A year ago, Georgetown looked completely lost on the football field. Two consecutive seasons with zero Patriot League victories will lend to that.
Today, the situation is very different.
Last season represented a breakthrough for head coach Rob Sgarlata’s Hoyas. After finishing 2016 and 2017 with no Patriot League victories, 2018’s team finished with four en route to a second-place finish in the conference. This drastic improvement has put the league on notice, and this season, Georgetown was picked third in the Patriot League preseason coaches’ poll.
“We came into this thing a couple of years ago knowing we’d have to build a little bit,” Sgarlata said. “Everybody looked at me all crazy three years ago when I said, ‘We’re gonna win the conference.’”
And build he did, despite the annual difficulties the football program faces, namely their recruiting constraints and seemingly endless stadium construction. All Patriot League football teams are subject to the Academic Index (AI), a metric that combines mean GPA and standardized test scores of all recruits. The Patriot League limits the number of players that do not fall within two points of the AI scale. Even so, there are many academically talented high school football recruits that Georgetown misses out on due to their self-imposed scholarship restrictions. That Georgetown managed to place second in Patriot League play in the 2018 season is a testament to Sgarlata doing more with less.
“Georgetown is a special place and if you do a good enough job finding people that believe in what we believe in, sisu (a Finnish term meaning the strength of will, determination, or perseverance), men for others, guys that care about the community and are great people and you can win championships,” said Sgarlata.
One such person is former Clemson assistant coach Rob Spence, who returns as the Hoyas’ offensive coordinator. His first year with the Hoyas saw massive improvements in their run game. In 2017, the Hoyas averaged 59.8 rushing yards per game, compared to 93.9 in 2018 following Spence’s arrival on the Hilltop. The backfield figures to be the Hoyas’ strength this year, building upon last season’s offensive improvements.
“[Spence has] done a great job and is just a very knowledgeable guy, coaches us hard every day, and gets the best out of us, for sure,” senior offensive lineman Ryan Jelinek said.
Senior Quarterback Gunther Johnson will lead the Hoyas, coming off a career year with 1,696 yards and nine touchdowns through the air. Johnson is both a running and passing threat, making him an asset to the Hoyas and keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
“Having two people in the backfield that can run the ball gives you another dimension in your offense,” sophomore running back Herman Moultrie III said. “They can’t just key in on the running back, they also have to be able to defend the quarterback. It gives the offense another dimension.”
This adds to the impressive backfield that the Hoyas currently have. They will return their three top running backs from last season, including Moultrie III, juniors Jackson Saffold and Jay Tolliver. Moultrie III was an offensive standout for the Hoyas in 2018, leading the team with 358 rushing yards on 88 carries as a true freshman.
“It’s been a lot of competition, a lot of reps at practice just trying to get each other better,” said Moultrie III. “We had a decent year last year so we just gotta try and pick up and continue our success.”
The Hoyas receiving corps is led by senior Michael Dereus. Dereus topped the Hoyas with 379 receiving yards in 2018 and tied for first on the team with two touchdown receptions. Fellow senior Brandon Williams also had a memorable year, leading the team with 28 catches over his 10 starts.
The offensive line figures to be one of the strongest position groups on the Hoyas, as they are returning four starters in 2019. Returning seniors Ryan Jelinek and Justin Wood helped the Hoyas solidify their run game last year, and look to return strong with help from sophomores Neal Azar and TJ Thomas.
“Overall, as a unit, we’ve done a good job of being that force, that leading, driving force of the offense and I think as we continue to do that we’re gonna see a lot more success in the pass game and overall to open up our whole offense this year,” said Jelinek.
The offense will look to match the efforts of the defense, which impressed last season and had four players selected to the preseason All-Patriot League Team. The headliner of the group was senior defensive lineman Khristian Tate, who amassed 54 tackles and 10 sacks en route to being named to the STATS FCS Preseason All-America Third Team.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know about it, so that’s one thing. I don’t really try to read a lot of things about me cause it’s all hype until the season starts,” Tate said. “I’ve been training a lot with the guys, working speed to power, power to speed, doing everything I can to help my team out but also play my position well.”
A strong point for the defense was the team’s turnover differential, which sat at plus-6 over the 2018 season. The defense as a whole tallied six fumble recoveries and 20 (!! is that legit!?) interceptions over the course of the year, uplifting the offense and setting them up with good field position.
“Perfect practice makes perfect play,” junior linebacker Wesley Bowers said. “If you put yourself in those certain situations during the week, the games, it’ll show up and you know how to handle those high-pressure situations.”
The front seven anchored an impressive defense, setting the tone with strong fundamental play that led to pressure on the quarterback. Tate headlines a group that also includes juniors Bowers, Duval Paul, Xavier Reddick, George Ikott, and Owen Kessler. That group combined for 29.5 sacks and 55.5 tackles for loss, showing their ability to stop offenses in their tracks. They do so by constantly stressing the fundamentals of football.
“On defense, we focus on alignment, stance, and key. Those are the three basic fundamentals,” Tate explained. “Just focusing on those things, focusing on it a lot during early periods of practice, and then we try and enact all those roles.”
The growth in the front seven has also been helped by linebacker coach Jamie Sharper, a nine-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion. Sharper was a member of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, arguably the greatest defense of all time, and the Hoya linebackers credit him with doing a great job of passing on that knowledge from his professional career.
“He really helps us visualize the knowledge and put it in the room and it’s improved our play tremendously,” Bowers observed. “The young guys just took that knowledge and ran with it and the older guys are really taking to it as well, so having him is a great thing.”
Pressure from the front seven allowed the defensive backs to shine last season, but the loss of Blaise Brown will force other players in the secondary to step up. In addition to his play on special teams, Brown was one of the Hoyas’ top defensive backs last season and an unquestioned leader on the team. In his place, seniors Leon Agee and Jalen Goldwire will have to assume leadership roles. The pair combined for 70 tackles, three interceptions, and 14 passes defensed last year, playing a critical role in helping Georgetown’s turnover differential.
The Hoyas will open the season against the Davidson Wildcats, a team they soundly defeated 38-14 in their previous matchup three years ago. After that, GU will have home games against Marist and Catholic before hitting the road for a pair of Ivy League contests with Columbia and Cornell. Once again, Georgetown will play six games on the road and five at home, including Homecoming (Oct. 12 vs. Lafayette), Parents’ Weekend (Oct. 19 vs. Lafayette), and Senior Day (Nov. 2 vs. Colgate).
Georgetown football has a promising outlook again going into the 2019 season after a difficult three years of rebuilding upon Coach Sgarlata’s arrival.
“You have to have faith in what you’re doing and just believe that if you keep doing the right things that you’ll have success,” Sgarlata commented, reflecting upon the struggles of previous years.
Time will tell if the Hoyas will continue on an upward trajectory in 2019.