State College football is a team in transition.
Coming off a 9-4 season, the Little Lions lose their leading rusher, receiver, kicker, punter and several starting offensive linemen.
Not to mention State College is in the midst of a quarterback competition.
But walking around Memorial Field during preseason practice, there’s no timidness or uncertainty with how the Little Lions are carrying themselves.
They have a lot of hurdles to overcome before their first game of the season at J.P. McCaskey next Friday, but confidence is abound.
“We’re working really hard out here,” junior running back Tristen Lyons said with a smile. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’re grinding and getting better every day.”
Lyons is one of a few guys who’ll step into new roles this season.
Jordan Misher, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who racked up 21 touchdowns last year, has graduated, leaving a massive hole in the State College backfield.
Lyons, all 5-foot-6 of him, will be the main guy to fill it.
“Obviously it’s tough to even consider replacing Jordan Misher. He had such a successful career here,” State College coach Matt Lintal said. “But if anyone were to do it, I think Tristen is the guy that has a shot.”
Lyons, extremely shifty and quick, got some run in 2015, totaling 516 yards and a touchdown on 72 carries (7.2 yards per carry).
This offseason, the burst of energy has put on muscle in the weight room, adding an extra dimension to his game.
“I’m very excited,” Lyons said of the upcoming season. “I’ve been waiting for this for a while now.”
But who will Lyons be running behind?
The Little Lions lost four starters on the offensive line to graduation, including two who will be playing collegiately (Mark Weakland at The Citadel; Doug Swoboda at St. Francis).
Right tackle Will Swope is the lone returner, but Lintal sees the line coming along.
“We’re building confidence by the practice,” the coach said. “The good and bad about our preseason camp is that they’re lining up against a really good set of defensive linemen and linebackers. ... These guys are forced into the fire.”
The gelling line will not only be blocking for Lyons, but also for a quarterback to be determined.
In all likelihood, both senior Tyler Snyder and junior Drew Friberg will see significant time under center, but Lintal and the coaching staff have yet to make a decision on who will take the season-opening snap.
Snyder, who saw most of the action last season, totaled 1,061 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Friberg, meanwhile, tallied 536 yards with four touchdowns and five picks.
Lintal said the two have been supporting one another, and it’s evident.
“We’re friends off the field. We played basketball together when we were little,” Friberg said. “We’re here to back each other up. ... Nothing’s really going to change between us.”
That doesn’t alter the fact that both Friberg and Snyder want the starting job.
Friberg, the more inexperienced of the two, said he’s confident with the playbook after some uneasiness last year. Snyder feels like he’s the guy based on knowledge of the system.
“Hopefully it’s me. I treat it like it’s me every day and every week. But we’ll see how it goes,” Snyder said. “I know the system. I know the plays. I know the plays better than some of the coaches some days.”
Whoever is the quarterback, they’ll have to make due without tight end Brett Graham.
Graham, who went to UConn on scholarship as a punter, was the Little Lions’ leading receiver the past two seasons. In 2015, he had 34 receptions for 472 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“That’s scary to lose him,” Lintal said.
But the coach is assured by senior tight end Erik Swanson’s know-how as a blocker and leader, and despite losing wide receiver Kellin Valentine (eight touchdowns last year) to graduation, Lintal is equally as confident in his receiving corps.
Senior Noah Woods and junior Brandon Clark will play on the outside, with sophomore Cohen Russell working the slot. Lintal has been pleased with all three this offseason, but especially Clark.
Standing at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Clark made only two catches in 2015, but is a prime breakout candidate for the Little Lions.
“Athletically, he’s a Division-I athlete,” Lintal said of Clark. “He’s got as good of hands as anyone I’ve ever coached. His ball skills are tremendous, and he’s really determined this year. ... We’re really excited about his potential.”
On special teams, Clark will also punt, while Jack Sheehan will handle kicking duties.
Defensively, State College should be a handful to deal with. The Little Lions lose four players who are off to compete collegiately, but return a pair of 100-tackle machines and a threatening defensive front.
Senior linebackers Pete Haffner and Josh Ruffner had 107 and 100 tackles, respectively, in 2015, and if Haffner’s mindset is any indication, receivers will think twice before crossing the middle.
“I try to be the most violent one on the field every single play,” Haffner said. “Just go out there and try to dominate.”
Lintal is elated to have both Ruffner and Haffner return, as well as defensive linemen Kam’ron Walker, Drew Linnes and Jackson Heasley.
In all, State College isn’t short of question marks for the upcoming season.
Who will start at quarterback?
Can they fill the offensive void?
But Lintal and his players believe they have the necessary pieces for another successful campaign.
Head coach: Matt Lintal (third season)
Assistant coaches: Mark Baney, Mike Snyder, Cory Raupers, Dirk Grissinger, John Stout, Rick Hall, Matt Mazarra, Joe Nastasi, Chris Russell, Maurice Freeman
Last year: 9-4
Key losses: Brett Graham, Doug Swoboda, Jay Shoop, Jon Seighman, Jordan Misher, Kellin Valentine, Mark Weakland, Nathan King, Noah Schwab, Wade Bonsell
Returning starters: Noah Woods, Tyler Snyder, Drew Friberg, Tristen Lyons, Pete Haffner, Brandon Clark, Erik Swanson, Will Swope, Ian Barr, Donovan Brown, Aziz Salamy, Mark Wess, Josh Ruffner, Drew Linnes, Kam'ron Walker, Jackson Heasley
Key newcomers: Zach Womer, Colin Hough, Kyle Engle, Peyton Edwards, Robert Hort, Paul Olivett, Robert Nachtman, Collin DeBoef, Cohen Russell, Keaton Ellis