2012 W&J Football Season Preview
Head Coach Mike Sirianni will stress one key area of improvement when 121 student-athletes arrive at Cameron Stadium to begin Washington & Jefferson’s 121st varsity football season.
Reclaiming the Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship for the first time since 2007 is the goal. Reducing and creating turnovers is how Sirianni plans on getting his Presidents back on track towards that goal.
“We have to eliminate the mental mistakes, especially turnovers and penalties,” said Sirianni of his team which was eighth in the conference last year in turnover margin (24 turnovers lost, 17 caused). “We stressed the importance of taking care of the football during spring practice. I think close to half of our turnovers last year came in the red zone and that was the difference in the close games we lost. That’s on us as a coaching staff and we are determined to change that.”
Sirianni’s 2006 and 2007 squads ranked among the national leaders in turnover margin. The 2006 Presidents, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA playoffs, were second in the nation with 32 takeaways versus only 10 miscues. W&J committed only 10 again a year later, finishing fourth in the country in turnover margin (+1.9). Since then, W&J has forced 80 turnovers, but has committed 74.
“There were a number of factors that contributed to last year’s inconsistent play, but I think our kicking game is better with Eric Eberle and that relieves some pressure to score touchdowns every time,” added Sirianni. “I also think a healthy Ian Hennessy will cause problems for opposing offenses and help us create mistakes from the other team.”
Hennessy, a senior linebacker/safety, burst onto the scene with a 13-tackle performance against nationally-ranked Delaware Valley in 2010, but was limited six games and 27 tackles a year ago due to injuries. Sirianni also believes two senior linebackers, Brendan Lucchino (15 tackles) and John Hunter (7 tackles), have waited their turn and are primed for breakout seasons. That trio will look to fill the void left by the graduation of leading tackler Neil Sorice (95 stops). Freshman linebacker Brandon Richard, who spent a prep year at Berkshire School (Mass.), is a talented new face to the program, one who the coaching staff believes could make an immediate impact.
The leader of the defensive unit is senior safety Nathan Melhorn. The First Team All-PAC choice and ECAC All-Star has improved every year and produced 68 tackles, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last fall. Junior defensive back B.J. Monacelli stepped into the starting lineup midway through the season and led the team with three interceptions, while amassing 39 stops (5th on team). Junior safety Erik Espe and sophomore cornerback Dan Sciortino are young members of the secondary who have already gained a wealth of varsity experience.
“Nathan is very versatile and leads by example,” said Sirianni. “He has improved every year and he’s the type of player every program needs. B.J. is extremely athletic and played through an injury last year, while Dan has tremendous upside.”
Senior Zach DeCicco, whose brother Dom is a second-year linebacker for the Chicago Bears, also returns to the program and is expected to play a role in the secondary. DeCicco has missed two seasons with injuries, but has worked hard to get back on the field. He is also expected to see some snaps on offense.
Defensive Coordinator Shawn Rohrer is hoping to receive improved play from the Presidents’ defensive line which includes senior Gavin Donathan and juniors John Watts, Chris Heim and Jon Lowery. Donathan led the front four returnees with 28 stops last fall and was named honorable mention All-PAC.
While those players will focus on creating turnovers, junior quarterback Matt Bliss will be the one trying to protect the football. Bliss provided plenty of fireworks to the offense, finishing 26th nationally in total offense (274.0 ypg), but struggled at times in the turnover department with 10 miscues in the Presidents’ four losses. Senior Andrew Cappucci will serve as a strong-arm, veteran backup for Bliss.
“Matt is a good leader, he loves the game and he has worked hard to get better,” added Sirianni. “His scrambling ability gives us an added dimension, but he has to be careful with the football in those moments.”
Senior running back Tim McNerney provides Bliss a reliable force in the backfield as he enters his final season with 1,875 career yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 26 touchdowns. His 106.2 yards per game last year were over 30 more per game than any other PAC ball carrier.
“Timmy is the best back in the conference, but he needs to take better care of the ball too. Our coaching staff needs to do a better job of getting Dion (Wiegand) involved more in the offense too.”
Wiegand, who transferred from Robert Morris prior to the start of last season, rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, while also catching nine passes, including one for a score. Senior DeAndre Simmons added 129 yards and two touchdowns and provides another capable veteran in the backfield.
“DeAndre is a great athlete who did a nice job for us last year. We may try to get him some action on defense to try to get him on the field more often.”
As usual, Sirianni has a stable full of talented receivers led by preseason All-America selection Alex Baroffio. Baroffio is the first player in school history to catch 100 passes during his first two seasons, including last year’s 70-reception, 10-touchdown performance. In the season finale, Baroffio racked up 10 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-21 victory over Waynesburg.
“Alex has been fantastic his first two years and we hope to utilize him in different ways. We want to move him around. We have a number of great receivers who can make plays.”
Senior Hunter Creel had a breakout junior campaign with 43 receptions for 394 yards and four touchdowns, while junior Max Creighan also returns after producing 20 catches. Sirianni believes Creighan could be a dynamic player. Juniors Brandon Trefelner, Dan Lucas and Steven Licht are players who impressed at the end of the season.
“We want to see Max play to the best of his abilities,” proclaimed Sirianni. “With the coverage Alex is expected to receive, all of these players have a chance to make things happen after they catch the football. Hunter didn’t start the first two games, missed two games due to injury and still caught 40 balls. We hope to use Dion even more in the passing game.”
The offensive line returns three starters, including rugged junior guard Andrew Pingitore. Senior left tackle Mike Mastellino and junior right tackle Zach Wildey also return to help the Presidents in an area which has seen a lot of shuffling in recent years.
“As we do every year, we want to develop the best five linemen no matter what position they play,” added Sirianni. “I am excited about these returnees and I think we did our best job recruiting this position. We have some very talented freshmen so the older players are going to get pushed in practice. We want these guys to compete hard and challenge each other.”
Eberle will most likely handle both special teams kicking duties again this fall. He made 4-of-6 field goals, including the game-winning, 34-yarder as time expired against Waynesburg, and punted 43 times for a 34.3 yard average. He also made 22-of-24 extra points.
The 2012 season gives Sirianni and his players a chance to respond from last season’s 6-4 record. Many college football programs would be happy to finish the season with more wins than losses. However, the expectations are always higher for a program with the third-most victories (681) in NCAA Division III football.
“Our goals have never changed, but last year was a wakeup call to all of us,” noted Sirianni. “We are focused on ourselves, not anyone else. We had what I feel is one of our best recruiting classes in terms of high-quality players and we have a very talented team on the field. We want to utilize our speed because we have a lot of it.”
The season begins on Sept. 1 with a 490-mile journey south to Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. W&J opens its home schedule a week later and faces one of last year’s NCAA quarterfinalists, St. John Fisher.
“Playing an up-and-coming team like Methodist and a perennial playoff contender St. John Fisher (preseason No. 11) in our non-conference schedule is really going to benefit us. Our guys have been ready for this season and we are excited to get it started.”