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UNH football could face bumpy road on path to playoffs
Wildcats have tough schedule, must replace key players.
DURHAM — Under a hot sun and a temperature that topped 90 degrees on the field Tuesday, University of New Hampshire football players and coaches faced the annual series of questions that coincides with the opening of their training camp.
The underlying subtext: Is this the year UNH, which has made six straight trips to the Division I playoffs, finally wilts?
There’s a tougher schedule, for one thing. A CAA that’s leaner and meaner, with more of a southern drawl. The loss of three stars who are currently in NFL camps.
Junior defensive end Brian McNally, one of two UNH players named to the CAA’s All-Conference preseason team, said nobody’s thinking about stepping back, even in the face of those conditions.
“We want to bring a championship to New Hampshire,” said McNally “I’ve been here two years and lost in the (Division I) quarterfinals both years. You think, ‘All right, we’ve only got two more years to go. We’ve got to hurry up and get this thing out of the way.’”
There’s a bright lights, big city feel to this coming season, in part because, for the first time ever, UNH will play two games in NFL stadiums: Sept. 11 vs. Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, and Oct. 23 vs. UMass at Gillette Stadium.
There’s also the absence of perennial foes Northeastern and Hofstra, which both discontinued their football programs shortly after last season ended and were, basically, replaced on the schedule by reigning Division I champion Villanova and national semifinalist William and Mary (even if another flip — Delaware for Towson — theoretically works in UNH’s favor).
If the CAA schedule was stingy with metaphorical nights off in the past, this year those are practically non-existent.
“It’s a challenge,” said UNH coach Sean McDonnell. “Week in and week out, our conference is the best football at our level. This year, it’s one week at a time more than ever.”
The Wildcats, 10-3 last year, open their new season Sept. 4, when they host non-league foe Central Connecticut State. The rest of the month features the trip to Pittsburgh, the CAA opener at Rhode Island and a non-conference game here against Lehigh.
The optimism starts on defense, where McNally (four sacks) and defensive back Dino Vasso (five INTs) earned preseason CAA honors, linebacker Devon Jackson returns after making a team-high 98 tackles, and the line and secondary are dotted with proven performers.
“I think we have the most depth at every single position than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said senior free safety Hugo Souza. “We’ll do well.”
With seven starters back from a unit that ranked fifth in the CAA in scoring defense (21.1 points allowed), sixth in total defense (317.1 yards), first in interceptions (21) and third in sacks, there’s a sense a good defense could even become great.
“We feel pretty good about what we’ve got on our team right now on the defensive side,” said McNally. “The expectations are high.”
There are a few more questions on offense, especially at wide receiver, where only one player — inconsistent senior Kevon Mason — has caught more than 20 passes in a year; and the offensive line, which has been healing since the winter.
“Like we do every year, we reload,” said quarterback R.J. Toman. “It’s not a sense of rebuilding anything; we reload because we have guys that are just as willing and able to step in.”
Toman is a senior captain who’s led UNH into the Division I quarterfinals in each of the last two years, but even he’s fighting for his job after a junior season that saw him throw for 1,000 fewer yards and 13 fewer TDs than he did as a sophomore.
Junior Kevin Decker, who’s looked good in spot action, is coming off a strong spring that had McDonnell — then and again Tuesday — pronouncing the battle for the starting job on.
“I think both of these kids can help this program,” said McDonnell. “I think both of these kids can lead this team. … Yeah, R.J. has won 20 games or so as the starter, but ‘Deck’ has closed the cushion.”
Sean Jellison, after three years backing up guys like Chris Ward, Bobby Simpson and Chad Kackert, will get his turn as the feature back, with speedy sophomore Dontra Peters next in line. They’ll be running behind a line that’s older and more experienced than it was last year, but has had very little time together with offseason injuries and/or surgeries to projected starters Seth Price, Mickey DiLima and Chris Zarkoskie.
Special teams … a work in progress, with much, much work to be done.
It’s far too early to know whether the Wildcats can challenge for a CAA title, or make a seventh straight trip to the Division I playoffs, which this year has been expanded to include 20 teams. Their focus right now is to get into playing shape, master the offensive and defensive systems, and simulate game conditions in two or three scrimmages.
Come Sept. 4, the lights really come on.
“We’re in pretty good shape, guys,” said McDonnell. “Everyone that was on campus and stayed within hit range of our campus passed their conditioning test. … It’s probably the best testing, conditioning-wise, we’ve had here since I’ve been head coach. I’m excited where we are physically.”
Coach: Sean McDonnell, 12th year (80-52)
2009 record: 10-3 (6-2 CAA), lost to Villanova in Division I quarterfinals
Returning offensive starters: R.J. Toman, sr., QB; Kevon Mason, sr., WR; Seth Price, sr., OL; George Pecoraro, jr., OL; Mickey DiLima, soph., OL; Chris Zarkoskie, soph., OL
Returning defensive starters: Brian McNally, jr., DE; Steve Young, sr., DT; John Murray, jr., DT; Devon Jackson, sr., LB; Hugo Souza, sr., DB; Dino Vasso, sr., DB; Ryan McGuinness, sr., DB
Opener: Sept. 4 vs. Central Connecticut State
UNH football could face bumpy road on path to playoffs
By Mike Zhe, Seacoast Online