After reaching an all-time low in program history last year, the Stony Brook football team has a lot to prove in 2023.
The Seawolves finished the 2022 season 2-9, which was a record for most losses in a single season. They finished in last place in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) out of 13 teams, which they had never done in any conference under head coach Chuck Priore. The ensuing offseason brought a hefty number of roster losses due to graduation and the transfer portal.
Given the roster turnover and the downward trend of the team over the past four years, expectations for Stony Brook are very low. Now in the rebranded and expanded Coastal Athletic Association (CAA), the Seawolves are picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams.
Though Stony Brook is not getting much respect from its peers, Priore still expects positive results from his team this year.
“It’s pretty much what my expectation is of any team that I’ve been associated with,” Priore said in an interview with The Statesman. “We work together, we have fun doing it, we gain some valuable lessons from it. At the end of the day, we play to win, and hopefully we win more than we lose.”
In 2022, the Seawolves finished either last or second to last in most major offensive categories. To improve matters this upcoming season, the program hired former Maine offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Andrew Dresner to fulfill the same role with Stony Brook. He will assume play-calling duties in place of Priore, who has had them for the previous two years.
Under Dresner, Maine finished with a top-five scoring offense in the CAA every year from 2018 through 2021. He helped develop former Maine quarterback Joe Fagnano into one of the best players at his position in the conference.
Dresner’s quarterback expertise will come in handy for Stony Brook this year, as the team has a new man under center. Quarterback Casey Case transferred in this past winter after being a three-year backup quarterback at Buffalo. Priore named him the opening day starter this summer. Last year’s starter Daron Bryden will be his backup.
Case said that Dresner’s system makes his job easier.
“I think he does a lot of great things that take stress off the quarterback and puts the stress on the defense,” Case said. “He does a lot of stuff with motions and shifts and [different] formations to keep the defense on their toes. Also, he’s got a lot of great play designs for shots down the field.”
The players behind Case may be the biggest key to Stony Brook’s success this year. Last year, the top five running backs on the depth chart all missed significant time with injury, causing the ground game to fall off a cliff. This offseason, the group lost star running back Ty Son Lawton to the transfer portal, but they did retain running back Roland Dempster to take his place as the lead back.
Dempster was Lawton’s primary backup in 2021, when he ran for 334 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per carry — good for the fourth-best figure in the CAA. He missed all of 2022 due to a fracture in his foot.
Priore and the coaching staff are bullish on Dempster’s potential.
“We expect Roland to be a top guy — not only on the team, but in the conference,” Priore said.
Backing up Dempster are a slew of Seawolves who will see playing time this year. Running back Ross Tallarico was the offense’s best player last year after beginning the season as the sixth-string running back. He wound up leading the team with 602 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns while averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He also caught 13 passes for 110 yards and three more touchdowns. He even threw a 55-yard touchdown pass on a trick play.
With Dempster back healthy, Tallarico will revert to a rotational role. However, he still aims to make an impact wherever he can.
“Just being a good teammate on the sideline,” Tallarico said. “If Roland’s in, I’ll help him identify defenses. I’ll be a … presence on the sideline.”
Running backs Jayden Cook and Jadon Turner are also back after injury-riddled seasons last year. Cook was the team’s second-leading rusher with 293 yards on 3.8 yards per carry. Turner only has 29 career carries but averages 6.8 yards per attempt. The two of them will play hybrid roles as both wide receivers and running backs, which was the original plan before the injury bug bit last year.
Priore also named two transfers — running backs Johnny Martin and Shakhi Carson — who will see touches this year. Martin rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as a freshman last year. Carson only had six carries last year at Kent State but gained 61 yards and scored a touchdown.
The depth at running back gives Stony Brook a better chance of closing out games this year.
“All of us are going to be fresher during the games,” Tallarico said. “Last year, towards the end of the game, there wasn’t anybody else to go in to keep our legs fresh. This year, with all the guys we have … we can spread the ball around a little bit.”
The receiving corps is totally rebuilt. Wide receivers Dez Williams, Anthony Johnson and Rahmon Hart Jr. are all transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools that Priore expects to make an impact. The team also brought back R.J. Lamarre, who is the leading receiver of the returning group. Lamarre caught 20 passes last year for 232 yards and one touchdown.
One younger player to watch out for is wide receiver Jayce Freeman, who is a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman that the staff has been high on since last year. Priore said that he will be a starter for the offense.
“He can get vertical,” Priore said. “He’s probably our best 50-50 ball guy when the ball’s up in the air. I think he’ll be in the end zone for some of that stuff.”
At tight end, Cal Redman — who is one of the team’s four captains — will get a lot of playing time, though he has been used as a blocker for most of his career. Additionally, Priore said that tight end Cole Bunicci is one of their best receivers at that position.
On the offensive line, Stony Brook lost four starters to graduation and transfer. Jace Rodriguez will replace Cam Lucas at left tackle and Collin Tunc will fill Cole Gambino’s shoes at left guard. Niko Papic — who was the starting right tackle last year — will shift to right guard in place of Kyle Nuñez, while Kollin Melendez will start in Papic’s old position at right tackle. As for the center position, Priore said that the frontrunner for the job is Hunter Barlow, a junior college transfer.
Defensively, the Seawolves have an underrated front seven. The unit helped the team achieve the third-best run defense in the conference in 2022.
The defensive line will feature a rotation of eight players, six of whom are holdovers from last year. The group is anchored by defensive tackle and team captain Taylor Bolesta, who racked up seven tackles for loss last year. Next to him is defensive tackle Rushawn Lawrence, who recorded three tackles for loss and a sack as the team’s third interior lineman last year. Defensive tackles Jaidan Jackson and Dyshier Clary, who is a transfer from Temple, will also be in the rotation.
On the edge, defensive ends Rodney Faulk, Davon Bomar and Anthony Williams return to the group. Faulk and Bomar were starters last year both had their seasons cut short due to injury last year, while Williams was redshirting for developmental purposes. Priore’s staff is high on Williams, as Priore himself said in an interview on Dec. 1, 2022 that they believe he could “be a dude” for the team. The team also acquired defensive end Andy Nwaoko from Boise State through the transfer portal, and Priore expects him to be in the regular rotation of edge rushers.
“I think we have a deep group that’s physical and can run to the football and show athleticism,” Priore said. “It’s a good depth chart and I think they’ll continue to deepen their résumés.”
Middle linebacker and co-captain Aidan Kaler has the chance to be the team’s best player this year if he builds on his strong finish to the 2022 season. After beginning last year as the first linebacker off the bench, Kaler wound up starting due to injuries to fellow linebackers Tyler King and Reidgee Dimanche. Kaler recorded 60 total tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss. He was named a 2023 Preseason All-CAA Honorable Mention.
Next to him will be outside linebacker A.J. Roberts, who came on strong towards the end of last season as well. He made some splash plays for Stony Brook, totaling 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Stony Brook lost 2022 All-CAA Third Team outside linebacker Carthell Flowers-Lloyd to graduation, leaving a void at the rover linebacker position; that position is still up for grabs. Potential candidates to fill that hole are Clarens Legagneur, Derell Bedingfield Jr. and Chayce Chalmers; the latter two are transfers from Toledo and Virginia. Linebackers De’Aundre Cruz and Anthony Ferrelli will also see action this year.
The secondary is the biggest question mark of this defense, as it was the weakest link last year. In 2022, Stony Brook had the second-worst pass defense in the CAA and allowed 26 touchdown passes while catching only three interceptions. The only defensive back to haul in a pick was cornerback Quenton Porter, who is back for this year.
At safety, Stony Brook has a pool of six guys vying for playing time after losing both starters in the offseason. Safety Noah Rodriguez missed all of last year with an injury but will play this year — Priore said that he could have started in 2022 had he been healthy. The team also acquired safeties Cory Gross Jr., Jalen Hoyle and Brandon Higgs in the transfer portal. Safety Nick Chimienti saw some playing time last year and is in the mix for a role this year. Priore also noted that cornerback Shamel Lazarus has also moved to safety and is in consideration for snaps at the position.
On the outside, Porter and cornerback JuJu Ganthier were the regular starters last year and have a chance to reprise their roles in 2023. Cornerback Willensky Nicolas is a sophomore who played special teams as a freshman and has the chance to get snaps on defense as well. Priore did go shopping in the offseason for better depth at cornerback and brought in Jeffrey Davis Jr. from Penn State and Cam Johnson from Virginia Tech.
Priore said that both the safety and cornerback positions are still up for grabs amongst the aforementioned candidates.
“Just like the safeties, [cornerback is] a position where we have probably two positions and six players, and they’re fighting their asses off to see who’s going to play,” Priore said.
On special teams, kicker Spencer Biscoe was brought in from Colgate to replace Angelo Guglielmello, who transferred. In two years at Colgate, Biscoe made 19 of his 25 field goals (76%) and 36 of his 39 extra points (92.3%). However, Priore said that kicker Enda Kirby is competing well against him in practice, so the job has not been officially given to Biscoe yet. Clayton Taylor will once again be the team’s punter. Ray Gallagher will handle the long snapping duties.
Stony Brook’s rebuilt roster consists of 15 transfers from FBS schools. If any of them are able to live up to the billing of being FBS talent, the Seawolves will have a shot to prove their doubters wrong. That level of talent will come in handy when Stony Brook has to take on ranked foes, as four of the teams on its schedule are currently ranked in the 2023 FCS Coaches Poll. Two more scheduled opponents (Fordham and Villanova) are receiving votes in the same poll.
With the amount of questions on their roster that the Seawolves have to answer, only time will tell if they will find the bounce back they are looking for.
Anthony DiCocco contributed reporting.