Duquesne University head coach Greg Gattuso might want to put up a ‘no passing zone’ sign in front of his secondary to warn opposing coaches of what lies ahead this season.
The Dukes return a solid secondary to an experienced defense that picked off 18 passes for three touchdowns last season. That group is led by senior Dave Pucka, a graduate of Plum High School.
‘We’re really comfortable with what we have back there because the kids have worked really hard,’ Duquesne defensive backs coach Frank DiPerna said.
‘Dave is an experienced kid and a tenacious kid. A kid who just keeps working and fighting. He gets it done and makes plays. He has good vision and he plays the ball really well and he will come up and hit when he needs to. He’s a player.’
An example of Pucka’s tenacity came last year against VMI. The Dukes were losing midway through the third quarter, 31-28, when Pucka ran down VMI’s Derek Neal, who was cruising to the end zone. Pucka popped the ball out of Neal’s hands at the 4-yard line. The Dukes then marched 96 yards for a touchdown and never looked back in winning, 57-31.
Pucka started two games late in his freshman season and hasn’t been out of the starting lineup since. Things started to come together for him as a sophomore when he was 11th in the nation with six interceptions. He added 82 tackles.
Duquesne might have to lean on its veteran-filled defense as the team works to replace record-setting quarterback Tony Zimmerman, the former Penn-Trafford star.
‘Our defense has a lot of old guys with a lot of experience,’ Pucka said. ‘I’m looking forward to playing this year. One thing about our group, we never quit. We may have been outmatched a few times in the past, but, now we are a little bigger, a little faster and a little stronger. I’m really looking forward to it all.’
Pucka’s numbers were down a bit last season. He had four interceptions and 65 tackles. He is second among active Dukes in career tackles with 158. None of that seems to bother DiPerna because the defense as a whole is deeper and returns nine starters.
‘We feel that we have an experienced defense,’ DiPerna said. ‘We feel that, at times, we can play exceptional defense, too. We have to come together as a unit to fight every play. I don’t worry about that too much because they do a pretty good job of getting themselves pumped up. Dave is a good leader, he steps it up. The guys look to him to get things started and that’s what he does.’
Duquesne has been a good fit for Pucka. Most athletes coming out of high school dream of playing at a Division I school like Pitt, Penn State or Miami. That’s not going to happen for the vast majority of high school players, and Pucka was well aware of that.
‘Why Duquesneâ¢ It was close to home,’ Pucka said. ‘I had a lot of offers from Division II schools. The biggest one was Richmond, but, my brother (Bernie) was playing here so it was a good fit for me. I got on the field when I was a freshman and that has really helped me out now. Plus, it’s a great little school and you don’t have to walk too far to class. It’s not like a state school at all.’
Duquesne has won four MAAC championships in the past six seasons. More of the same is expected this year, with the team opening today against VMI. The Dukes were the preseason pick to win the conference again. For Pucka, it would be a fitting end to a fine career.
‘My goal for this year is to ultimately win the conference, but that’s our goal every year,’ Pucka said. ‘Hopefully, we can go undefeated and go to the ECAC Bowl. It’s really frustrating that we haven’t had one (ECAC Bowl) for a couple of years because we have a lot of tough teams in our conference. But, if we don’t play teams like Robert Morris how can we prove ourselvesâ¢
‘We are always listed behind them but we don’t play them,’ said Pucka. ‘We played them when I was a freshman and we beat them. If we win our conference and they win their conference we have a chance to play them in the end. That would be nice.’