It won't take long to determine whether this season's Towson State football team is improved over 1990's 2-9 club.
After the Sept. 14 opener against Boston University, the Tigers' next three games are against teams that outscored them last year, 106-34.
"Our primary goal this year is to get better defensively," coach Phil Albert said.
There's much to get better at.
Last season, the Tigers yielded at least 40 points in four games and set team records in most points allowed (336), most first downs allowed (255) and most rushing yardage allowed (3,222).
"We want to give ourselves a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter," said Albert, entering his 20th season as head coach, "which means we need to eliminate the other team's big plays and do a better job on third-down situations."
Last year, opponents had a wide edge in this department, converting 71 of 148, to 51 of 147 by Towson State's offense.
"The defense has to be consistent," Albert said. "Last year was a guessing game after we had seven starters injured and out for most of the year. And we just were not physical enough to be successful on Saturdays."
Gary Worthington, a senior who was Towson's second-leading tackler while at defensive back and linebacker in 1990, has become the starting quarterback, but the Tigers have eight returning defensive starters, though it is likely several will be sharing time.
Safety Aaron Bates is still recovering from a 1990 injury, giving semi-regular Mike Locksley (43 tackles, two interceptions) a full-time shot at the position, and Mike Curcio's challenge to veteran nose guard Chad Yagodich has been sidetracked by a knee injury that will keep Curcio out of the lineup for several weeks.
Curcio, 6 feet 2, 265 pounds, from Dix Hills, N.Y., and Nassau Community College, is one of three transfers expected to play a lot on defense. Linebacker Dan Smith, 6-0, 232, from Convent Station, N.J., and Dean Junior College, will divide time with redshirt freshman Mike Arbutina, and tackle Bill Fisher, 6-3, 275, from Cherry Hill, N.J., and the University of Minnesota, will push veteran Doug Irvin.
Other holdover starters are linebackers Joe Kreeisher, James Dutton and Jared Freeze, lineman Bob Meehan and cornerback Dustin Harper.
Eight starters return on offense, but one will be at a new position and another is coming off a redshirt-injury season. Four of those starters and a veteran backup return in the line, with tackles Karl Nieberlein and John Loch, guards Greg Lohr and Mike Gunthrop, moved from center, and center Joe Field, who backed up Gunthrop.
Worthington has played well in preseason practice, particularly passing, working with holdover receivers Tony Hill, Kevin
Howard and Ken Weeks. The rushing game will take on a new look with two backs, tailback Robby Jackson and fullback John O'Neill, on the way back from knee surgery.
Two-year starter Jackson, 5-9, 185, is on track for a school rushing record, with 1,245 yards, 631 behind career leader Dan Ricker. A year ago, Jackson had 670 yards and eight touchdowns, and was second in receptions with 49. O'Neill's previous experience for the Tigers has been as a reserve fullback and a
safety, although he was the starting fullback for last year's opener at Rhode Island, then was lost with a second-half injury.
Albert said he finds himself in a delicate position in preparing for Boston University.
"As a head coach, you don't want to point out how critical the opener is, but everybody realizes first impressions go a long way," he said. "It's important that we come out of the gate and set the right tempo. We want the first one to make a statement: 'We are improved.'
"You want to emphasize the game, but not so much that a loss would send us right off the table."
Towson State facts and figures
Coach: Phil Albert (116-81-3, 20th year)
Last year's record: 2-9-0
Key player, offense: QB Gary Worthington
Key player, defense: LB James Dutton
Player to watch: RB Robby Jackson
Toughest game: Youngstown State
Easiest game: Howard
Pivotal game: Delaware State
Sept. 14, Boston University 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 Delaware State 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 Rhode Island 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 5 Indiana U. of Pa. 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at James Madison 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Northeastern 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 26 at Liberty 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 2 Hofstra 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 9 at Howard 1 p.m.
Nov. 16 at Maine noon
Nov. 23 Youngstown State 1:30 p.m.