|Tyler Johnson has been cemented in the starting lineup ever since September of his freshman season.
Alfred athletics photo
If you are looking for a team flying a bit under the radar, check out Alfred so far this season. Returning 17 starters from an 8-3 team that won an ECAC bowl game last season, the Saxons were ranked No. 29 by Kickoff this preseason.
But it took a 5-0 start in the tough Empire 8, for Alfred to crack the poll last week (for the first time since Week 6 of 2011). After sitting idle last week, the Saxons have climbed to No. 23.
Leading Alfred to their best start since 2010, a year they advanced to the D-III quarterfinals, has been senior quarterback Tyler Johnson.
“We feel pretty good,” Johnson said. “We came into the year experienced, healthy and ready to get after it.”
Johnson, from Syracuse, is in his fourth year as the starter after transferring from D-II American International where he redshirted.
It didn’t take long for the Saxon coaching staff to figure out what they had in the East Syracuse-Minoa alum during the 2013 season. With the team sitting at 1-1 and trailing 28-0 at halftime to Brockport, Johnson led Alfred to a 34-28 victory in overtime by putting up nearly 300 yards of total offense.
“We never looked back after that,” said third-year coach Bob Rankl.
Neither has Johnson. He has led the 25-10 record as a starter and is currently the only active player in D-III with over 6,000 career passing yards and more than 2,000 rushing yards. Only five other active players in all divisions can claim that. His 8,867 career total yards eclipsed the school record of from quarterback Tom Selecky, who led the Saxons on their playoff run back in 2010.
“Every year he’s improved as a quarterback,” Rankl said. “He not just doing it with his legs. He’s reading defenses, getting us into the right plays and making the right reads.
“He is very serious about the game of football, definitely a student of the game. He watches a ton of film. He knows what’s going on. It’s like having another coach out there. He’s very aware of his surroundings when he’s on a football field.”
Perhaps Johnson’s biggest improvement this year has been his ability to take care of the ball. During his first three seasons, he threw 31 interceptions. But this season, the senior has not thrown a single one. The Saxons were turnover free in their first four games, before three fumbles in their victory over Morrisville State two weeks ago. He has completed 73-of-114 passes for 1,003 yards with 11 touchdowns, while rushing for 386 yards and eight touchdowns.
Johnson credits continuity on the coaching staff with Rankl and offensive coordinator Scott Linn, each in their third year, and personnel with his and the team’s success thus far.
“They’ve really grown the team together,” he said. “They know how to use all facets of the team.”
Johnson has combined with backs Casey Bright and Meleke Fuentes for more than 1,100 rushing yards, an average of 231 a game.
“We’ve been able to run the ball, that’s opened things up down field,” said Rankl
Taking advantage of most of those openings has been senior receiver Brendan Buisch. The senior at 6-foot-4 has a team-best 20 catches, including six touchdowns.
Experience on the offensive line has also helped.
“Those guys are where it all starts, if they have a good day then we have a good day,” he added.
Still the keys to the car are Johnson’s. The Saxons have devised their offense in ways that benefit his skill set.
“There are a lot of opportunities for me to use my feet as well as my arm,” he said.
Johnson credits experience and his trainer at home in Syracuse (who also trains Oakland Raider running back Latavious Murray) with helping prepare for the rigors of long season. He knows how to avoid hits when he needs to.
“It definitely takes a toll on me but I try to find a way to get the most yards. I’ve learned in four years how to twist and turn my body in different ways.”
Still, the one thing his stellar college career lacks is an Empire 8 championship and a trip to the NCAA playoffs.
“We have a couple of opportunities and fell short. That was on out mind all offseason.”
Still he and Rankl know that looking too far ahead when you play in the E8 is a sure way to get beat. The Saxons still have Cortland, Brockport, Hartwick, Utica and St. John Fisher left on the schedule.
“There’s plenty of good teams left on the schedule.” Said Rankl, who has been at the school for 16 seasons overall. “I think we are as good as any team that we’ve had at Alfred.
“That being said I think the completion that we are playing right now in the conference is harder than any schedule we’ve played. We have to focus on being as prepared as possible every single week.”
Games to watch
Stevenson (5-0, 4-0 MAC) at Widener (4-1, 4-0 MAC): The only two schools that remain unbeaten in MAC play meet in Chester. The Mustangs are coming off a bye week, while the Pride has won four straight since a nonconference loss to Rowan in the season opener. The winner will stand alone at the top of the standings and control their own destiny for the conference title.
Ithaca (3-2, 2-1 E8) at Brockport (3-2, 2-1 E8): The winner here stays in the E8 race, while loser’s chances go on life support. The Bombers have won two straight and scored 50 for the first time since 2008. Dan Andrews broke loose last week for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the Eagles victory over Utica. The All-American is on almost the same pace as last season at the halfway point. The two teams have split the last two meetings since Brockport joined the E8.
St. John Fisher (6-0, 4-0 E8) at Utica (4-2, 2-2 E8): The Cardinals are playing without their starting quarterback and running backs but just find a way to keep winning. Freshman quarterback Colin Flutko was 20-of-26 last week, while DE and former running back Chris Smith (a load at 6-2, 235) rushed for 125 yards. After starting 4-0, Utica has dropped two in a row. The Pioneers have never beaten SJF in 15 tries. Could this be the year?
Cortland (3-3, 1-3 E8) at Alfred (5-0, 3-0 E8): The Red Dragons still have enough players on both sides of the ball to give the Saxons some headaches. It appears they are down to their third quarterback, but this is the E8.
RPI (4-2, 2-1 LL) at Merchant Marine (3-2, 2-1 LL): Two teams coming off last second victories squaring off to stay alive in the Liberty League race. The Engineers knocked Hobart from the ranks of the undefeated, 21-17, and out of the top 25 with a 5-yard Ed Trimpert scoring run. Merchant Marine scored 10 points in the final 4:47 to nip WPI 45-44. The victor Saturday keeps its conference title hopes alive.
Montclair State (3-2, 2-2 NJAC) at Christopher Newport (4-1, 3-1 NJAC): The NJAC is looking decidedly like the Empire Eight this year. With Rowan beating Salisbury, every team now has at least one “L” in conference. Montclair has not done well in conference road games thus far (0-2). They don’t score a lot of points, but when they do it is on an explosive play. The Captains have had two weeks to stew on a 10-7 loss to Rowan.
Wesley (3-2, 3-1 NJAC) at Kean (3-2, 2-2 NJAC): The Cougars have a physical, veteran defense ranked second in the NJAC that could cause the Wolverines some problems. Kean has done a decent job of taking the ball away this season and Wesley was generous earlier in both early losses to Delaware Valley and CNU. Freshman runner E.J. Lee has emerged to spark the Wesley running game with 248 yards and six touchdowns in the past two weeks. Combine that with veteran Jamar Baynard (239 yards, six touchdowns last two games), and the Wesley offense may have found an identity minus Joe Callahan.
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