Towson begins its season tomorrow -- trying to improve on a 5-6 finish in 1998 -- it will do so without two mainstays of recent seasons: sod and quarterback Kevin Smith.
Minnegan Stadium, home of Towson football since 1978, now has artificial turf, which will be unveiled at a 1 p.m. game against Monmouth, a tuneup for the team's Patriot League schedule. The stadium's new $1.5 million surface got a tryout yesterday in conditions sunny enough to accentuate a green that seemed almost unreal.
"It's been great," Tigers coach Gordy Combs said, adding that the team hadn't seemed quicker or more agile with the change to a venue about 200 yards from its normal practice field. "We probably won't notice any difference until the actual game time."
The move to turf isn't the only big change the Tigers will be facing this season. After three seasons of waiting, Joe Lee gets the chance to start at quarterback for Towson.
For his career, Lee has thrown the ball 40 times -- completing 23 passes for 285 yards -- spending most of his career watching Smith throw for 7,746 yards.
Still, Combs says that Lee is the guy who can take Towson toward the top of the Patriot League. The team also believes so, to the point of bestowing him with co-captain honors.
"You always have some uncertainties anytime you have someone new at the quarterback position," Combs said. "At the same time, he's had a good spring, a good fall camp, and his preparation has been good so far this week. Sure he has butterflies, but he's not on a roller-coaster, he's very level-headed."
To relieve any pressure, all Lee has to do is look behind him. That's where Jason Corle will be, and that's a reassuring sight. Corle returns to the Tigers for his senior season after leading the Patriot League in rushing for the second consecutive year.
Clearing the way for Corle, and protecting Lee, will be an offensive line that contains nothing but returning starters. The new quarterback will be throwing to what the team expects to be a receiving corps worthy of respect, led by Adam Overbey and Jamal White.
It's a bigger, stronger team by all accounts, the effects of training coordinator Dean Aresco's arrival a little more than a year ago.
Educated for three months last fall on what it took to compete in the Patriot League, thirty of the team's regular players stayed over the summer to work with Aresco. The offensive line alone saw an average gain of about 20 pounds.
"The off-season program was much more meaningful after 11 games," Combs said. "They knew what they needed to do."
On defense, any physical improvements could be particularly vital, as the Tigers are trying to replace three starters on the defensive line. The confidence in the linebackers and the secondary has more of a foundation.
Linebacker Aaron Sakevich jumped straight out of the junior varsity ranks to become Towson's leading tackler last season, and the defensive backs -- led by Jabari Garrett -- are considered perhaps the strongest unit on the entire team.
And, the Towson defense has a few scores to settle.
"We have a lot of guys who had a lot of playing experience last year," Combs said. "They want to prove that they're not as bad as the 30 points a game they gave up last year."
Though Combs said he's eager for tomorrow's opener, the following Saturday is a crucial one. That's when Lafayette pays a visit, a game the coach considers at benchmark for this season. Also, the hoopla over Wednesday's start of classes will have died down.
"There have been a lot of distractions," Combs said. "It gets you a little bit out of your routine."