Trio of receivers fills big shoes, helps fuel Slippery Rock football’s playoff run
Anytime a team needs to replace a quarterback, there is the inevitable buzz that comes with such a high-profile position.
Slippery Rock had to do that this season. Twice.
Andrew Koester opened as the starter after the graduation of Tanner Garry, but an injury in the second game ended his season. In came Roland Rivers III, who jump-started the offense and led The Rock (11-2) to the Division II quarterfinals, where they will visit unbeaten (12-0) and 11th-ranked Notre Dame (Ohio) on Saturday.
With all the quarterback upheaval, it is easy to forget The Rock also had to replace game-breaking receivers Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye. They combined for 23 touchdowns and nearly 2,200 yards receiving last season.
“Those guys were lethal,” coach Shawn Lutz said. “They were as good as it gets.”
But Lutz found more-than-capable replacements in junior Mike Merhaut (Pine-Richland), redshirt sophomore Henry Litwin and redshirt sophomore Jermaine Wynn Jr. (Woodland Hills). They have combined for 1,911 yards and 20 scores.
Their production might be surprising considering their status a year ago.
Litwin was strictly a special teams player and didn’t catch a pass. Merhaut caught 23 passes, none for touchdowns. Wynn was playing at Alderson Broaddus and caught 28 passes for 562 yards and six touchdowns.
Lutz said Wynn’s addition was key, but his transfer didn’t come without some nervous moments.
Wynn, who wanted to be closer to home, was eligible academically, but, in order to avoid sitting out a year, he needed a release from Alderson Broaddus officials. The school balked initially, but after Lutz made a few phone calls, he got his wish.
“I didn’t know how things were going to pan out transferring schools,” Wynn said. “But I knew I would be put into a great offense. It was kind of weird at first because I knew I had big shoes to fill. Milly Raye was an ESPN guy, the splash guy.
“I always just try to remind myself that I’m not Milly Raye. I just remind myself to be Jermaine Wynn.”
The trio has complemented each other nicely. Lutz described them this way: Wynn (48 catches, 703 yards, 8 TDs) is the big-play guy. Merhaut (21/422/4) is the classic possession receiver and a good blocker. Litwin (44/786/8), the biggest of the three at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, has the ball skills to catch whatever is thrown in his direction.
Slippery Rock’s offense will face a Falcons defense that is the nation’s best inside the red zone and ranks second against the run. That will put more onus on the passing game.
Lutz said his team wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Our guys will prepare like it’s any other game,” he said. “The stakes are higher, but they don’t think anybody can stop them.”
Added Wynn: “It’s just another game to us. Coach preaches not to worry about the other team and just worry about what we are doing.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at [email protected] or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.