Robert Morris Colonials (2011 Poll Finish - 3rd)
2010 Record: 8-3, 7-1 NEC
2010 NEC Finish: t-1st
It took 10 years, but Robert Morris finally made its way back atop the Northeast Conference. Now, the Colonials will have arguably an even tougher task of trying to stay there.
On the way to becoming the league's first-ever participant in the NCAA FCS playoffs last season, Robert Morris won the program's first NEC crown since it captured five straight titles from 1996 through 2000.
The 2010 campaign was a landmark one for Robert Morris regardless of how one looks at it. Not only did they end their NEC title drought, but the Colonials made the program's first-ever appearance in the National Top 25. Myles Russ made it all the more memorable when he became the program's all-time rushing leader during the Colonials win over Duquesne in the annual Steel City Showdown.
Robert Morris will be without Russ in 2011, with the third all-time leading rusher in NEC history having graduated in May, but a number of key characters remain with the program. It all starts with the legendary Joe Walton, the only head football coach Robert Morris has ever known. The former NFL tight end, and one-time head coach of the New York Jets, will enter his 18th season at the helm.
As it turns out, Walton, an All-American tight end for Pitt back in the 1950s, has an All-American tight end and an all-NEC quarterback returning to his offensive unit in 2011.
Junior signal caller Jeff Sinclair (Natrona Heights, PA/Highlands) and senior tight end Shadrae King (McKeesport, PA/McKeesport) are the pillars of Robert Morris' attack.
Sinclair has made quite ascension over the past two years, rising from the bottom of the Colonials' depth chart to atop the Northeast Conference.
"He's a very competitive kid who can do a lot of things on his own," said Walton. "He's progressed tremendously with knowing the system and making good judgments."
In 18 career starts, the 6-foot-3 quarterback has thrown 31 touchdowns, including a single-season program record 22 during the Colonials 2010 title run, while being intercepted only 16 times. This production has translated into a good number of wins over the past two seasons. Since earning, the starting job four games into his freshman year (2009), Sinclair owns a 13-5 win-loss record.
"He's a winner," Walton surmised. "He's definitely our leader on offense, and certainly the way he goes this year will tell a lot about the type of season we'll have."
King, who wasted no time displaying his ability by catching five touchdowns as a freshman (2008), became Sinclair's favorite target during the 2010 campaign. The 6-foot-3 King, who has the hands and feet of an elite receiver with the body frame of a bruising tight end, made a team-high 43 receptions for 531 yards and seven touchdowns during Robert Morris' run to the FCS playoffs.
Senior split end Anthony Coleman (Cheltenham, MD/St. John's) is another weapon that Sinclair will have at his disposal again. Coleman made 22 catches for 350 yards and five touchdowns, and is most dangerous returning kicks. The 5-foot-11 receiver earned a spot on the 2011 Preseason All-NEC Team as the return specialist.
In all, Robert Morris returns nine starters from last year's championship team and six of them are on the offensive side.
In addition to the three skill position players, the Colonials have a trio of returnees in the trenches.
After earning a handful of starts during the 2009 season, center Logan Miles (Scottdale, PA/Southmoreland) and right guard Brad Rodgers (Irwin, PA/Norwin) each started all 11 games in 2010. The former was one of the Colonials three all-NEC selections on the offense line last year and carries preseason all-NEC billing into his senior campaign. Sophomore AJ Dalton (Carrollton, OH/Carrollton), who stands at 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, is penciled in to protect Sinclair's blind side again after starting the last six games of his rookie season.
Robert Morris lost its entire defensive secondary to graduation, but returns a pair of proven competitors up front. Junior defensive ends Nolan Nearhoof (Gibsonia, PA/Mars Area) and Stephen Mitchell (Pittsburgh, PA/Pittsburgh Catholic) are two impressive individuals. The former made 5.5 sacks and was a 2010 CoSIDA Academic All-American. Meanwhile, Mitchell joined Nearhoof on the NEC Academic Honor Roll and logged 4.5 tackles for a loss.
The only other returning starter on defense is junior outside linebacker Brad Banas (Houston, PA/Chartiers-Houston) who logged 39 tackles and five quarterback hurries one year ago.
Walton and his staff will have to rely on a number of talented, but unproven, commodities on defense this season, but it is nothing the veteran head coach hasn't been through before.
"If they can play and they're the best one at the position they'll play. I've never shied away from playing freshmen and I won't start to now," said the former head coach of the New York Jets.
According to Walton, the development of these youngsters will only happen through hands-on experience.
"They have to play. There's nothing like the gameday experience," he said. "We play some pretty tough teams early in the year. Whether we win or lose those three games is going to be very important for their development and how quick they learn how to win."
The first test is Dayton, which went 10-1 in 2010, on September 3 at Joe Walton Stadium, which was fittingly named for the man who has spent the past two decades building a football program out in Moon Township.