When asked if he would make many changes in his gameplan for the upcoming 2000 season after looking back on his first year as a head coach, Sean McDonnell just shook his head and said that the Wildcats will continue to play hard-nosed, physical football. Then, following a short pause, he smiled and said, “but we might just fine tune a few things.”
It is usually a good sign if a coach, in any sport, is looking only to fine tune and not make wholesale changes. After all, McDonnell has a talented returning starting quarterback in junior Ryan Day (Manchester, N.H.), who is the top returning field general in the Atlantic 10 football conference. Day was a key to a successful offense that led the league in yards per game with 457.3 yards per contest, including the third-best passing total (241.9 yards per game). The impressive number of returning players with significant playing experience should also bode well for the Wildcats in 2000. Six starters return on the offensive side of the ball, while nine are back on defense. Looking at the letterwinners, a grand total of 36 are returning for duty, while only 11 have completed their football careers.
Last season, UNH finished with a 5-6 overall record and the squad was 3-5 in the Atlantic 10. The stage is certainly set for the Wildcats to improve on those numbers and possibly battle for the Atlantic 10 crown and a spot in the Division I-AA NCAA championship.
THE OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD:
It has been three years since the Wildcats had a stable starting quarterback, not to mention a clear incumbent for the starting job at the beginning of a season, but that is the case in 2000. Junior Ryan Day (Manchester, N.H.) had his breakthrough season as a sophomore and looks to be one of the top performing quarterbacks in the Atlantic 10 next season. In 1999, Day completed 221 of his 364 passes for a grand total of 2,573 yards and 18 touchdowns, the best numbers among the returning field generals in the league. Day’s quarterback rating of 128.7 was third-best in the Atlantic 10. Day proved he can rack up a ton of yards in a hurry, despite the fact that UNH is mostly known for its running game. Against UMass on Sept. 11 last season, Day compiled a career-high 351 passing yards. He may see even more opportunities to throw the football in 2000, following the graduation of UNH’s top two rushers from last season in fullback Dan Kreider and tailback Dan Curran. Finding replacements for “The Dans” will be a key to offensive success this season, but McDonnell feels he has plenty of firepower when it comes to moving the chains on the ground. The top experienced ball carrier for the Wildcats is sophomore tailback Stephan Lewis (Coatesville, Pa.), who recorded 41 carries for 184 yards and one touchdown as a true freshman. Lewis also proved to be a solid receiver with 18 catches for 141 yards. Also an experienced runner, 5-3, 180-pound sophomore tailback Imion Powell (Berlin, N.J.) showed signs of brilliance last season with 18 carries for 110 yards and one touchdown. The coaching staff is excited about the prospects of having redshirt freshman tailback Renauld Williams (Westbury, N.Y.) on the field. At 5-11, 200 pounds, he has good size, superior speed and is expected to challenge for the starting tailback job. The fullback spot is also vacant with the graduation of both Dan Kreider, a free agent pick of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and Rowan Baptiste. Kreider leaves difficult shoes to fill, but McDonnell will be looking for redshirt freshman fullback Carl Betz (Chatham, N.J.) to pick up where Kreider left off as a punishing blocker, strong runner and dependable receiver. Betz checked in at 5-11, 220 pounds for spring camp. Also looking for playing time at fullback is redshirt freshman Tim Mesner (East Islip, N.Y.), a 6-0, 240-pounder.
How effective was the UNH offensive line last season? The Wildcats gave up just 11 sacks as a team in 1999 for 53 yards lost, which were both top marks in the Atlantic 10. All other teams in the conference lost triple digit yardages with the next best team being Maine (19 sacks for 120 yards lost). Regardless of who was in the offensive line or where they played, UNH moved the football with relative ease last season. The big men in the trenches could only be described as huge and punishing as UNH seemed to move the football at will to boost the team to average 215.4 yards per game on the ground and 241.9 yards per contest throught he air for a league best mark of 457.3 yards per contest Back this season for the ‘Cats are two huge senior starting tackles in Al Willis (Queens, N.Y.) and Ryan Ward (Niagara Falls, Ont.). Willis checked into spring camp at 6-5, 295 pounds and Ward, who was drafted 13th overall in the Canadian Football League draft back in April, is 6-7, 310 pounds and is UNH’s only returning member of the All-Atlantic 10 Football squad after making the third team. Looking at the center position, junior Jason Ball (Londonderry, N.H.) is another New Hampshire native ready to make his mark. A starter in the middle for the ‘Cats, the 6-2, 290-pounder has plenty of experience working with Day as the quarterback. At the right guard position, 6-3, 280-pounder Tim Sample (Falmouth, Mass.) was a starter until a back injury late last season and is another talented veteran. In the guard spots, look for senior Alex Rojas (Hopkinton, Mass.), who moved from defensive line to the offensive line last season. At 6-1, 315 pounds, he has seen playing time in the trenches. Also competing for a starting job will be redshirt freshman Garrett Hussey (New Durham, N.H.), a 6-3, 290-pound New Hampshire product. Others who will be looking to compete for a spot in the depth chart include , 6-3, 260-pound center Brian Barbato (Exeter, N.H.), redshirt freshman Nick Gaunce (Ewing, N.J.), 6-2, 295 pounds; and 6-2, 300-pound tackle Stephen Roper (Temple, N.H.).
UNH will certainly miss the services of last season’s top receiver in Jermaine Washington (71 catches for 821 yards and six touchdowns). However, four of Ryan Day’s other key targets return, including starting junior split end Brian Mallette (Walpole, Mass.). Mallette grabbed 22 receptions for 324 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 14.7 yards per catch. A player who really caught fire late in the season was senior Randal Williams (Bronx, N.Y.). A lumbering 6-3, 220-pounder, Williams towered over many defensive backs and was an easy target for Day. Williams may have made only 10 catches for 149 yards, but three of those receptions ended up in the endzone. Look for Williams, who also played in the defensive line last season, to step up and be even more productive in 2000. Sophomore Michael Taylor (Allentown, Pa.) is another blossoming talent for the Wildcats, after making 10 catches for 179 yards last year. His speed and quickness make him a receiver that will have to be respected by opponent defenses. Also returning is senior Kamau Peterson (Windsor, Ontario), who pulled in 18 catches for 261 yards and two touchdowns. A newcomer to keep an eye on will be redshirt freshman Dan Burkhardt (Gloucester, N.J.).
The defensive line had a need for a little modification with the losses of Steve Dougherty, Jody Trunfio and Russell Genest. To adjust for the losses, the coaching staff will be moving junior Jon Oosterhuis (Guelph, Ontario) from starting linebacker to starting defensive end to help put more pressure on the opponent quarterback. Oosterhuis led the team in sacks from an outside linebacker spot with six for a loss of 39 yards and was the third-leading tackler on the squad last season with a total of 64. Look for his sack numbers to increase at his new position. Joining him on the line will be veteran Ned Finneran (Andover, Mass.). A junior, the 6-2, 265-pounder recorded 33 tackles last season, one sack and two pass breakups in 11 appearances. An up-and-coming star of the defensive line is junior Mike Wells (Salem, N.H.). The coaching staff has been thrilled with his progress, as evidenced by his finishing seventh on the squad in total tackles last season with 40. He also had eight tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in 11 games. Also starting on the defensive line will be 6-3, 275-pound sophomore David Hincman (Peabody, Mass.). He recorded tackles in seven games last season and finished with 6-10-16, plus three sacks and one interception. Others to keep an eye on in the defensive trenches include: 6-2, 255-pound senior veteran Brad Trottier (Lebanon, N.H.); 6-6, 250-pound sophomore Sean Maxwell (Wallingford, Pa.); 6-4, 260-pound junior Manny Ortiz (New Bedford, Mass.); 6-4, 245-pound freshman Jeremy Hincman (Peabody, Mass. and David’s brother); 6-2, 240 Kern Mojica (Hastings, N.Y.); and redshirt freshman noseguard Kurt Tautenhan (Plymouth, N.H.) a 6-2, 250-pounder.
This is a position loaded with experience and talent, so much in fact that the coaching staff felt it was able to sacrifice the play of junior Jon Oosterhuis (Guelph, Ontario) and hand it over to the defensive line. Other than Oosterhuis, there were no losses in this area. Senior Brett Bashaw (Newburyport, Mass.) was the squad’s top tackler last season (58-53-111) and started all 11 contests for the ‘Cats. He also notched eight tackles for a loss, one sack and one interception. At middle linebacker, senior John Paul (Manchester, N.H.) excelled at times last season with huge double-digit tackle totals. He is the team’s fourth-leading returning tackler from 1999 (26-32-58) and he checked in with five tackles for a loss, one sack and one interception. Last, but not least, the coaching staff is pleased to have senior linebacker Rudy Marciano (Moosic, Pa.) back healthy from a knee injury. He saw action in just three games, but had solid numbers in that short period of time (5-19-24). All three have starting experience since they were freshmen and are veterans of the UNH defensive system. Sophomore Chris Robinson (Medford, N.Y.) was pushed into early action due to injuries in the linebacking corps. and he impressed the coaching staff with his efforts. As a result, he is expected to start at outside linebacker for the Wildcats. In four games, he recorded 13 tackles, three for a loss and broke up one pass. Sophomores Chris Hanaka (Webster, Mass.) and Bill McCarthy (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.) should also figure into the two-deep plans.
The defensive backfield looks solid as well with many returning starters and letterwinners ready to take the field. A player that truly caught the eye of the Atlantic 10 coaches and fans last season was sophomore free safety Czar Wiley (North Bergen, N.J.). Wiley had some huge games for the Wildcats and led the team in interceptions with three, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown vs. Villanova. Wiley worked his way into the starting lineup and finished as the team’s sixth-leading tackler (32-21-53), while also recording one sack and two pass deflections. The Wildcats will miss the services of second-leading tackler Wade Rowcliffe at strong safety, but will replace him with a former veteran free safety in senior Erik Mitchell (Atco, N.J.) No stranger to interceptions, Mitchell recorded two last season and has a grand total of 10 during his career. He was the team’s fourth- leading tackler last season (29-31-60). At left corner, UNH will feature another veteran in senior Jason Marshall (Piscataway, N.J.). Marshall, who is a sprinter for the UNH track team, took on some tough assignments last season and utilized his tremendous speed to shut opponents down. He finished the season with 34 tackles, one interception and six pass deflections. The Wildcats will also have to replace co-captain Mike Szweda at the right corner slot. Handling that assignment will be senior Frankie Smith (Neptune, N.J.), a converted tailback who played his first games in the defensive backfield in 1999 as a backup to Szweda, but he saw plenty of action and is ready to start. He finished with 31 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception and two fumble recoveries. Others expected to appear on the two-deep include the likes of redshirt freshman Bo Geer (Jewitt City, Conn.) at corner; junior speedster Terry McSweeney (Sicklerville, N.J.) at corner; junior strong safety Bryce Scottron (Hingham, Mass.) and junior free safety Peter Bush (Swampscott, Mass.).
The UNH kicking game will be handled primarily by junior kicker/punter Shawn MacLean (Salem, Mass.). MacLean was the starting punter last season with 49 punts for 1,664 yards and an average of 34.0 per boot. His long was 54 yards, which was good for a career-high. He will also be handling the kicking duties in 2000, a responsibility he handled for the Wildcats in 1998 as a freshman. The primary return man for the ‘Cats will be sophomore Imion Powell (Berlin, N.J.). Powell had a successful campaign in 1999 as the Wildcats’ main punt returner with 17 for 226 yards and an average of 13.3. He also broke one down the sideline 88 yards for a touchdown vs. Rhode Island. He replaces Jermaine Washington as the primary kickoff returner. Last year Powell ran back 12 kicks for 204 yards for an average of 17.0 yards per runback. Junior quarterback Ryan Day (Manchester, N.H.) will be the holder and the long snaps will be handled by juniors Peter Bush (Swampscott, Mass.) and the short snaps by Jason Ball (Londonderry, N.H.).