Two-time defending NAIA football champion Saint Francis Cougars off and running with first practice

Saint Francis defensive players run toward assistant coach Derek Prather during Monday's first day of practice at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Defensive lineman James Jamicich works on a drill during the opening day of practice Monday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Nate Carson looks a pass in during the first day of Saint Francis football practice Monday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Saint Francis football coach Kevin Donley talks to the team after the opening day practice Monday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Saint Francis quarterback Matt Crable throws a pass as associate head coach Doug Coate looks on at Monday's opening practice. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)

One of the University of Saint Francis’ best players, linebacker Piercen Harnish, missed Monday’s opening day of practice. But he had an excused absence.

Piercen’s wife, Arissa, gave birth Saturday to their son, Jaxson.

“I have my first recruit for 2036,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said. He may or may not have been joking.

Other than new dad Harnish, who received permission from Donley to spend a few days with his wife and son, the 2018 Cougars reported for the official start of the quest for a third-straight NAIA national championship.

The drive to avoid complacency and remain hungry for another title run is a challenge for everyone. The Cougars’ first game is 6 p.m. Aug. 25 at home against Robert Morris.

“Right now, it seems like we’re doing a good job thinking this is a clean slate,” defensive lineman Jordan May said. “I haven’t heard too many people talk about last year, or ask questions about last year. I think we’re doing a good job focusing on 2018.”

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There are adjustments to be made, to be sure. May, for example, will be pursuing his master’s degree as a fifth-year senior. Harnish will be handling his new fatherhood responsibilities. Marcus Stepp will be returning to his natural outside linebacker position to assume the role where graduated Spencer Cowherd excelled.

The offense will be run under the guidance of a new quarterback after the graduation of 2017 NAIA Player of the Year Nick Ferrer.

A few other spots are open with the graduations of defensive lineman Eric Hemmelgarn, inside receiver Sean Boswell, safety Lee Stewart III and offensive linemen Alex Woods, Connor Holcomb and Jaylen Gamble.

“The deepest hole to fill is the quarterback, but maybe even more so, overall, we have to have some leadership,” Donley said. “Leadership is influence and you have to have guys doing the right things. You can be a leader without uttering a syllable.”

Matt Crable, who transferred to Saint Francis from Grand Valley State with three years of eligibility, took the first-day reps at No. 1 quarterback. The Cougars also added freshman Heath Simmons to join returning quarterbacks Clay Senerius, Danny Naylor and Jakob Coker.

“Losing Nick is a big piece of the offense,” senior running back Justin Green said. “We’re going to miss him. But the new quarterbacks they brought in are doing well, and Nick is supposed to be around to help so he knows it all.”

The offense returns a wealth of talent, led by Green, who already holds the school’s career rushing record (4,460) and is a preseason NAIA All-American. Two dynamic receivers return in juniors Dan Ricksy (1,172 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns last season) and Rocky James (751 yards receiving, seven touchdowns.) Duke Blackwell, recovering from an ACL tear, and Will Chrisman both had 20-plus catches last season. Austin Smoger and Nick Shoemaker are back on the line.

The defense has a pair of preseason All-Americans in Harnish and Dunten. It also has a wealth of experienced players, including defensive backs Willy Cole, Blake Schumacher, Stan Jackson and Ryan Johnson, and front seven players Marcus Stepp, James Jamicich, Devin Green, Malachi Manion and Matt Swartz.

The first day of full pads will be Thursday.

“Veterans have to start leading and you have 37 new freshmen,” Donley said. “They’re like livestock, they don’t know where they’re going. …Veterans have to help coach. They know what they’re doing.”

Donley concluded the team’s first practice with that instruction to his most experienced players: “We have the largest coaching staff in America,” Donley said to the group.

Green said everything starts with the ultimate leader, Donley.

“Without him, I don’t know where we would go,” Green said. “He’s a great coach, a great leader. He stays on us. He expects us to win a third one.”

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