HARRISONBURG — This is the dream for any offensive-minded coach.
“I’m just trying not to screw it up,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “We’ve got too many good players.”
Ambrose joked the biggest problem he has entering his 11th year in charge is figuring out how to use all his returning talent effectively and get all his proven skill players touches.
Around quarterback Tom Flacco, the 2018 Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year, the Tigers bring back fellow All-CAA first-team choices running back Shane Simpson and wide receiver Shane Leatherbury as well as third-team all-league left guard Aaron Grzymkowski. Wide receiver Jabari Allen, who had a team-best eight receiving touchdowns, and tight end Chris Clark, who had four scoring grabs of his own, and starting left tackle Andrew Garnett return, too.
Towson led the CAA in total offense (465 yards per game), scoring offense (34.5 points per game), passing offense (275 yards per game) and first downs (309), and ranked within the top 20 nationally of those four categories last year in a season that finished with the program reaching the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“When you got guys that understand what we’re doing, we’re not just going to keep doing the same thing,” Ambrose said. “We’re going to keep growing it. Every offense we’ve had that was worth a damn evolved, and it evolved to the strength of the players.”
During Towson’s 7-5 overall and 5-3 CAA campaign last year, the offense flourished thanks to Flacco, according to Ambrose. Flacco transferred to Towson after at stints at Rutgers and Western Michigan.
“If you think about it there’s no real parts on that offense last year that weren’t there the year before except him,” Ambrose said. “Then all of a sudden, there’s multiple all-conference players and he was the catalyst for all of it. And if you have a quarterback in this league, you have a chance to win and he’s the leader. He’s a grownup and that’s the best way to describe him. He’s been at the carnival and doesn’t care about stupid stuff anymore. He cares about winning.”
Towson scored 40 or more points in five games, 30 or more points in seven games and at least 20 points in 10 games. The only two contests the Tigers failed to reach 20 came late last year.
James Madison held Towson in check during a 38-17 win for the Dukes at Johnny Unitas Stadium in the regular-season finale, and the week after the Tigers got beat 31-10 at home by Duquesne in the first round of the FCS playoffs, which Ambrose said prompted him to change the timing of his spring practices.
This coming season Towson visits JMU on Oct. 26.
“We moved it up and we were basically done spring ball by the middle of March,” Ambrose said. “And for a couple of reasons, but the big reason was because the first-round playoff game we played in was probably the worst weather I’ve ever coached in. I’ve coached in three hurricanes and it wasn’t that bad, and so I started thinking about it long and hard.
“At the [FBS] level, if you’re not playing for a national championship, but you have a good year, win your conference title or something like that and go to a bowl game, you go somewhere where it’s warm and you play one game. That’s it, but the [FCS] tournament isn’t that at all, and it’s not that I didn’t know that, but these kids didn’t. They hadn’t been through that and I wanted to teach them that, so we started in February and it was cold, it was miserable, but they took to it pretty good.”
The other changes Towson dealt with were ones to the staff.
Even though Towson will run the same offense, Ambrose’s brother and longtime offensive coordinator, Jared, left for the same job at Delaware. Ambrose didn’t name a replacement since he calls the plays anyway, but he also hired Eric Daniels, who spent the last three seasons working at the NAIA level, to run Towson’s defense.
Daniels was the defensive coordinator at Briar Cliff University last year, and helped that defense improve from 52 points per game allowed in 2017 to just 24 points per game allowed in 2018.
“I’m not exactly a by the book kind of guy,” Ambrose said of hiring Daniels. “Actually he was the linebacker coach at SMU when my [athletic director] was at SMU, and he had followed his career a little bit along the way. But some good people had called to recommend him, people that I respect, so I interviewed him and I loved him. He’s young, aggressive, intelligent and kind of reminds me of me on the other side of the ball when I was a little bit younger.”
On defense, Towson has many of the same players, who have talent but never put it all together last year, back for this season. The Tigers gave up 28.8 points per game last fall.
“It’s a good group,” Ambrose said. “But they weren’t happy with what they did last year because statistically we weren’t very good. They’re very hungry.”
All-CAA second-team linebacker Robert Heyward headlines the personnel for Towson’s defense, but Ambrose said he’s excited about linebackers Ricky DeBerry, Keon Paye and Malik Tyne in addition to defensive lineman Bryce Carter, too.
Ambrose said he believes Daniels’ style will aid the Tigers.
“We’ve really gotten personnel based,” Ambrose said. “Some of it’s going to look exactly the same and some of it will look entirely different, but it’ll be depend on who’s healthy, who’s playing well and who we’re playing against at the time. I think our ability to be multiple is to a much greater degree than what we’ve done in the past and I think our kids have a lot of confidence in it.”
In regard to following up last year’s playoff appearance, Towson is now in position to make it a regular habit, according to Ambrose.
Under Ambrose, the Tigers won at least a share of the conference title in 2011 and 2012, and reached the FCS national title game in 2013 before going through the five-year drought of not playing in the postseason.
“The kids in this class were the kids that got recruited on all the work that the national championship team did,” Ambrose said, “and that the conference title team did, and they had heard the stories and thought that uniforms win games, but uniforms don’t win games. So they’ve changed the mentality and they love it where they are and I think now they talk about legacy and the players that will come behind them and what they want the teams behind them to play like, and there’s a sense of responsibility of how we play the game and how we represent the institution. It’s really exciting.
“It was good when we did it the first time around because people said you couldn’t do it, but now you’re building something that should be normal and last a long time.”