Matt Lintal remembers Senior Night at State College last season very well.
Then an assistant coach on Al Wolski’s staff, he watched as 40 seniors were honored.
“It was unreal,” said Lintal, who is in his first season as head coach for the Little Lions. “I was actually with that class since they were ninth-graders. Replacing them is tough. Numbers-wise it is kind of a letdown to lose 40 guys. We’ve got a lot of holes to fill. We have a lot of inexperienced guys, because you try to get those seniors out on the field any chance you get. The current seniors and juniors, they didn’t see the field as much.”
The huge graduation numbers mean there are plenty of opportunities for some of the new faces to shine this season.
Stepping into the spotlight at quarterback for the Little Lions is John Weakland, who caught passes from Patrick Irwin last season. Irwin threw for 1,460 yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing for 900 yards and 13 scores.
Weakland, an excellent athlete, led the team in receiving with 35 catches for 509 yards. Lintal says Weakland (6-4, 195) will have no trouble running the offense.
“He was our backup quarterback last year and a starting wide receiver,” Lintal said. “He’s been a quarterback his whole life. He took reps all season long.”
He’ll hand off to the dangerous Jordan Misher (5-10, 190), who rushed for 753 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a sophomore.
The two are integral parts of an option attack.
“I’m still an option football coach,” said Lintal, a former player at State College who coached at Bucknell. “My seven years at Bucknell were with coaches that were very much the Navy, under-center option. That’s where my expertise lies, so we’ll always incorporate the option.
“We’re building it around our kids. This year we’ve got a back who has great vision and explosiveness, so we’re trying to find ways to get guys out of the box and establish a run game. John Weakland makes great reads, so we want to be a little bit more balanced than we have been in the past.”
The Little Lions will run a lot of one-back sets. Brett Graham (6-3, 210) is the team’s H-back. Charlie Riley is at the slot and also backs up Misher. Drew Flanagan and Tristan Damon are the starting wideouts. Nathan King (H-back), Kellin Valentine (slot), Cody Kubicki (wideout) and Chris McDonough (wideout) also could see action.
Several players are still battling for offensive line spots.
“It depends on the day,” Lintal said. “We’re young up there.”
Right tackle Mark Weakland (6-3, 240), right guard Doug Swoboda (6-2, 305) , center Matt Harpster (6-1, 250), left guard Zach Lindau (5-11, 250) and left tackle Zach Driver (6-0, 240) bring some beef along the offensive line. Will Swope (6-5, 268), Camden Nickell (6-2, 230), Jordan Reighard (5-10, 210), Jack Vandevort (5-11, 275) and Colin Hough (6-2, 270) could work their way into the mix.
Incumbent Kevin Cramer and newcomer Noah Schwab are battling for placekicking duties. Graham will punt.
Defensively the Little Lions will have almost all new starters as most of their leading tacklers graduated.
Lonnie Koudela (6-3, 225) and Sheldon Davis (5-10, 210) are holding down the ends. Vandevort will play nose guard, while Barrett McMurtry (6-4, 275) is at tackle.
Gabe Manyak (6-1, 230) will start at middle linebacker and be joined by Stan Martin and Nick Collins. King will play a hybrid strong safety and linebacker position.
Dalton Barger and Sam Plafcan are at the cornerback slots, while Jon Seighman is a free safety.
Others who could see action on defense include cornerback Valentine, safety Matt Suchanec, safety Brandon Clark, safety King, linebacker Graham, nose guard J.T. Kusmierz-Mobley, defensive tackle Marcus McFall and end Erik Swanson.
Lintal is pleased with the team’s spirited practices.
“It’s been really good,” he said. “The kids are working their tails off. They’re picking up on things and playing hard. We’ve done a lot of good vs. good. We’re getting our No. 1’s on offense going against our No. 1’s on defense quite a bit. We’ve created as competitive an environment as we can within the confines of a practice. We have some competitive periods.
“We’re putting some things on the line, whether it’s conditioning, pride or whatever. The kids have really responded well and with some enthusiasm. They’re playing hard.”
The Little Lions face a stiff challenge right out of the gate with non-league games against Spring-Ford, Bishop McDevitt and Martinsburg, W.Va, before delving into the tough Mid Penn action.
“There is no let-up,” Lintal said. “We have a playoff team from last year to open the season. We have Bishop McDevitt, one of the best teams in the state on Week 2 and we’ve got a five-time defending state champion in Martinsburg in Week 3. Then we get into our league play, which is brutal week-in and week-out.”
Although the schedule is loaded, Lintal said he learned something from his predecessor Wolski, who took the Little Lions to a PIAA title game and made several deep runs in the playoffs.
“Coach Wolski taught me one thing about this team in the last four years and it’s making sure you’re peaking at the right time,” Lintal said. “It’s getting better and improving each week so that you peak at the right time during the playoff season. We’ve had years where we started 0-4 and ended up with eight or nine wins. ... We’ll go into any game and compete.”