This is the first of a series of pre-season previews of PSAC football teams entering the 2012 season which will be posted over the next few days.
#11 California (Pa.) Vulcans (10-3, 6-1 PSAC West co-champions)
Season Opener: Thursday, August 30 vs. Hillsdale (GLIAC)
Offensive/Defensive Starters Returning: 6/4
Key Returnees: QB Peter Lalich, RB Lamont Smith, DB Rontez Miles
For the first time in over a decade, California will have a new boss patrolling the sidelines as Mike Kellar was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach following the retirement of John Luckhardt, who led the Vulcans to an 88-33 record, seven consecutive PSAC West titles and five consecutive appearances in the NCAA playoffs.
If there’s one constant about Cal, it’s the high caliber of opposition they open the season with. This season’s non-league opponent, #17 Hillsdale, is the defending GLIAC regular season champion. The Vulcans opened the 2009 and 2010 seasons with perennial national powerhouse Saginaw Valley State and last season with St. Cloud State.
While senior quarterback Peter Lalich returns, three top receivers, including second team All-American Thomas Mayo (now in the Oakland Raiders training camp) have graduated. The Vulcans’ returning receiving corps have a combined 38 career receptions. Running back Lamont Smith, who rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, is expected to lead the offense.
The biggest holes for the Vulcans to fill are on defense, where only four starters return. However, one of those starters is All-American defensive back Rontez Miles, the reigning PSAC West Defensive Player of the Year. Miles recorded 71 tackles, 13 passes defended and five interceptions. Senior Greg Cochrane, who recorded 3.5 sacks, joins Miles in the defensive backfield.
Within the front seven, only a pair of linebackers – junior Brian Justice (93 tackles, 13 tackles for loss) and sophomore Spencer Lynn (90 tackles) – return. The Vulcans will be counting on senior defensive lineman Jason Kates and junior Darnell Harding (12.5 tackles for loss) to anchor the front four. Senior Brett Diamond, a two-time All-PSAC West first teamer, missed the 2011 season due to injury.
PREDICTION: The past nine months have been tumultuous to say the least at Cal U. Three head coaches, the athletic director and the school’s president have departed, while additional budget cuts have affected the athletic department. However, on the field, the Vulcans are … still the Vulcans. Anything less than a berth in the NCAA playoffs will be considered a failure in the Mon Valley. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but with the first five games against Hillsdale, Kutztown, Edinboro, Indiana (Pa.) and West Chester, the road to the post-season will be Cal’s toughest since 2008. If the defense steps up and Lalich adjusts quickly to his new receivers, the Vulcans will be back on top in the PSAC West.