Nearly a year’s worth of anticipation has led to this.
Ever since Long Island University announced the merger of its Brooklyn and Post athletic programs last October, the talk of football moving up from Division II has dominated the discussion. The season opener is here and the newly named LIU Sharks head to South Dakota State on Saturday for their first Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) game in the program's 63-year history.
“I can’t wait,” said quarterback Clay Beathard, an Iowa Western transfer with a big arm who was named the starter after an impressive camp. “This is all I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I mean, not playing games, but this is the biggest game I’ve ever played in my life, considering the team and competition. I’m ready to go.”
South Dakota State represents a baptism by fire, as the Jackrabbits were FCS semifinalists last fall. They lost to Minnesota of the Big Ten, and a Football Bowl Subdivision school, 28-21, last week.
“I love starting out with an opponent like this,” said Beathard, brother of 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard and grandson of Hall of Fame GM Bobby Beathard. “It sets the table for the year, and it gets a lot of guys reality checks quick. We’ll be ready to go the rest of the season.”
The Sharks’ 10-game schedule features three byes — including last week — leaving coach Bryan Collins an extra week of time to get his young squad prepared. There are 35 signees with the team, and several figure to play pivotal roles.
“I guess the bye kind of worked in our favor as far as getting a young team ready to understand what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively,” Collins said. “We’re kind of antsy to see where we’re at against a different opponent.”
There’s experience around Beathard. Senior Tim Marinan and redshirt-sophomore Jonathan DeBique will anchor the running game, while junior Derick Eugene will be a big-play receiver. Redshirt senior Jake Bofshever and redshirt junior Alex Daubon also will be heavily targeted.
Damien Caffrey, a 6-5 sophomore tight end, could be a matchup nightmare in the middle of the field, opening up single coverage for receivers on the outside.
Practicing against a lauded group of defensive backs should have the receivers ready for the season. Seniors Andrew Ferriolo and Kiyon Santos and juniors Jerome Brooks III and Jahmel Johnson drew the praise of starting middle linebacker Ricco Aaron Jr., who called them “lockdown.”
Aaron Jr. said he and the defense are excited to “prove a point, man.”
“I like coming in as the underdog,” Aaron Jr. said. “A lot of people are downplaying on us because we’re going from D-II.”
Defensive tackle Abel Joseph, a redshirt senior, thinks the defensive line is being underestimated, too. Because LIU lacks size up front, Joseph said the defensive line is going to shock teams with how explosive they are.
“If anything, leverage wins,” Joseph said. “The lowest man wins. If I’m playing against a guy who’s 6-6 but he’s playing high, I can still drive him back. It doesn’t matter. I feel like it actually gives me an advantage.”
Offensive line play will be integral in giving Beathard time to progress through his reads, while the play of the defensive line will dictate the number of chances South Dakota State will have to drive the field.
A process that initially brought more questions than answers has culminated in unexplored waters for the Sharks. Joseph said camp “flew by” and that he’s ready to get on the field for real.
“At first, it was a whole intake process,” Joseph said. “You had to go out with the old and accept the new. Nobody likes change at first because everybody wants to go through the same schedule, the same routine. But this team has really accepted the change. Even though we changed colors, changed mascots, football is still football.”
LIU 2019 schedule
Sept. 7: at South Dakota State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21: Sacred Heart, 1 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Wagner, noon
Oct. 5: at Duquesne, noon
Oct. 12: at Bryant, 1 p.m.
Oct. 19: Saint Francis (Pa.), 1 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Central Connecticut State, noon
Nov. 2: at Robert Morris, noon
Nov. 15: at Villanova, 7 p.m.
Nov. 23: Merrimack, noon