Running backs Jayden Cook (left) and Ty Son Lawton (right) stand on the sideline in a game against William & Mary on Oct. 1, 2022. After losing its top five backs to injury last year, the Stony Brook football team looks to have a bounce back year running the ball. TIM GIORLANDO/THE STATESMAN

Following a season riddled with injuries, offensive line struggles and poor quarterback play, the Stony Brook football team will look for its running game to return to form in 2023.

With head coach Chuck Priore at the helm, the Seawolves have been known to utilize a run-heavy offense. Prior to last season, Stony Brook’s rushing offense finished in the top three in the Colonial — now Coastal — Athletic Association (CAA) for four consecutive years from 2018 to 2021.

In Priore’s 17 seasons with Stony Brook, the offense has averaged approximately 2,017 rushing yards per season — and that includes the four-game 2020 season played in the spring of 2021. Throughout his career as the Seawolves’ head coach, the team has run the ball on 61.7% of their offensive snaps.

In Priore’s mind, this is the way to win football games.

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“Pro football and college football is about balancing your attack,” Priore said in an interview with The Statesman. “The more situations that we can create that are second and normal and third and short will be a benefit and part of it will come from your run game. It needs to be effective game to game and there needs to be a commitment to it.”

However, in 2022, the run game fell off a cliff. The team ranked last in the conference with just 105.7 rushing yards per game and an average of 3.0 yards per carry. Stony Brook rushed for only six touchdowns on the year, which was the first time in Priore’s 17-year career that the Seawolves rushed for less than 10 touchdowns in a full season.

Stony Brook’s rushing woes showed in its record. The Seawolves ended the season in last place in the CAA, finishing 2-9 overall and 1-7 in conference play.

A major contributor to this vast decline was the injury bug, which bit Stony Brook’s running back room fiercely. Star running back Ty Son Lawton and his backups Roland Dempster, Seba Nekhet, Jayden Cook and Jadon Turner all missed significant time.

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There is reason for optimism when it comes to the Seawolves’ ground game this year. Though Lawton transferred to James Madison University and Nekhet graduated, Dempster, Cook and Turner are all healthy and expected to make an impact. Also returning to the team is running back Ross Tallarico, who was named the team’s Offensive MVP last year.

Along with the returning group, Stony Brook has added a pair of running backs from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools through the transfer portal in Johnny Martin and Shakhi Carson.

Dempster is slated to be the Seawolves’ lead back this year. Before missing all of last season due to a foot fracture, Dempster rushed for 334 yards and finished fourth in the CAA in yards per carry (5.6) while spelling Lawton in 2021.

After losing his entire 2022 season due to injury, Dempster is ready to contribute again and prove that he is a top running back in the CAA.

“My coaches always say I’m a bigger back,” Dempster said. “If I lower my shoulders, I’ll be dangerous. I feel like I’m a four-down back. That’s my way of interpreting my role of what I could do for the team.”

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Priore expects a big year out of Dempster.

“He’s more than 100% healthy,” Priore said. “His foot is healthy, but his body — he’s had a whole calendar year to work on that. He’s slimmer, trimmer and he’s in better shape than he was at the start of the 2022 campaign, so I think we’re going to get the best version of Roland Dempster.”

Complementing Dempster will be Tallarico. One of the few positives to come out of last year’s barrage of injuries was Tallarico’s transformation from a sixth-string running back to a capable starter. Tallarico led Stony Brook in every rushing category, carrying the ball 158 times for 602 yards and four touchdowns. His 54.7 rushing yards per game was the 11th-best number in the CAA. He also caught 13 passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns.

After his breakout campaign, Tallarico focused on improving a few facets of his game in the offseason to continue building off the success he had.

“I pretty much just worked on my speed,” Tallarico said. “I was here all summer doing a bunch of sprints and getting bigger in the weight room and I think that’s going to help me out more. I’m a little faster and a little stronger so that will definitely be more a part of my game.”

Unlike Dempster and Tallarico, Cook and Turner will be deployed in hybrid roles this season by splitting time in the backfield and lining up as out wide. That was originally the plan last year, as Priore said back in 2022 that they were intending to use them similarly to how the San Francisco 49ers use wide receiver Deebo Samuel. However, Dempster and Nekhet’s injuries forced them to stay put in the backfield.

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In six games last season, Cook rushed for 293 yards and tacked on 63 receiving yards. Turner only totaled six carries for 31 yards last year and only has 29 career rush attempts. However, he has made the most of those opportunities, as he has a career average of 6.8 yards per carry.

As for the new guys, Priore expects Martin and Carson to chip in. In five games as a freshman for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Martin rushed for 144 yards on 31 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. He also delivered 27 receiving yards on three catches. In just two games with Kent State University last year, Carson averaged 10.2 yards per carry on his six rushes and added a touchdown.

Though the running back room is in a much better position than it was at the end of last season, the offensive line must also rebound after a rocky 2022 campaign. The Seawolves struggled in the trenches, as the offensive line was unable to clear running lanes for an already depleted backfield. Their running backs averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in 2022. Stony Brook’s inability to run the ball effectively forced its offense into more passing scenarios, which led to the team’s poor pass protection being exposed.

The offensive line has changed drastically from last year, as right guard Niko Papic is the only returning starter. With Papic shifting from right tackle to right guard, the rest of the group is expected to be rounded out by Jace Rodriguez at left tackle, Kollin Melendez at right tackle, Collin Tunc at left guard and Hunter Barlow — who transferred from Hutchinson Community College — at center.

Despite the new array of faces, Papic is confident in the line’s chemistry and ability to open holes for the backs.

“We have a very young group, but we’re building confidence in each other every day,” Papic said. “We’re working on our technique every day. I think it begins with camaraderie and we all built close friendships. That’s where it starts and then it translates to the field.”

Tight end Cal Redman — who has been used primarily as a blocker throughout his college career — echoed Papic’s sentiment.

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“The [offensive line’s] chemistry has been looking really good, actually,” Redman said. “We got a couple of young guys that have been really stepping up recently. We’re a little bit more veteran in the tight end group so we try to help out the line whenever we can, but they’re doing a great job.”

If Stony Brook’s fresh talent in the backfield and new group of blockers step up to the task, the team may be a much more competitive team in 2023. Nonetheless, as last season displayed, anything could happen, so it remains to be seen how the Seawolves’ ground game will perform once the new season gets underway.

Mike Anderson also contributed reporting.

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Anthony DiCocco is an assistant sports editor at The Statesman. He is a sophomore majoring in journalism with aspirations of becoming a sports journalist. His love of sports derives from years of playing dek hockey and watching his favorite teams, the New York Islanders, New York Mets and New York Jets. He is the beat reporter for Stony Brook’s hockey and softball teams. He has also covered football, men’s lacrosse and men’s soccer. He was previously the Editor-in-Chief of his high school newspaper the Devil’s Tale at Plainedge High School. He is a local product from North Massapequa, N. Y.

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