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November 20, 2011

Colonials vow to recover from historically bad year

PITTSBURGH - Joe Walton understands. He's been in this game long enough to have had his heart broken countless times, had bad teams overachieve and good teams underachieve.

Losing still doesn't get any easier. But at least there's always a light at the end of the tunnel.

Nothing Robert Morris did this year went right. Not the season opener against Dayton, not the elevation of multiple running backs to the starting job in an attempt to fill Myles Russ's shoes, and not the replacement of eight starters on defense. Close games, like a last minute loss to Morgan State, slipped through their grasp. Other games, like Liberty and Saturday's 45-10 loss to Duquesne, got away by halftime and never got back within reach.

It resulted in a 2-9 record (2-6 in the Northeast Conference), the worst record in the 18-year history of the program.

"We had a lot of new guys and find some leadership, which we didn't find," Walton said. "Our quarterback didn't have a real great year, which you don't figure that to happen, and then he got hurt. You stay in this game long enough, you're going to have years like this."

Indeed, Jeff Sinclair's season might serve as the perfect avatar for the entire teams. He played eight and a half games, missing the final half of the Central Connecticut State game and the last two against Wagner and Duquesne with an MCL injury. Sinclair completed 116-of-232 passes for 1,373 yards this year, throwing 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those numbers were below his 128-for-257, 1,920 yard, 22 touchdown, 10 interception performance as a sophomore.

Sinclair struggled to help Robert Morris develop any consistency, but he didn't have much help. While Shadrae King had a career year with a record 51 receptions to go along with several career records, and Anthony Coleman had career highs with 30 receptions and 399 yards, they were part of a very one-dimensional offense.

Sinclair was the leading rusher for much of the year and the only player to have a 100-yard game. If Sinclair's tumultuous season doesn't fit the mold, then surely the running back struggles were emblematic of the Colonials' season.

"In spring ball, we kind of felt like we had some of these holes filled. They fell through," senior center Logan Miles said. "Some guys showed up to camp and it didn't work out. Some guys quit in the middle of the season. Stuff like that, especially at the running back position."

Once Myles Russ graduated, it appeared Monty Ashby would be next with Deontae Howard filling in. But Ashby's academics didn't pan out, and Howard lost out to Justin Brooks and Duane Mitchell in camp. The two freshmen, though, couldn't get it going, so Howard stepped in midway through the season and appeared to be the guy for a couple weeks. But a couple good runs by Grayling Sanders last week led to Sanders having the best day of any Robert Morris back this season against Duquesne. Even though he didn't start, Sanders had 92 yards on 18 carries, a season high for the running backs in a disappointing year.

"It's an unfortunate season," Miles admitted. "But if you look at the positives, there are so many young guys who stepped up, like Sanders, (Matt) Layman the past two weeks before he got hurt. I have faith that the program is going to get a lot better next year."

And that's where Walton picked up the philosophy headed into the offseason. The Colonials have some pieces. Now they have to build to get back to 2010 levels.

"We have to start all over again," Walton said. "A lot of the guys got experience this year and we have a lot of guys coming back. We'll get better. That's all we can hope for."

There are pieces. Sanders was a physical runner, bowling over Duquesne players left and right and fighting for extra yards. Howard did well as a change-of-pace back. Sinclair returns with receivers Rickeem Jackson, Donte Jeter, and tight ends Paul Evans, Andrew Smith, and Tyler Digby. Three players are back on the line, although the Colonials will search long and hard for a center.

And the defense loses just two starters in Alex Tarr and Jon Krepps. In all, 16 starters return, as well as the two kickers. Plus, the Colonials will get a boost from a few key players who missed the majority of the season due to injuries: DT R.J. Cook, DB Evan Taylor, DB Malik Johnson, and OL Nate Lojek. All four could be starters next year.

"I definitely have confidence we'll be back next year. For me as a senior, it's unfortunate to have to go out like this, but I'm glad some of the young guys got some reps and experience like they did," Miles said. "It's definitely a learning season. I can't wait to come and watch games next year because I really feel confident stuff will be different."

In the end, it comes down to one simple thing for Walton.

"We just have a lot of work to do, and it starts with spring ball," he said. "This one's over."

Stay tuned to ColonialsCorner throughout the week as we break down the 2-9 season, review the season superlatives, break down the depth chart for spring ball, and take a look at team needs for recruiting.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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