Towson head football coach Rob Ambrose talks about the upcoming season at CAA Media Day. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)
Towson football coach Rob Ambrose held a team meeting in January 2011 and remembers his players displaying the confidence and chemistry of a squad that had a 10-1 record the season before — not the Tigers' actual 1-10 mark.
While Ambrose didn't anticipate then that the Tigers were two seasons from their run to a 2013 Football Championship Subdivision national championship appearance, he knew his squad was forming a unique bond.
He said that's how he feels entering the 2017 season, too.
Despite the Colonial Athletic Association ranking Towson 10th out of 12 teams in its preseason poll, Ambrose and the Tigers expect better health and consistency will help the team improve on last year's 4-7 finish.
"I have not seen an offseason like that [until] this year," Ambrose said Tuesday during CAA media day at M&T Bank Stadium. "The kids are hungry, and they're together. Anytime you can get a large group of people working hard and having fun doing it, odds are good things tend to happen."
Entering his ninth season coaching Towson, Ambrose said he'll be better rested this season — at least that's what he joked Towson's increased quarterback depth should provide.
Last year, starter Morgan Mahalak — eligible after transferring from Oregon — suffered a shoulder injury early in the season. Because Ambrose didn't want to burn the redshirts for his two true freshman backups, the Tigers started Ellis Knudson, listed at tight end for the upcoming season, under center for six games.
Though Towson went 4-1 in Mahalak's appearances, they lost all of Knudson's. The program is 15-19 in three seasons since its national title game appearance.
But Ambrose highlighted redshirt freshmen Ryan Stover and Triston Harris as viable backup quarterbacks, a deep wide receiver corps and running back Shane Simpson, the lone Tiger to make the preseason All-CAA team (as a returner) as possible offensive threats.
"Ellis was standing out there on an island, and God bless him, he did a hell of a job considering," Ambrose said. "But to now have Morgan a year in the program, understanding exactly what we're trying to get done, having those two young guys behind him, they get it. So now we're smart, we're athletic, we can throw the ball and we have depth that can play."
The Tigers also said they have stronger chemistry.
Long snapper Will Hayes, for example, knows he doesn't have a large role, pinching his index finger and thumb together to illustrate how few plays he has a game. So, the senior instead bases his leadership off of relationships with his teammates.
Defensive back Monty Fenner, meanwhile, is eager to help the incoming freshmen develop productive habits in film study, practice and class. The details during the week matter most, the redshirt junior said, because the Tigers lost three games last season by seven points or fewer.
"It was just one play here, one play there," Fenner said. "It wasn't getting blown out."
"I like being ranked as the underdog," Hayes said. "It keeps people guessing."
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Ambrose has recognized his players' positive outlook as they've progressed through winter workouts and spring practices. He has seen groups of players post pictures on Instagram from Orioles games, paintball outings and video game sessions.
It's the same level of camaraderie the coach saw in his national championship-bound squad in 2013, and he hopes that will translate to the field — and to a postseason appearance — this fall.
"We had a large graduating group last year, and when those guys graduated, they were 4-7," Ambrose said. "What's left doesn't like 4-7. What's left doesn't like the fact that we haven't been to the playoffs in [four] years."