2013 W&J Football Season Preview
The joyous celebration on the turf at Waynesburg University’s Wiley Stadium in early November left an indelible impression after the Presidents’ PAC Championship clinching victory. W&J defeated the Yellow Jackets 31-14 to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs and fulfilled the goal of their captain and leader, Tim McNerney, whose tragic death, just 37 days prior, rocked the program to its core.
“Our players gave everything they had to win a title and honor their friend and teammate,” said Head Coach Mike Sirianni, who enters the 2013 season first among active Division III coaches with at least 10 years of experience with a .816 winning percentage. “Winning that title for Tim was all that mattered. But, it wouldn’t be fair to Tim’s memory to try and win football games for him again. He was much more than just a football player. We’ll honor Tim in the way we treat people and the way we conduct ourselves.”
Sirianni returns 26 talented seniors (tied with 2011 class for most seniors under Sirianni’s tutelage) from last year’s 8-3 squad that made the program’s 22nd NCAA appearance. Seven of those veterans are returning starters on an offense brimming with confidence.
"We are a confident football team and I believe that starts with senior leadership,” added Sirianni, who like 1981 W&J grad and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a native of Jamestown, N.Y. “We have our game plan implemented already after a great spring. These guys are very tight-knit after last year and they have a confidence level that we haven’t necessarily had every year. However, we have to back that up with our play. We aren’t automatically placed first in the standings in week one because we won last year’s title. Every year brings different challenges.”
One priority heading into last fall was to improve the team’s turnover margin. The Presidents excelled in the turnover department during their eight victories (nine total TOs), but still faced struggles with an average of 4.7 turnovers in the three setbacks. Senior quarterback Matt Bliss will direct the offense’s goal of continued ball security improvement after passing for 1,974 yards and 13 touchdowns (12 INT) and rushing for 241 yards and six scores. Sophomore Kevin Mechas was thrust into the spotlight during the NCAA playoffs to fill in for an injured Bliss against Johns Hopkins. He completed 16-of-35 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown and is expected to be the backup option this fall.
“We need a healthy and consistent Matt Bliss,” said Sirianni emphatically. “He was tremendous against Geneva and Waynesburg. Matt brings good leadership skills to our offense. We expect players in our program to play their best as seniors and I believe Matt is going to be a prime example.”
For the third-straight year, the left-handed Bliss will sling passes in the direction of classmate and high school teammate Alex Baroffio. A Lindy’s preseason All-American, Baroffio needs just 15 receptions to up his career total 193 which would establish a new school record. He has caught at least one pass in 23 consecutive games and has scored 19 touchdowns.
Joining Baroffio among the wide receiver corps is a quartet of seniors (Dan Lucas, Brandon Trefelner, Steven Licht, Max Creighan) and a trio of sophomores (Michael Giampole, Cody Stumpf and Asa Costelnock). Lucas developed into the team’s third-best receiving threat last year with 39 catches for 445 yards and three touchdowns, while Trefelner (15) and Licht (13) provided key plays throughout the season. Creighan is back after recovering from a knee injury. He snared 20 passes from Bliss in 2011.
“We’re going to move Alex around because he’s shown terrific versatility,” noted Sirianni. “He will have the opportunity to showcase his talents all over the field. Dan had a great spring and we really like Brandon out of the slot. Our wide receiver position is solid and probably the best overall area of strength.”
Open space for the wide receivers is only available when Bliss is awarded the time in the pocket and Sirianni is excited about the continued improvement of the Presidents’ offensive line play. Seniors right guard Andrew Pingitore and right tackle Zach Wildey will anchor the unit, while junior John Wanner returns at center. Sophomore Zach Crossey saw plenty of action during the second half of the year and the coaching staff believes he could develop into a special talent and leader. Senior Sam Aults, junior Ty Wildey and sophomores Ryan Doyle, Joe Graziani, Joey Victorelli will compete for playing time and a starting spot on the left side.
“I thought the offensive line played great last year and going into camp, I believe we have 10 guys who can be solid contributors,” added Sirianni. “I expect that we will be even better this year. These young linemen have worked hard and are getting very strong physically.”
Sirianni credits the development of the Presidents’ strength and conditioning to the addition of a weight room in the Henry Memorial Center which is open to varsity athletes.
“These players worked very hard in the offseason and the new weight room definitely played a big role. Our guys bonded together and it showed during spring practice. I’m very pleased with the state of our strength and conditioning program and the administration certainly made that possible.”
The one player who can always be found in the weight room is senior running back Dion Wiegand. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound quick, yet powerful runner produced 1,366 all-purpose yards (667 rushing, 232 receiving, 453 kickoff return, 14 punt return) last season and will get a majority of the carries out of the backfield. Sophomores Ryan Ruffing and Zack Puckett made their presences known during the spring practices and will also get opportunities.
“I wish I had 100 Dion Wiegand’s,” said Sirianni, whose brother Nick serves as the offensive quality control coach for the San Diego Chargers. “He stepped into a tough situation last year, replacing his close friend. But, he responded and became a true leader.”
Perhaps the biggest boost the offense received last year was from an unlikely source, at least under Sirianni’s high-powered scoring and yardage machines of the past. Senior Eric Eberle became the Presidents’ first-ever, All-America place kicker after nailing 11-of-14 field goals (T21st in NCAA Division III), including a perfect 3-of-3 accuracy from 40-plus yards. Eberle was successful on his last seven field goal attempts, including the championship-clincher against Waynesburg. He also handles the punting duties and bombed seven of his 61 punts (37.0 ypp) at least 50 yards.
“Eric has been an awesome asset for us and I’ll be ecstatic if he matches last year’s success,” said Sirianni. “His leg provided us with a great weapon. Coach (Jonathan) Widich deserves a lot of credit for working with our kicking game.”
While many big names return on offense, the defensive side experienced the loss of seven starters, including the top four leading tacklers who combined for 45 percent of the team’s stops. Senior safety B.J. Monacelli headlines the returnees after a 59-tackle, three-interception campaign.
“There’s no doubt we need some young guys to step up defensively, but it’s not like we don’t have talent at these positions,” added Sirianni. “B.J. probably should have been a first-team, all-conference guy last year because he made important, game-changing plays. Pound for pound, he’s our strongest and fastest defender.”
Senior Josh Budwitz and sophomore Shane Smith will be first-time starters at the other safety spots in the Presidents’ 4-2-5 scheme. Senior Sam Comly is back as a starting cornerback, while junior Alec Schram and sophomores Dominic Gibson and Marlon Brown will battle for the opposite starting position with Schram as the front runner. Junior Eric Tyra and sophomores Dan Graziano, Bryce Merrill and Anthony Tutino are talented players who should see increased time.
“Shane is one of our best players and we will find a spot for him on the field defensively,” Sirianni noted. “He played quarterback at times last year and had some big games. Eric may be our smartest football player. We have some solid, young depth here which is exciting because the secondary needs to make plays in our system.”
Ian Hennessy and John Hunter solidified the middle of the defense last year, but both graduated leaving senior Eric Espe an opportunity to shine. Espe, who a former safety who put on 25 pounds during the offseason, makes the move to linebacker after notching 28 tackles in 2012. Junior Jared Pratt, a Colgate transfer, is expected to contribute immediately, while sophomores Cam Grady and Jalen Morris (also the team’s long snapper) will all see action.
Sirianni is especially excited about juniors Jon Lowery and Evan Fuentes as the defensive ends. The duo combined for 72 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and eight sacks a year ago. Senior Chris Heim (2 sacks) and sophomore Jon Turner will help on the outside, while a trio of inexperienced players (senior Zach Marsh, junior Robert Swan, sophomore Sly Revitsky) look to make their impacts felt as defensive tackles.
“All of these guys, as well as some freshmen, are going to get chances to show us what they can do,” said Sirianni. “We think we have the right pieces in place. Lowery can be a dominating player at times and we expect him to cause problems in opponents’ backfields.”
One reason the Presidents were able to stay focused during such an emotional season was the stability of the coaching staff. Sirianni (93-21) enters his 11th year, trailing only Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (116-23) in terms of winning percentage (minimum 10 years of experience) among all divisions of active college football coaches. Recruiting Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Todd Young is back for his 15th season, while Defensive Coordinator Shaun Rohrer and Wide Receivers Coach Steve Spence combine for seven years at W&J. Five other coaches return, while 2013 graduate Andrew Booth has chosen to stay at his alma mater as the defensive line coach.
“For the most part, our staff has stayed together through the years and I think that gives us a big advantage,” concluded Sirianni. “Plus, in 10 years, we’ve had five coaches (Matt Caponi and Mike DiAngelo: Univ. of Arizona, Chris Mosley: Miami Dolphins/Tampa bay Buccaneers, Richard McNutt: Cleveland Browns/NC State/Northern Illinois) who have moved on to the Division I level or the NFL. So we’ve had great assistant coaches teaching these young men. Our coaches have a great rapport with our players and have worked hard to increase the overall strength and conditioning of our program. We are looking forward to preseason camp and that first Saturday night at Wooster.”