. Despite losing his No. 1 receiver in Amba Etta-Tawo (1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns) to graduation, Syracuse returns a pair of wideouts in Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael that caught at least 48 passes and 550 yards each.
But despite the difficult task ahead, CCSU is confident heading into tonight. A win would set the tone for the program moving forward and the Blue Devils believe they have the players to make it happen.
As the defense fills out with a veteran group, retuning its top four tacklers in Laguerre, Kenneth Keen, Tymir Hinton and Carlton Nash, some of the biggest improvements for CCSU has been on offense. The offensive line, which was in a state of flux last season, has been working with the same five starters throughout the offseason, a consistency that should lead to a better rushing attack led by Cameron Nash and Drew Jean-Guillaume.
Quarterback Jacob Dolegala is also entering his second season as the team’s full-time starter, which should help. The junior went through some growing pains in 2016, completing 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,934 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Rossomando said the biggest part of his quarterback’s growth throughout the spring and summer has been as a “learner” more so than as a quarterback.
“I couldn’t really point out one specific thing,” Dolegala said of his difference from this point last year. “I think I’ve grown in a bunch of ways. I’m bigger, stronger, smarter. I know the offense in and out. There shouldn’t be a reason why I don’t perform well. The game has slowed down for me. Going from pre-snap to post-snap has been easier.”
Dolegala also has his two favorite targets returning in senior wide receiver Joey Fields - who led the team in receptions (46), yards (732) and touchdowns (6) - and junior tight end K.J. Smith, a Bristol Eastern product to work between the numbers.
The Blue Devils believe they have a lot of be enthusiastic about heading into a new season, they just have to put it together on the field, and that starts tonight in their season opener on a big stage inside what is to be a noisy Carrier Dome.
“It would be a big statement if we won,” Smith said. “All the guys believe, and we need everyone on the same page to believe, we can win and I believe we are. Going up against a team like this, we need everyone to be jelling together. It’s a big school, but you can’t treat it differently.”