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After Injury-Hampered Season, Towson Feeling Good About 2017

August 15, 2017
Previews:  Maryland  |  Navy  |  Morgan  |  Johns Hopkins  |  McDaniel  |  Stevenson 

Head coach:
Rob Ambrose (ninth season)
2016 Record: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Colonial Athletic Association.
Key Returners: QB Morgan Mahalak, RB Shane Simpson, LB Chris Tedder, LB Diondre Wallace.
Key games: Sept. 2 vs. Morgan State; Sept. 9 at Maryland; Sept. 30 vs. Villanova; Oct 14 vs. Richmond.

Outlook: Coming off a promising 2015 campaign in which the team finished 7-4, Towson entered 2016 with high expectations, but injuries to its starting quarterback and running back led to a disappointing season.

Now that the Tigers are healthy, head coach Rob Ambrose is optimistic about the 2017 season.

"I have not felt this good coming out of the spring and summer in a long time," Ambrose said. "... We're as healthy as we've ever been. There are two players who are not 100 percent as camp starts, and that's the first time that's ever happened."

Towson will be led by redshirt junior quarterback Morgan Mahalak. Last year, the highly lauded transfer from Oregon suffered a broken clavicle in the Tigers' second game. With Mahalak sidelined, Towson lost six straight. He returned to lead the Tigers to three straight wins to end the season.

With such a limited sample size, it's tough to judge the true extent of Mahalak's skills, but Ambrose said Mahalak's ability to lead the offense is markedly improved.

"Think about when I got him, how much he had to learn to get the job," Ambrose said. "It's sort of like, here's a car and you don't know how to drive it. Here are the basics, figure it out. He had some of the basics down, and then he got hurt. ... After being in the system for almost a full year now, his understanding of what we're trying to get done is not basic anymore. So with his understanding of the offense, and them becoming more comfortable with him, you'll see some good things this fall."

In addition to Mahalak's injury, the Tigers' offense suffered another blow when senior running back Darius Victor was lost to a toe injury. The third-ranked all-time rusher in team history missed the last seven games of his final season as a Tiger. Filling his shoes was then-redshirt freshman Shane Simpson, who led the Tigers with 784 rushing yards and will enter this season as the team's primary tailback. 

A multi-threat back from Easton, Pa., Simpson also caught nine passes for 64 yards and had 915 yards on 34 kickoff returns. He set the program's single-game record with 229 return yards against South Florida and tied the team record with a 100-yard touchdown return against New Hampshire. He was named preseason All-CAA at kick returner.

"Shane is probably the most versatile player I've ever had the opportunity to coach," Ambrose said. "Not only does his brain understand, but, physically, he can be a wideout, and that's a challenging thing when you break formations. When you put a bunch of heavyset guys out there, and it looks like we're going to ram the ball down your throat, and then all of a sudden we're in empty [set], matchup-wise, that's a problem."

This offseason, the Tigers made a significant staff change on the defensive side of the ball with the dismissal of defensive coordinator Matt Hachmann and the promotion of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson and Ambrose spent seven years together as assistant coaches at the University of Connecticut before Johnson moved on to the University of Maryland as an outside linebackers coach, special teams coordinator and assistant head coach. He arrived at Towson in 2016 as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

"I love Matt Hachmann. I thought he'd done a great job over eight years," Ambrose said. "But sometimes you need a change. ... There's a little difference in attitude, a little more aggressive and we're having a little more fun."

Towson was ranked 10th out of 12 teams in the CAA in preseason voting by the league's head coaches and media relations directors, so the Tigers' path to victory may require an unconventional approach. But that's something Ambrose is used to.

"... There's a job to do. You may not have the exact tool to get it done, but you're going to find a way to get it done," he said. "So moving parts around, playing to our strengths, improving on our weaknesses, going for it on fourth-and-whatever -- conventional, nah, just whatever it takes to get it done."

Issue 236: August 2017