2011 Presidents' Football Season Preview
Washington & Jefferson College produced its 27th consecutive winning season in 2010. The Presidents also made their eighth postseason appearance in a row under Head Coach Mike Sirianni, defeating Franklin & Marshall in the ECAC Division III Southwest Bowl by a 54-41 margin.
However, when reflecting on the season, Sirianni most remembers the resiliency of his team. Seven opening day starters missed significant parts of the season due to injuries. Eight other starters were held out of at least one game by the athletic training staff at various points.
“The injuries were definitely tough to deal with, but that’s no excuse,” said Sirianni emphatically. “We still had a great season. Because of the injuries, we may have more depth now than we’ve ever had. Plus, the underclassmen who missed time last season have worked hard to try and get their starting jobs back.”
The Presidents’ defense suffered a majority of the setbacks and many of those players are back for 2011. Senior defensive lineman Darrick Dominick missed the entire season, but is primed for a breakout year. Senior All-PAC defensive backs Josh Buckley and Matthew Gal also missed significant time and will be counted on to solidify an athletics secondary. Buckley is also a dangerous punt returner.
In addition, Shawn Rohrer takes over as defensive coordinator after Matt Caponi left for an assistant coaching position on Todd Graham’s first staff at Pitt. Rohrer, who spent the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Saint Vincent, looks to put his own touch on the unit which allowed 20.5 points per game (2nd in PAC) a year ago.
"Coach Caponi’s defense played a huge part of our 2008 run to the national quarterfinals,” added Sirianni. “However, we feel we landed a great coach in Coach Rohrer. We really patched things together last year on defense and because of the experience gained, we feel we have great athletes who will come together as a unit.”
Senior linebacker Neil Sorice has been a mainstay in the center of the Presidents’ 4-2-5 defense the past two seasons. He is the leading returning tackler (70), while adding 2.5 sacks. Seniors Mitch Rose and Dante Amatangelo and junior Brendan Lucchino will all vie for time at the other linebacker spot during the preseason.
Dominick, senior Frank Gigler, juniors Andy McGill, Gavin Donathan and Andrew Booth and sophomore Chris Heim will all be part of a rotation on the defensive line. Gigler, a CoSIDA Academic All-District performer, had a team-high 15 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks during a standout junior year. McGill led the team with eight sacks, while Donathan supplied 25 tackles and two stops. Heim came one strong at the end of the season. Senior Phil Dern will also be counted on to pressure the quarterback and John Watts, a transfer from Elon, could also have an impact.
The Presidents will once again utilize five players in the secondary. Buckley, Gal, junior Nathan Melhorn and sophomore B.J. Monacelli will handle the two cornerback slots, while senior Pat Fening was one of the beneficiaries of increased playing time last year and he responded well with 34 tackles (4.5 for a loss).
Sophomore Ian Hennessy is a talented athlete who will find his way into the starting lineup. Where that may be; however, depends on how Rohrer decides to use his unique versatility. Hennessy, who last year played defensive end, linebacker and safety, finished his rookie season with 53 tackles, including an impressive 13-stop performance in his first collegiate game at Delaware Valley. Seniors Phillip Soeder and Troy Mueller will provide depth in the same hybrid role that Hennessy will play.
Sophomore Erik Espe averaged three tackles a game after being inserted into the lineup in week four and looks to lock down the starting weak safety position. Senior Jimmy Thompson, who also excels on special teams, will battle Espe for the position in the preseason after making 19 tackles a year ago. At free safety, sophomore Mickey Bednar appears to be the early favorite to take over the position held the last four years by All-American Craig Sedunov.
“These guys are all very athletic and will benefit the style of defense Coach Rohrer likes to play,” said Sirianni. “Fening played very well after we lost Nathan Harmotto and Espe stepped in and played great during some big games for us. Buckley could really make an impact with his athleticism.”
Sirianni’s teams have known for possessing a high-powered offensive attack; however, the last two years the Presidents have averaged 366.0 total yards per game. From 2004-2008, W&J averaged 459.1 yards per game. Last year, Washington & Jefferson ranked 87th (367.3 ypg) among 236 NCAA Division III teams in total offense and was third among PAC schools; however, Sirianni has much higher expectations for the 2011 offense.
“We’ve always been a better football team when we put a lot of points on the scoreboard,” noted Sirianni. “We feel comfortable when we score quickly and often. That’s the type of football program we are and we aren’t going to shy away from it. The quicker the pace, the better we play.”
Sophomore running back Tim McNerney will be the catalyst for the offensive production after rushing for 1,009 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns a year ago. He gained 100 or more yards five times in the last seven weeks of the season, including 147 yards and three touchdowns in the ECAC bowl game.
“I think Tim is the best back in the conference and I believe he proved that last year,” said Sirianni. “We need to find unique ways to get him the football. He’s deceptively fast and runs extremely hard. I know he is going to improve in certain areas as well, like his blocking.”
Sirianni is also excited about the return of junior Deandre Simmons and sophomore transfer Dion Weigand (Robert Morris). “Deandre has shown flashes of greatness, but he just needs to harness that ability. We are fortunate to land a talented player like Dion from Robert Morris. He has a ton of ability and I expect all three of these guys to push each other.”
Junior Andrew Cappucci appears to be the frontrunner to start at quarterback. He threw for 229 yards and three touchdowns last year as the backup to Gino Rometo. Sophomores Zack Sopak and Matt Bliss had outstanding seasons on the junior varsity squad and will be given opportunities to impress the coaching staff early on.
The wide receiving corps is deep and talented led by senior Adam Dominick. A 6-foot-3 target, Dominick caught 32 passes for 401 yards and two touchdowns in 2009. Sophomores Alex Baroffio (30-372-4) and Max Creighan (12-87-1) excelled during their first collegiate seasons and are expected to compliment Dominick on the outside.
Junior All-PAC performer Ben Hoffer (18-326-3) is a diminutive, yet reliable threat, while senior Brett Axner (14-201) proved to be a force over the middle as a tight end. Senior Dreadless Stubbs, junior Hunter Creel and sophomore Dan Lucas add to what has become one of the Presidents’ most consistently deep positions.
“Each team is built differently, but we always seem to have great talent at wide receiver and this year is no different,” said Sirianni. “If we get the football into their hands, this group has a chance to be really good.”
Senior left tackle Gary Flavion anchors an offensive line from which Sirianni expects better production. A two-time All-PAC honoree, Flavion has been part of 29 victories during his first three seasons. Senior Justin Cole and junior Mike Mastellino both saw action at left guard last year, while senior Anthony Natale and junior John Tokarski return at center after splitting starts. Senior Jared Peretic and sophomores Tyler Watson, Zach Wildey and Matt Yanda are expected to battle for the right tackle starting position, while classmate Andrew Pingitore will most likely start at right guard. Pingitore played defensive line and had nine tackles in five games.
“Offensively, we can’t turn the football over,” Sirianni proclaimed. “The games we have lost recently, we’ve been on the losing end of the turnover battle. I also expect Coach Rohrer to stress creating turnovers to our defense. As well as our defense has played, we only forced 19 turnovers last year. We need to do better in this area on both sides of the ball.”
Sirianni is hoping to receive a boost from last year’s ECAC bowl game win. During his first year as head coach in 2003, W&J defeated Wilkes in an ECAC bowl game and used that momentum to post a 12-win season the following year, while advancing to the NCAA Division III quarterfinals.
“(The ECAC win) is a step in the right direction,” concluded Sirianni. “We beat a F&M team that had two victories against NCAA playoff teams. I feel the depth that we have developed is helping the program regain confidence.”