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2001 season preview:
Rockets must find fuel to replace Kniess
By Ryan Briggs
Allied News Sports Editor
It's a question that no other team in Mercer County Athletic Conference history has had to answer: How do you replace a running back who averaged over 200 yards per game last season?
The Slippery Rock High Rockets open the 2001 season in search of that answer.
Last season, halfback Josh Kniess, a 2000 Heralded 22 selection, became the first county back to average over 200 rushing yards per game as he collected 2,069 yards and 31 touchdowns in 10 games.
Kniess -- who set a new area single-game record with 419 rushing yards in a season-ending win over Franklin last season -- graduated, leaving that big question.
But fourth-year Slippery Rock head coach Brendan Smith (13-16) feels the Rockets can replace last year's big gun with a different firearm -- the shotgun.
Senior quarterback Luke McCaffrey will be the triggerman in Slippery Rock's spread attack. As a junior, McCaffrey threw for 1,124 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"There's going to be more on him this year," Smith said. "One of the reasons we have gone to this offense is to utilize his ability."
McCaffrey's two favorite targets are back, also.
Senior wide receiver Zack Sarver pulled in 23 passes for 357 yards in 2000, while tight end Mark Matson grabbed 16 receptions and was an MCAC second-team selection as a junior, helping the Rockets finish 5-5 overall, 3-3 in the league.
"We want to make the defense make a decision on how they're going to cover us," Smith said. "We're tweaking (the offense) to fit the talents we have this year."
Several other candidates are in the running for the two vacant wide receiver slots, including sophomores Richard Lee and Mike McCaffrey, Dave Zampini and seniors David Issler, Craig Beil and Bill Bauer. Also in the mix is senior track standout Andrew Raisley.
"We've got to catch the 5-, 6-, 7-yard passes," Smith said, "and if we're dropping footballs, we're not going to be effective moving the ball. The big thing in our offense is the run after (the) catch.
"On the other hand, this is western Pennsylvania and it does rain here and it does get cold here, so running the football still has to be big for us," Smith continued.
In the backfield, Dan Christiansen and Brian Capello likely will share the bulk of the running chores. Both may spend time at wide receiver when the Rockets go to 4- and 5-receiver sets.
"There's competition at running back and those are all very good kids," Smith said. "All those kids have been very dedicated in the off-season."
One area of concern is the Rockets' offensive line. Braden Campbell, who has verbally committed to the University of Virginia, is still nursing an offseason injury. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior is penciled in as the starter at left tackle.
"If we don't have him ready to go, it's going to be a big loss for us," Smith said.
Chad Raudebaugh moves inside to center. Joe Schaefer started at right guard last year but moves to right tackle. Several candidates are vying at left guard. According to Smith, senior Travis Corbin is at the front of that group along with converted halfback Justin Croll.
Replacing Schaefer at right guard will be Josh Novak.
"The first five guys that we have are good. Our big question mark is depth in our offensive line," Smith said. "We may have to move one or two of our skill-type athletes into the offensive line before it's all over."
Defensively, Slippery Rock returns eight starters. For the second straight season, the Rockets will utilize a 4-3 scheme. Anchoring the four-man front will be tackles Campbell and Jeremy Taylor. Campbell is the strongside tackle, while Taylor is on the nose.
"In the 4-3 defense, those two guys have to dominate and create double-teams," Smith said. "Pound for pound, (Taylor is) our strongest kid."
Schaefer and Raudebaugh likely will start at defensive end. Also back at end is Dave Gould. Lee could also see time at defensive end.
Matson will start at middle linebacker, while Croll is projected to start at one of the outside linebacker slots. Novak, Drew Bowland and Capello are among several fighting for the other outside linebacker post. The Rockets' secondary is a bit unsettled. Luke McCaffrey and Sarver return at cornerback.
With Matson's move to middle linebacker, Mike DeCola is the front-runner at strong safety. Sophomore Travis Sarver may get the nod at free safety. Raisley is also competing for secondary time.
"All of those kids are real viable athletes that we'll be able to utilize," Smith said.
Senior soccer player Eric Dellich will be the kicker. Junior Darren Dick, who is competing for a spot as an offensive lineman, could also handle place-kicking chores. Luke McCaffrey will be the punter.
Making a second trip to the District 10 Class AAA playoffs in a 3-year span will not be easy, as Smith believes the MCAC will be very competitive.
"That's why I'm concerned about our depth on the line," Smith said. "It could be a long haul. The first month of the year is going to be very difficult and you cannot take anyone for granted."
Smith is assisted by Glenn "Pops" Hazlett, Bud Sarver, Rodney Decipedia, Moose Saylor and Andy Kern.
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