Sam Castronova has thrived in his first season commanding the run-pass option offense, evaluating the opportunities opposing defenses present and making the most of them.
It’s similar to the way he handled his college recruitment.
Castronova had ambitions to play Division I football coming out of Williamsville South High School four years ago. He spent another two years at Erie Community College working toward that goal.
When that dream dissipated, Castronova found his level at Bethel University in Tennessee, taking advantage of the opportunity to become one of the top quarterbacks in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
“I was hoping to go Division I like all kids have the dream to,” Castronova said. “But I wouldn’t change anything because I’m glad to be here in the situation we are in.”
A season to remember
With Castronova at quarterback, unbeaten Bethel enters the 16-team NAIA Division I championship tournament ranked No. 3 in the country. The Wildcats’ offense is averaging 56.4 points and 538 yards per game, leading the NAIA in both categories, and Castronova ranks third nationally with a 184.5 passer rating.
On Thursday, he was named the Mid-South Conference Player of the Year.
“People are going to remember Sam Castronova’s name for a long time here in McKenzie, Tennessee,” Bethel coach Brent Dearmon said.
Dearmon would know. He set passing records while leading Bethel to consecutive conference championships in the early 2000s and remained a popular figure on campus before returning as head coach this season.
Castronova claimed one of Dearmon’s records on his 22nd birthday Saturday when he threw his 27th touchdown of the season to help the Wildcats finish the regular season 10-0 for the first time.
“It was a pretty awesome day I won’t forget,” Castronova said. “I don’t think you can get a much better birthday than that.”
Castronova has also broken his own school record for total yards of offense (2,440) and is 211 yards shy of breaking Dearmon’s single-season record for passing yards (2,388).
“He’s been a great leader for us,” Dearmon said. “Me playing quarterback myself and now being a coach here, I require a lot out of my QBs. He’s been able to take it all on and the guys look up to him like he’s another coach on the field.”
Flourishing in new system
After going 3-7 in Castronova’s junior year, Bethel has had a remarkable turnaround under Dearmon, who worked on the staff at Auburn University before becoming the offensive coordinator at Division II Arkansas Tech, and has authored a book on the run-pass option, "The Evolution of the RPO."
“I read about two or three chapters when I saw he got the job,” Castronova said. “Then I came in for spring ball and realized he was teaching us what I was reading, so I stopped because I was getting it first-hand.”
Castronova’s athletic ability, decision-making and quick release make him an ideal fit for the RPO, Dearmon said. This season, he’s rushed for 263 yards and five touchdowns on 64 attempts on top of his passing production.
“He’s not a blazer running the ball, but he can get to the edge and run it a little bit and can hurt teams when they want to bring pressure,” Dearmon said. “And he can make all the throws we ask him to make.”
Castronova worked on his balance in the pocket and throwing accuracy in the offseason training with Bishop Timon-St. Jude coach Joe Licata, the University at Buffalo’s all-time leading passer who preceded Castranova at Williamsville South.
“He was very raw when he was coming up and he’s improved so much,” Licata said. “Athletically, he’s an impressive quarterback. He’s got great feet. He can make almost any single throw and he can do everything with his legs.”
Making his way in the NAIA
As a senior at Williamsville South, Castronova was a Connolly Cup finalist and second-team All-Western New York selection. Also a standout in basketball and baseball, he was The Buffalo News’ Prep Talk three-sport player of the year in 2015.
“He could have played at a lot of colleges if he wanted to go the basketball route,” said Castronova’s father, Darrick, who played basketball at Daemen College.
Determined to play Division I football, Castronova passed on a scholarship offer from Division II Mercyhurst and enrolled at ECC, where he set the program’s career passing records and led the Kats to consecutive winning seasons. He was recruited by several Division II schools out of junior college but found Bethel to be the best fit.
“We worked tirelessly to find him a Division I or Division I-AA school,” ECC coach Scott Pilkey said. “He had some opportunities to walk-on but I think he made a great decision to play for a Bethel program that really wanted him. …
“Everybody wants to be a Division I guy. Ultimately, Sam turned into a great team leader and tremendous team person and and I’m so happy to see that because it is going to be the key to his success. Who he is in the locker room, who he is on and off the field, being a class act. He has tremendous character, he’s a hard worker and I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.”
Castronova was recruited by former Buffalo Bills lineman Mike Jasper, a Bethel graduate who coached at Timon before returning to his alma mater. Lou Tepper, a former head coach the Division I and II level who was the University at Buffalo’s defensive coordinator at the time, told Darrick Castronova, a UB team chaplain, that playing in the NAIA would provide quality competition.
“I don’t think people realize how good the football in NAIA is,” Sam Castronova said. “There are some players. All the guys who either didn’t have the grades or got kicked out of Division I end up usually coming here because the restrictions are less.”
Hundreds of former NAIA players have made it to the NFL, including Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame quarterback Jack Kemp (Occidental College) and Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (Jackson State University). A handful of NAIA alumni have been in NFL training camps in recent years, though only a few have made the regular season roster.
Castronova is hopeful for an opportunity to play professional football. His father has inquired about having him participate in UB’s Pro Day next spring.
Dearmon played several seasons of indoor football and believes Castronova has the ability to play at that level or in the Canadian Football League.
“I’ve told Sam I think he is more talented than I was,” Dearmon said. “He can definitely play in the indoor leagues. Canadian ball, he’s used to that cold weather. I think he’ll have to grind his teeth in one of those leagues in order to make it to the big boy league.”
Before he pursues his professional dream, Castronova is focused on extending his college career. The Wildcats will host their opening playoff game Saturday in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 2,000, including his parents, who have made the 12-hour drive to Bethel for every game.
“This year has been unreal. It almost feels like a season of Last Chance U,” Castronova said. “I’m just going to work my hardest these next few weeks because every game could be your last. We won our conference and will get a ring. That will be the first ring I’ve ever got and it just makes me more hungry to go get another one.”