On coach Brad Rzyczycki’s defense, the “Superman” position, is appropriately named.
A free safety position with additional duties of a linebacker, it’s the Gannon University football team’s version of the man of steel.
“The name says it all,” said freshman Matt Astorino, who started at the position against Mercyhurst University Oct. 13. “The (free safety) position has a lot of responsibilities in the run and the pass.”
But following the departure of All-PSAC defensive back Chris Cook and after fifth-year senior Khayree Connors-McChristian went down for the season after breaking his leg in practice two weeks ago, the secondary could’ve easily become the Kryponite for the Knights, who fell to 1-7 with a 41-0 loss to No. 14 California University of Pennsylvania Saturday.
“Khayree’s injury hurt because he’s been doing it for a long time and he’s good at stopping the run,” Rzyczycki said. “What we’ve had to try to do is use the talent we have to put the best 11 on the field and mold around that talent.”
For a team already decimated by injuries, the loss of the team’s secondary anchor and starter for the last 2 1/2 seasons had an effect.
“It was traumatic for the team,” senior strong safety Ashton Jones said.
During special teams drills the Wednesday before Gannon’s 38-29 loss to Mercyhurst, Connors- McChristian went down and was taken off by ambulance.
“A few drills after that, it hit me that I might have to take a bigger role,” Astorino said.
Thrust into the starting lineup for the first time against Mercyhurst, the General McLane graduate responded with five tackles following an emotional appearance by Connors-McChristian in the locker room prior to the game.
“He came in and we all stood up and cheered him,” Astorino said. “The older guys have been a big help in pointing out things I can do and where to be on the field.”
In addition to his seasoned Gannon teammates, Astorino is also in the rare position to elicit on-demand counsel from a three-year starter at Penn State from 2009-11 — his older brother Drew.
“Mattie and I text or talk to each other several times a week,” said Drew Astorino, who works for a logistics firm in Chicago. “From what I’ve seen this year, he’s playing physical and not being timid, because whenever you play timid, that’s when mistakes happen.”
For the Astorinos, football became a family affair, as they went to every one of Matt’s games at General McLane before turning around and traveling to see Drew play at Penn State.
Drew Astorino, who took part in a Philadelphia Eagles mini-camp this spring, said the family continues this tradition.
“Right now, I’m happy living vicariously through the fact that there’s an Astorino on the field,” he said. “We’re Matt’s biggest fans and toughest critics at once.”
Throughout the season, eliminating mistakes has been a point of concern for the Gannon defense that averages 33.6 points per game against and that has started four different secondaries this season.
“Any time you coach a young team, they bring excitement to play,” Rzyczycki said. “You do have to be more simplistic in your schemes than you would with juniors or seniors, but coaching is coaching.”
In Saturday’s loss to Cal, Gannon started two freshman and two sophomores on defense. Freshman Trenton Donald and sophomore Mike Phillips led the Knights with 11 tackles each.
The defense will have to continue to learn on the fly, said senior linebacker Will Giles.
“No matter who we put out there, we still need to play like they’re our starters because the season will go on,” Giles said. “It’s good for them to get experience and it will help them next year.”
On offense, sophomore Abraham Ocasio set the school single-season record with his 50th catch of the season.
Gannon will look for its second win of the season when it travels to Lock Haven University Saturday. The Bald Eagles are losers of a Division II-record 50 straight games.
Lock Haven is coming off a last-second 30-28 loss to Clarion University.
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