When Chris Villarrial took over as head coach of the Saint Francis University football program in December 2009, he knew exactly what he was getting into.
After serving one season as offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dave Opfar, Villarrial inherited a Red Flash team that hadn't had a winning season since an 8-2-1 finish in 1992, the year before making the move to NCAA Division I-AA. In fact, in four seasons before Villarrial took over, the Red Flash had eight victories ... total.
"Learning how to win is a tough thing," said Villarrial, a three-time All-American offensive lineman at IUP and two-time All-Pro who played 11 seasons in the NFL. "That's what we're trying to do here at Saint Francis. If you can bring guys in who have been successful and won state championships, then it helps your cause a lot more."
So Villarrial went right to the source of high school success and started plucking its players. Four former members of the Clairton High School football team are on the roster at Saint Francis: Starting quarterback Capri Thompson, starting linebacker Bishop Neal, and linebackers Brandon Small and Erik Walker, both of whom are listed No. 2 on the depth chart.
Clairton is currently on a 65-game winning streak, the longest in the country, and has won the past five WPIAL Class A championships and four PIAA titles in a row.
"Everybody who plays at Clairton has the ability to play at the next level," Neal said. "It's the attitude that we carry more than the physical presence that we have."
But it is Neal's physical presence that has teams around the Northeast Conference beginning to take notice. Considered small at linebacker coming out of Clairton, this 5-foot-11, 191-pound junior saw action in 10 games as a freshman and started all 11 games last season to earn preseason All-NEC honors this year.
"Bishop is a great guy, you couldn't ask for a better quality-type of kid," Villarrial said. "When Bishop came into this program, a lot of people thought he was undersized. Now the talk abound the NEC is 'How did we let this guy go?'
"Bishop has done a tremendous job for us. We have to hold him out of drills sometimes because he just loves to hit. He's been a great leader for us. If he keeps growing and getting better speed-wise, he's a player you might see at the next level some day."
As a senior at Clairton, Neal and Small were the leaders on defense. Small, a 5-10, 220-pound redshirt sophomore, plays more inside linebacker in the Red Flash's 3-4 defense, while Neal plays on the outside when the defense goes to a 4-3 formation and has moved back to strong safety at times. Neal was second on the team in tackles last season with 75.
"We recruited both of them at the same time," Villarrial said. "Small is starting to come into his own right now, starting to learn the system. He's taking on more of a leadership role, becoming more vocal and getting guys lined up. He's definitely going to be a player for us in the future."
Rounding out the linebacker trio from Clairton is Walker, a 6-3, 245-pound sophomore who Villarrial said has the potential to get up close and personal with a lot of opposing quarterbacks.
"Erik is going to be a guy, if he can perfect his rip move, his speed rush, he's going to give a lot of tackles fits in this conference. He's very fast, lean, long and if he can perfect that rip move like Warren Sapp used to have, he's going to give a lot of guys fits."
Thompson could be a player to give defenses fits as a redshirt freshman quarterback. A 6-2, 190-pounder, Thompson is currently splitting time in a two-quarterback system with fellow redshirt freshman Max Ward.
"Right now it's hard because I'm new to it, coach is new to it and the other quarterback is new to it," Thompson said of the two-quarterback system. "We just have to put our strengths together and do what it takes to help the offense move the ball."
The offense moved the ball in the season opener Saturday but it wasn't quite enough. The Red Flash traveled to Statesboro, Ga., and took on the No. 10-ranked Georgia Southern Eagles and was dealt a 59-17 setback.
Thompson completed 4 of 11 passes for 45 yards in his Saint Francis debut, while Ward ended up 3 for 7 for 49 yards.
"Capri is learning the system more and more," Villarrial said. "He's very confident. If anyone knows Capri, he has a little swag to him. He's a leader."
But losing is something these four Clairton players have seen very little of.
"It's heartbreaking for me," Thompson said. "It will make me work harder, be like a motivation."
"It was really difficult at first," Neal said. "We're trying to get back to that winning tradition we had at Clairton."
And why Villarrial will welcome the Bears with open arms.
"There's so much talent up there. We're going to try to keep that pipeline going and try to get more Clairton guys because it's really worked out well for us. The leadership that these guys bring into the program has made coaching so much easier for us."
Saint Francis has very little time to recover from last week's loss. The Red Flash continues its rugged non-conference schedule by traveling to Harrisonburg, Va., to take on No. 17 James Madison (1-1). Kickoff Saturday is at 6 p.m.sportscollegedistrict
Rick Davis: email@example.com or 412-263-3789.