Robert Morris football coach Joe Walton liked what he saw of his Colonials during spring practice.
He always does.
"But you never know if what you see in the spring is what you're going to get in the fall,' said Walton, a Beaver Falls native who is the only coach in the 19-year history of the program. "They've been working hard in the weight room and have done what we've asked them to do. Technique-wise, we have to be a lot better than we were last year and we can't make so many mental mistakes."
The Colonials return 17 starters -- 8 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists -- from a 2-9 team that finished the season with six consecutive losses.
"If 2-9 doesn't tell them they were bad, nothing will," Walton said. "They don't need any motivational speeches from me to tell them they were 2-9 last season. We lost some close games early and then we lost our confidence."
Walton sprinkled his lineup with a heavy dose of young players in the final weeks once it became apparent that the Colonials would be better off trying to build for 2012.
"Our problems last year had a lot to do with leadership," he said. "We didn't have guys step up because we were young and nobody was sure whether they should be in a leadership role. It has to evolve and I saw some signs of that during the spring."
Robert Morris, which opened practice this week, was picked to finish sixth in the Northeast Conference in a recent preseason poll by the league's nine coaches.
"It doesn't really mean much to me where we are predicted to be," Walton said. "I've been around long enough to know that football coaches aren't always right. I'm confident if we keep working hard we'll keep getting better and that's all I can ask for as a coach.
"We have some talent. We also have some question marks that will have to be answered in the next couple weeks of practice."
Walton was asked if this team came into the preseason better prepared than a year ago because there are so many veterans with experience.
"Two years ago we won the league championship with a lot of older players and went to the playoffs," he said. "It's hard to replenish quickly so we struggled last year. We have a lot of players coming back but they have to re-win their positions. It will be a wide-open camp. Competition will make everybody better."
How much the offense improves this season will depend on senior quarterback Jeff Sinclair, who slumped a bit last season after a stellar sophomore season. He completed 50 percent of his passes in 2011 for 1,373 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 231 yards and six touchdowns. He was intercepted 10 times and was sacked for losses of 300 yards, often because he held on to the ball too long.
"He's a year older and I think he'll be a year smarter in his decision-making," Walton said of the hard-thrower from Highlands High School. "It's not all about the quarterback, but the quarterback has to take charge and lead the team. Jeff has been around a long time and knows what we're trying to do."
Sinclair will have to find a corps of new receivers because the top four pass-catcher are gone, leaving Dante Jeter as the top returnee with 17 receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown.
The Colonials are looking for a break-out season from running back Deontae Howard, a senior from Oliver High School who rushed for a team-high 386 yards and a touchdown last season. The offensive line will again be anchored by 295-pound A.J. Dalton, a two-year starter.
The defense will feature senior lineman Nolan Nearhoof and senior safety Cameron Chadwick, who both were named to the preseason All-NEC team. Nearhoof, a two-time All-NEC member, had 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses despite missing the final two games with an injury last season. Nearhoof, a graduate of Mars Area High School, also is a two-time Academic All-American. Chadwick led the team with 80 tackles last season.
Walton preferred not to mention any newcomers who might be expected to make an impact because "you can't tell about them until they play."
Nonetheless, it's likely that freshmen speedster Kenny Davis will push for playing time at running back and freshman Josh Thiel will provide depth on the offensive line.
Junior college transfer Adrian Perez brings impressive credentials to his linebacker position and could earn considerable minutes.
"All our guys have to establish themselves as what they want to be," Walton said. "I'm sure they don't want to be 2-9 again."