Led by a three-headed monster in the backfield, Stony Brook football will look to run its way out of a three-year playoff drought this year.
The Stony Brook football team has always utilized a run-first offense under head coach Chuck Priore. The Seawolves’ rushing attack has finished among the top three in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) over each of the last four seasons. Last year, they were second in the CAA in rushing yards per game with 176.1, only behind William & Mary.
Last year’s team finished 5-6 overall (4-4 CAA) despite their success on the ground. However, James Madison University’s departure from the CAA has left Stony Brook with a better chance at the conference title. As a run-first team, Stony Brook is going to have to run the ball even better this year to help themselves win the title. It may be hard to improve upon those numbers from a year ago, but luckily for them, they have the bullets to do just that.
The team’s running game will once again be headlined by running back Ty Son Lawton, whose 1,088 yards and 98.9 yards per game both led the CAA last year. He proved to be more than just a downhill runner, as he was explosive, too. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year, placing him in the top 10 amongst all CAA rushers. Expectations are particularly high for Lawton this year, as he was named the 2022 CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
Despite being a popular pick to be one of the best players in the conference, Lawton downplayed the award but acknowledged it as an honor.
“I don’t really think about any of the preseason accolades too much,” Lawton said in an interview with The Statesman. “It’s truly a blessing, and I like that they thought of me to be that guy. But at the end of the day, I didn’t have any preseason accolades last year and I had a crazy year.”
Priore spoke highly of Lawton’s 2021 performance, saying that his play rightfully earned him that award. Back in July, Priore commended Lawton for his hard work and said that he was in even better shape coming into this year.
“He’s worked really hard,” Priore said in a press conference. “His body’s changed to an even better situation than it was a year ago.”
Lawton may lead the rushing attack, but the Seawolves also boast a pair of strong backup running backs who have provided plenty of production before. Roland Dempster is a power runner, just like Lawton, while Seba Nekhet is an experienced runner who provides an effective change of pace.
Dempster is the biggest of the three backs, standing at six feet tall and weighing 225 pounds. His size helps his explosiveness, as Dempster finished fourth in the CAA in yards per carry last year (5.6). Nekhet had a down year last year, posting his lowest average yards per carry in three years. However, he boasts an average of 4.7 yards per carry for his career, and averaged over 5.0 in both 2019 and 2020.
Nekhet also adds an element to the passing game that his fellow backs do not, as he had the most receptions and receiving yards amongst Stony Brook running backs last year. Dempster and Nekhet combined for 686 scrimmage yards and two total touchdowns when filling in for Lawton off the bench.
Dempster and Nekhet are currently sidelined with lower-body injuries and were on crutches for Thursday night’s season opener against No. 22 Rhode Island. However, they are expected to return this year.
The trio combined for exactly 1,700 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, while averaging 4.9 yards per carry as a group. The three of them together averaged 154.5 rushing yards per game. Having this kind of depth at the running back position allows for Priore to rest Lawton more during games. Since they need their star to stay healthy, this may be Priore’s biggest luxury.
“We have some other running backs, too, which is great for Ty because he doesn’t have to get tired during the game,” Priore said. “He can get his 15 to 20 carries and we have a couple of other guys who can get on the field and toe the line, also.”
Priore has always prioritized the run game in the past, as Stony Brook averaged 42.1 rush attempts per game over the previous 10 seasons. Last year’s team ran the ball on 62.9% of its plays from scrimmage. However, with an inexperienced quarterback group and a first-year starter at the quarterback position, it seems likely that the running game will be used even more in 2022.
“We met as an offensive staff and we said, ‘What’s the one way we’re going to help our quarterbacks be great?’” Priore said. “And we said, ‘Run the ball.’’’
Priore said he is confident in the run blocking ability of the offensive line and the tight ends, along with the talent of his running backs. He said that the plan is to lean on them to lessen the burden on his quarterback.
“We’re certainly going to lighten the Saturday load for him and his responsibility,” Priore said.
Priore has a right to trust the offensive line as much as he does. The unit returns three of its five starters from last year, including Kyle Nuñez. Nuñez is a four-time All-CAA selection at right guard and is back for a sixth year to help pave the way for the Seawolves’ run game. Nuñez excels in run blocking in particular, making him and Priore a perfect fit for each other.
“I love that about [Priore], he loves to run the football,” Nuñez said in a press conference. “It’s a big reason why I chose to go to Stony Brook. I think that’s just his trust in our unit and the running backs. What we have going on in that room is something special. When we put it all together, we’re a very good unit.”
Nuñez started at center on opening night against Rhode Island. Alongside Nuñez are left guard Cole Gambino and left tackle Cameron Lucas, who both played in all 11 games last year. For an offensive line that paved the way for the second-best run game in the conference, returning the majority of the starters is important. Niko Papic will be their starting right tackle, and Collin Tunc is currently their starting right guard to complete the offensive line. The smash mouth style of offense that Priore likes to run will once again be dependent upon these five players up front.
Stony Brook also possesses a mobile quarterback. Tyquell Fields was the team’s starter for the last three years, and he rushed for 205 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He graduated this past spring, but quarterback Josh Zamot is just as mobile as Fields was. Zamot made several plays with his legs against Rhode Island and was the team’s leading rusher with 83 yards.
However, the Seawolves do have an X-factor in their 2022 running game as well: Jayden Cook. Cook is a very versatile player — one might call him “positionless.” Cook is listed as a running back but was moved to wide receiver by the coaching staff during training camp. He turned many heads this summer when he made the SportsCenter Top 10 list after a sensational one-handed, over-the-shoulder catch during a practice.
Cook only had 16 carries last year, rushing for 76 yards and a touchdown. He has mainly made his impact on special teams, most notably when he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Albany last year. Priore plans to use Cook more on offense this year as a utility player, similar to how the San Francisco 49ers use wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
“He’s going to play receiver, he’s going to play in the slot, he’s going to be in the backfield,” Priore said.
Cook is currently the primary backup to Lawton due to the injuries of Dempster and Nekhet. He had a positive opening night game, rushing eight times for 38 yards.
Lawton also spoke highly of Cook, complimenting his athleticism.
“I call him ‘LeBron James,’” Lawton said. “He’s the most athletic on the field.”
With continuity up front, explosiveness in the backfield and a likely increase in usage rate, Stony Brook’s running game has the potential to dictate the outcome of their 2022 season. As is the case in all sports, nothing is guaranteed, and only time will tell what the 2022 season has in store for Stony Brook’s ground game.
Matt Kearns also contributed to this article.