By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Coming off a 2010 campaign in which it finished in second place in the Patriot League, the Holy Cross football team enters this year with expectations to contend for the conference title once again in 2011. The Crusaders posted an overall record of 6-5 last season, while posting a 4-2 mark in the Patriot League. Having finished with a winning record in each of the last six seasons, Holy Cross should once again be among the best in the Patriot League in 2011.
On the offensive side of the ball, Holy Cross returns six starters and 17 total players from last season's final two-deep chart. That group will look to build on what they did a year ago, averaging 22.6 points, 224.0 passing yards and 323.1 yards of total offense per game. Even though five starters need to be replaced, Holy Cross looks to once again have one of the top offenses in the Patriot League this season.
As for the defense, the Crusaders have six starters back on a unit that can become one of the top defenses in the Patriot League. Holy Cross allowed 23.1 points and 379.8 yards per game in 2010, and will look to improve upon those numbers with a number of experienced players returning.
"We have a lot of players coming back on both sides of the ball with good knowledge of our system," said head coach Tom Gilmore. "If we continue to improve as expected, and the younger guys are able to develop and play more prominent roles, we will develop into a very good team this season."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of how the Crusaders should look in 2011.
Holy Cross has an abundance of experience at the quarterback position, led by the return of fifth-year senior Ryan Taggart. Last season, Taggart started all 11 games and completed 185 of 317 attempts for 1,899 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also ranked second on the team in rushing with 284 yards and five scores on 85 carries.
Two other players who will push Taggart for playing time are senior Kevin Watson and senior Mark Tolzien. Watson played in the first seven games of 2011 as Taggart's backup, hitting on 42 of 74 attempts for 375 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tolzien then saw action in the final four games of the year after Watson was injured, and completed 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards and two scores.
"It is nice to have a lot of experience at the quarterback position, and it is also unusual to have three seniors who have played for us," said Gilmore. "Ryan Taggart, Mark Tolzien and Kevin Watson are all very capable of leading us to victories. I think they will pull the best out of each other, and I expect all of them to be very good performers on the field when given the opportunity."
Sophomore Max Librizzi will also look to push for playing time, while freshmen Steven Elder, Ryan Laughlin and Michael Shewchuk will provide added depth
Even though the Crusaders graduated their top three receivers from last season, a number of experienced players return at the wide out spots. Junior Gerald Mistretta leads the way, after catching 29 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. Sophomore Mike Fess also showed promise in 2010, when he totaled nine receptions for 106 yards. Junior Nick Mercurio added four catches for 48 yards last season, and senior Charles McCall posted one reception for 12 yards.
Two other players who should play key roles after missing the 2010 season are sophomore Kyle Toulouse and senior Josh Jenkins. Toulouse totaled eight catches for 83 yards in 2009, while Jenkins has 43 career receptions for 391 yards. In addition, sophomores Jon Smith and Nate Stanley look to break into the rotation at wide out in 2011.
"We lost some very productive receivers off last year's team, but we seem to go through that at this position almost every year," said Gilmore. "We have been able to reload in the past, and I think that should definitely be the situation again this season. We have some experienced guys coming back who we are expecting to have big years. There are also a number of promising young players who have shown they have the ability to contribute, and we expect them to step up this season."
Senior Clinton McCabe and sophomore Jimmy Jordan will also look to earn playing time, with freshmen Tyler Artim, Jereme Murray and Shane Taylor providing added depth.
At tight end, the Crusaders return a first team All-Patriot League selection in senior Alex Schneider. Last season, Schneider ranked fourth on the team with 30 receptions for 217 yards and a touchdown. Junior Reed Apfelbaum and junior Josh Hauser also look to continue their roles as key players for Holy Cross. Apfelbaum caught two passes for 20 yards in 2010, while Hauser recorded five receptions for 43 yards.
"Alex Schneider is a well rounded player who has established himself as one of the best tight ends in the Patriot League," said Gilmore. "He is a big target with good hands, and he has also added size to his frame to become a legitimate blocker as well. Josh Hauser and Reed Apfelbaum are two other guys who have really improved their games, and they give us the flexibility to do a lot of different things with our tight ends."
Senior Mike Wright and freshman Ted Deily will also look to contribute at tight end.
Holy Cross looks to be strong in the offensive backfield as well, with the return of junior Sam Auffant, junior Eddie Houghton and senior Matt Bellomo at tailback. Last season, Auffant led the team with 451 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 118 carries, in addition to catching 20 passes for 117 yards. Houghton was also productive in 2010, rushing for 146 yards and a score on 39 carries, before missing the final four games of the year due to injury. Bellomo played in just one game last season due to injury, but in 2009 he rushed 91 times for 442 yards and four touchdowns, and caught 32 passes for 251 yards. Others who will look to break into the rotation at tailback include senior Francis Camara and sophomore Reggie Woods.
"We have a number of experienced guys returning at tailback, so there should be some great competition for playing time," said Gilmore. "Sam Auffant has really built off the experience he gained last year, and Matt Bellomo and Eddie Houghton are both looking to come back from injuries to once again be productive players for us. Reggie Woods and Francis Camara have really developed as well, giving us five guys who we could put on the field at any time. And tailback is a position where we like to rotate different guys in there, making our depth even more important."
Freshmen Matt Intile, Michael O'Dwyer and Kyle Robbins will also look to contribute for the Crusaders.
On the offensive line, the Crusaders return three starters from a year ago. Leading the way will be fifth-year senior Mike McCabe at left tackle. McCabe, who was a first team All-Patriot League selection in 2010, will once again be the leader of this talented group. Last season, McCabe led a line which paved the way for Holy Cross to average 323.1 yards of total offense and 22.6 points per contest. The Crusaders also allowed just 17 sacks during the 2010 season, while the team attempted 418 passes (just one sack for every 25.6 times the team dropped back to pass).
Senior Sean Whited returns to the starting lineup at center, while junior Kyle Pedretty will be back for Holy Cross at right tackle. Pedretty earned starts in all 11 games in 2010, while Whited started eight contests a year ago.
"If Mike McCabe continues to improve at his current pace, he could win a lot of postseason awards," said Gilmore. "He was outstanding for us last year, and has continued to work hard in the offseason to get even better. Sean Whited and Kyle Pedretty are two other veteran players who have gained experience and confidence. We expect them to also have big years for us."
Senior Kyle Cannon looks to take over as the starter at right guard, after playing in all 11 games last season with three starts. Junior Fred Hilow is the favorite to win the remaining starting spot at left guard, with junior Casey Bessemer and sophomore Jay Knighton also pushing hard to earn key playing time.
Others who have established themselves as backups include senior Andrew Jameson, junior Billy Lang and sophomore Jake Keller. Sophomores Blake Berresford, Mike Chieco and Emanuel Mendoza will provide added depth, along with freshmen Ben Koopman, Cain Lamper, Noah McMillan, Pat Restrepo and Ryan Schnieber.
The linebackers look to be strong for Holy Cross, with a number of experienced players returning. Senior Ricky Otis returns as the starter at one of the inside linebacker spots, after earning first team All-Patriot League honors in 2010. Last season, Otis led the team and the Patriot League with 109 total tackles, even though he missed two full games due to injury. Also returning to the starting lineup at inside linebacker is senior C.J. Martin. During the 2010 campaign, Martin ranked second on the team with 95 total tackles, to go along with two interceptions and two pass breakups.
Junior Roman SanDoval should play a major role as a backup once again in 2011. Last year, SanDoval totaled 34 tackles with appearing in all 11 games and earning one start. Junior Pat O'Connell could also develop into a key contributor, along with sophomore Tyler Zeoli.
"It is nice to have two guys like Ricky Otis and C.J. Martin around," said Gilmore. "They are experienced, smart players, and we are expecting a lot out of both of them. Roman SanDoval also has a lot of ability and has come on strong in the offseason, so we anticipate him being on the field quite a bit. In addition, Pat O'Connell and Tyler Zeoli should both really push for playing time."
Freshman Shane Thompson will add depth for Holy Cross at inside linebacker.
On the outside, senior Jimmy Thomas looks to return to the starting lineup in 2011, after coming off the bench for most of last season. Thomas totaled 35 tackles with five tackles for loss a year ago, after recording 67 tackles, four sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2009. Junior David Herman looks to earn the other starting spot at outside linebacker. Herman made three tackles in six games last season, before missing the final five games due to injury. Junior Erik Wachter and sophomores Mike Tucker, Daryl Howell and Pete Anastasio will also contend for playing time.
"Jimmy Thomas is our top returning outside linebacker," said Gilmore. "He has played in a lot of big games for us, so he knows what it takes to have success. On the other side, we expect big things out of David Herman. He was having a good year early in 2010, before an injury ended his season. Mike Tucker and Daryl Howell will both push him at that position, while Erik Wachter and Pete Anastasio who will be competing for playing time behind Thomas."
Freshmen Charlie Murphy, Ryan Neumann and Chase Ullman will supply depth for the Crusaders at outside linebacker.
The secondary should once again be strong this season, with a pair of starters returning. Senior Chandler Fenner returns to the starting lineup at one cornerback spot, after earning first team All-Patriot League honors in 2010. Fenner totaled 58 tackles last season, with four pass breakups and two tackles for loss. Another returning starter at cornerback will be senior Cav Koch. A year ago, Koch recorded 40 total tackles with an interception and four pass breakups. Sophomores Irvin Scott and Andrew Zitnik will also push for playing time at cornerback.
"Both Cav Koch and Chandler Fenner are really experienced players, and we are looking for them to anchor our secondary," said Gilmore. "They both have a lot of ability, and we are expecting big seasons out of both of them. Irvin Scott and Andrew Zitnik are two very talented young players who played primarily on special teams for us last year, and we expect them to be on the field a lot this year."
Junior Tom Mannix looks to take over as the starter at strong safety, after spending most of last year as the Crusaders' top backup at cornerback. In 2010, Mannix appeared in all 11 games with three starts, totaling 42 tackles, an interception and a team-best six pass breakups. Sophomores Philip Gough, Scotty O'Donoghue and George Sessoms will contend for the remaining starting spot or play key roles as backups.
"Tom Mannix is a very versatile player who has played both safety and cornerback. He is very knowledgeable, and is a player who can help some of the younger guys mature in our secondary. His leadership ability will be a real key in the secondary this year. The other starting safety spot is still up for grabs, but we have a number of talented players who can earn key playing time for us."
Added depth at safety will be provided by freshmen Cody Butler, Parris Johnson, Sam Jones and Logan Silver.
The defensive line will be led by a pair of returning starters, in senior Ryan McGinn and junior Jack Maliska. McGinn led all Holy Cross defensive linemen with 36 total tackles in 2010, including a sack and two tackles for loss. Maliska added 13 tackles and two tackles for loss, despite missing five games due to injury.
Sophomore Gary Acquah is the favorite to win the third starting spot in the trenches. Several other players will compete for starting roles or play key minutes as reserves, including senior Eric Oldiges, junior Schuyler Waterhouse and sophomores Matthew Boyd and Michael White.
"We have a number of experienced guys who should contribute on the defensive line," said Gilmore. Both Jack Maliska and Ryan McGinn have a lot of experience. Maliska is a real force in the middle, and McGinn has continually improved to become an important player for us. Gary Acquah is a good young player who developed during the offseason, and we expect him to become a factor for us. Eric Oldiges, Schuyler Waterhouse, Matthew Boyd and Michael White are four other guys with experience, and we think all four of them can play significant roles.
A number of players will look to step up in the kicking game, after the Crusaders graduated their top placekicker and their top punter. Fifth-year senior Paul Tearson shared kickoff duties last season, and could take over as the placekicker this year. In 2010, Tearson averaged 57.4 yards on 25 kickoffs, while missing his only field goal attempt (from 51 yards). Senior Llazar Cuko, sophomore John Macomber and junior Patrick Jarvis will compete with Tearson for the top spot at placekicker. Elsewhere, senior Corey Page and Macomber are the top two players looking to take over as the starting punter.
"Paul Tearson saw a good deal of playing time last season as a kickoff specialist," said Gilmore. "Even though he is most experienced, John Macomber and Llazar Cuko both have a lot of ability. We expect to see a lot of competition among those three, and believe they are all capable of becoming the starter. At punter, Corey Page has a strong leg and has really worked on his timing and mechanics. Macomber will push for the starting spot there as well."
As for kick returners, Holy Cross returns a number of talented players who could play key roles. Zitnik averaged 29.1 yards on 12 kickoff returns last season, while Fess had a 33.1-yard average on four kickoff returns. Both Fess and Zitnik returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2010. Fenner, Jenkins, Mistretta and Toulouse also have experience returning kickoffs and could work their way into the rotation. At punt returner, Auffant, Bellomo and Jenkins could all be factors.
"We have a lot of players with speed and experience returning both kickoffs and punts," said Gilmore. "Several different guys have the ability to take a kick to the end zone every time they touch the ball, which should make our return game very dangerous."
At long snapper, Oldiges is the most experienced player on the roster. He will be pushed by several others, including freshman Matt Fava.
The 2011 schedule looks to be tough, as it includes six Patriot League games, two of the top teams in the Colonial Athletic Association and three contests against teams which should contend in the Ivy League. The Crusaders open the season with a home date against Massachusetts on Sept. 1, in the first-ever night game at Fitton Field. Holy Cross remains at home for its Patriot League opener against Colgate on Sept. 10, before playing host to Harvard on Sept. 17. Following an off week, the Crusaders will then hit the road for their next two contests, playing at New Hampshire on Oct. 1 and at Brown on Oct. 8.
Holy Cross returns to Fitton Field to play host to Dartmouth on Oct. 15, before traveling to Bucknell on Oct. 22. The Crusaders will next play a home contest against Georgetown on Oct. 29 as part of Family Weekend, and then head to Lehigh on Nov. 5. The final home game of the season comes on Nov. 12 against Lafayette, before Holy Cross wraps up the year at Fordham on Nov. 19.
"This has to rank up there as one of the most challenging schedules Holy Cross has faced in two decades," said Gilmore. "With two top-notch CAA teams and three of the top Ivies on the slate, it is going to be a very competitive, very difficult non-league schedule. Then in the Patriot League, I expect things to be very competitive this year. The traditional powers should be strong once again, and it seems like every year there is a team that surprises people, so you have to be ready for a battle every week. But this is the type of schedule that we want to face. Our players and coaches like to face really good competition, and we expect to be up to the challenges this schedule presents."