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First-time starters make immediate strides for West Chester University

WEST GOSHEN – Last Saturday, West Chester head coach Bill Zwaan watched his nationally-ranked football team struggle to a season-opening squeaker against Bentley. Prepared for a brutal film session the next day, Zwaan was actually pleasantly surprised.

“We found some things we have to correct, but we also found a lot more good things than we expected,” he said.

Heading into the 2019 campaign, Zwaan and his staff thought this team – despite a dozen first-time starters – had the potential to develop into a championship-caliber outfit, and nothing they saw on film changed that opinion. Make no mistake, there were a lot of first-game blunders, but a lot of the newcomers exhibited improvement in-game from the first half to the second.

“A lot of it is very correctible,” Zwaan said. “Some is just guys playing in their first game. We were more disappointed in some of the older guys, who you don’t expect to make some of the mistakes they did.”

A prime case in point is redshirt freshman Jackson Taylor (Abington). Projected to be the next great WCU linebacker, the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder did not record a single tackle in the opening 30 minutes of action, but regrouped to notch eight tackles and a pass breakup in the second half.

Taylor is replacing All-American Tyler Morrissey, who amasses 223 tackles, 15.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in the previous two seasons. The bounce-back is important because it shows tangible evidence of an inexperienced player making strides immediately.  

“He is going to be a great, great player for West Chester. He’s young, he’s a go-getter,” said teammate Tyrone Barge.

“Jackson Taylor is going to be really, really good,” Zwaan agreed. “But he probably misses six or seven tackles. He is going to make those plays for us. It was the first-game type of thing.

“The game slowed down for him a little bit in the second half. You know that is going to happen, but he played so well in workouts, we thought he would handle it better than he did in the first half. What he did after that is the way we expect him to play.”

And it wasn’t just Taylor. Other first-time starters Nyeem Jones (blocked field goal) and Sterlen Barr (seven tackles) finished strong, and so did offensive linemen like freshman Nika Wright (Pennsbury), junior Dom Carey and senior Shane Griffin (Abington).

“Wright did a good job as the game wore on and got a lot more comfortable, and it was the same way with Griffin and Carey,” Zwaan said. “It’s definitely going to keep coming.”

It’s a trend that needs to continue for the 19th ranked Rams as they head into the first road game of the season at Gannon on Saturday (kickoff at noon). The Golden Knights edged Southern Connecticut State, 14-7, in their opener.

“Gannon is also young, but I think they are good football team,” Zwaan said. “We will have to do a much better job offensively because they are a better defense.

“And they’ve still got some weapons. The new running back (Melvin Blanks) is good, but he’s not quite like (All-American Marcus Jones) last year. The quarterback (Jimmy Keefe) is back and a couple of their wide receivers are back. We have to get some pressure on their quarterback, which we didn’t do against Bentley.”

West Chester limited Jones to 62 rushing yards on 20 carries a year ago and cruised to a 31-7 victory. The Knights went on to finish 2-9 in 2018 and were picked to finish sixth in the PSAC West in the coach’s vote. That has Zwaan concerned about overconfidence.

“I am worried about that every week,” he admitted. “I know that because of our inexperience, each game is going to be tough, but I’m not sure all of our kids know that. I’m hoping they learned a lot from last Saturday, but who knows when you’re dealing with young, inexperienced guys.

“We have to keep beating it into their heads so they understand that at this level we have to be ready each week. And Gannon is always trying to prove something against us, for sure.”

For ammunition, Zwaan can harken back to the program’s last road trip to Gannon in 2013, where the Rams had to score a lot of points to get the win, 56-41. And then there was the most recent trip to Erie in 2016.

“It was a wild double-overtime game where we had 700-plus yards of offense and still lost (54-51) to Edinboro,” Zwaan recalled. “Plus, this is Gannon’s first home game and our first road game. So we will be battling a lot of things out there.”

Although WCU surrendered a single touchdown in Game One, Zwaan wasn’t happy that his defense did not force a turnover or notch a single sack. And Bentley amassed 334 yards of total offense.

“We have a young defense and we are still finding out who we are,” said Barge, a defensive tackle.

“I don’t think we played as physical as we need to be on defense,” Zwaan added. “I want to see that pick up. Last season we led the country in sacks (50).”

GOOD NEWS ON FREEMAN INJURY

The injury report is another area that looks better than it did last weekend. That’s because 6-5 junior defensive end Fulani Freeman’s hip injury is not, apparently, season-ending.  

“He’s the only one we are concerned about right now,” Zwaan said. “It sounds like some sort of hip injury and they are still trying to figure out exactly how they are going to approach it. My guess is he won’t be playing Saturday.”

There is also good news for Zwaan himself, who endured five knee surgeries, a staph infection and two mini-strokes in the offseason. After using a golf cart to get around all through spring and summer workouts, Zwaan stood unaided on the sidelines for hours on Saturday.

“I responded pretty well,” he reported. “I was surprised the leg held up pretty good. The game was so close I didn’t have time to think about it.

“And I was happy with the way I felt on Sunday, so I’m OK.”

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