Every football team faces change when heading into a new season, but the 1999 version of the Wildcats have two pairs of tremendous shoes to fill in recently-retired 27-year head coach Bill Bowes and the NCAA I-AA's all-time leading rusher in Jerry Azumah, who was drafted by the NFLs Chicago Bears. While change can often lead to good things, first-year head coach Sean McDonnell, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Wildcats, will have his hands full working to fill the void left be the aforementioned legends.
McDonnell inherits what looks to be a very solid nucleus to build his team around, however, despite the loss of the Atlantic 10's all-time winningest coach and the Walter Payton Award Winner. No less than 31 lettermen will return to the fold for the Wildcats, including six starters back on offense and no less than eight on the defensive side of the ball. The other good news is that UNH has several proven tailbacks ready to take on the task of filling in for Jerry Azumah, and head coach Bill Bowes plans to be hanging around the practice field and at games should McDonnell need any advice from the coaching legend.
Last year UNH may have been the best 4-7 team in the country. The squad defeated the likes of top ranked teams, such as Connecticut (24-20), William & Mary on the road, a team ranked sixth in the nation (31-19) and the Wildcats lost to eventual national champion UMass by just a one-point margin (27-26) following a missed extra point. With 33 letter winners returning from that solid squad McDonnell will have the tools he needs to start a new winning tradition at the University of New Hampshire.
THE OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD:
It will be life without Jerry in the UNH backfield, but fortunately a proven veteran has been waiting in the wings for a chance to show his stuff at tailback in 6-0, 211-pound senior Dan Curran (Chelmsford, Mass.). The second-leading rusher on the squad last season, Curran did not get the opportunity to carry the ball as much as Jerry Azumah (75 attempts), but when he did he was productive, as evidenced by his 504 yards and very impressive average of 6.7 yards per carry, which by the way, was a higher average than that of Azumah (6.4 yards per carry). Curran, who played in 10 games last season, also scored three touchdowns, averaged 50.4 yards per contest and showed some pass-catching ability with seven grabs for 62 yards. He will be pushed by several young tailbacks on the UNH roster, including redshirt freshmen Imion Powell (Berlin, N.J.) and Ime Ekong (Regina, Sask.) Both have had a tremendous spring campaign and are ready to make their mark at UNH. Also back is junior Frankie Smith (Neptune, N.J.) who showed flashes of brilliance last season (16xl56, 3 TDs). At fullback, UNH has an All-Everything candidate in senior Dan Kreider (Mont Joy, Pa.), who may turn out to be UNH's top rusher with the graduation of Azumah. Kreider, at 6-0, 245 pounds is just plain punishing, whether he is blocking, carrying the ball or making one of his great catches out of the backfield. Last season, the big back averaged 5.5 yards per carry for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He also recorded nine catches for 96 yards. He already is drawing NFL attention and is likely to be the top fullback in the Atlantic 10 in 1999. Backing up Kreider will be another senior in Rowan Baptiste (Mattapan, Mass.) who saw limited time due to injury last season, but is a proven performer. The quarterback position, with the loss of starter Tim Cramsey, will be up for grabs right up until the start of the season, with several field generals looking for their chance to shine. While this area presents a huge question mark for the Wildcats, there is depth and two players have starting experience. Leading the way is junior Mike Apple (Bath, N.Y), who backed up Cramsey last season and started when he injured his shoulder. Apple completed 17x42 passes in 1998 for 286 yards and an average of 95.3 yards per contest. The other quarterback with experience is senior Matt Cassano (Atkinson, N.H.). Cassano was beat out by Cramsey after a shoulder injury and may not be able to play next season due to a concussion suffered in an off-the-field incident. Cassano was the primary starter during the 1997 season for the Wildcats. Last year he completed 5x2l passes for 72 yards. Also vying for the starting job is a much improved local sophomore in Ryan Day (Manchester, N.H.), who has had a tremendous spring, and redshirt freshman Michael Hurley (Walpole, Mass.), who was all-state in high school.
The coaching staff is excited to have four players with starting experience back on the offensive line. While it is true that the team will have to make due without All-American Walter Jones and Cincinnati Bengal signee Greg Krause, the team can feel good about the experience returning in 1999. Leading the way will be a pair of returning starting tackles in 6-7, 297-pound junior Ryan Ward (Niagara Falls, Ontario) and 6-5, 298-pound junior Al Willis (Queens, N.Y). Ward proved to be the team's best downfield blocker and has shown tremendous speed for his size. Willis has the kind of attitude that coaches love on the field, tough and aggressive. Also returning to the offensive trenches will be third-team All-Atlantic 10 selection Jeff Hayes (Arlington, Mass.), a 6-3, 291-pound senior who will switch from center to guard. He has seen time at both positions during his career. Hayes moved from the center spot at the middle of last season and gave way to 6-2, 288-pound sophomore center Jason Ball (Londonderry, N.H.), who impressed in the middle as a starter in four games at the end of the 1998 campaign. The staff is looking for one other player to start at guard and 6-3, 284-pound sophomore Mike Wells (Salem, N.H.) looks to have the inside track at the job. He played both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball last season but will return to his role on the offensive line in 1999. The only question mark for the line this year is finding depth and the staff will be working to develop some of the young players, such as 6-1, 315-pound junior Alex Rojas (Hopkinton, Mass.), 6-6, 270-pound senior Matt Bauer (Temple, Pa.) and 6-2, 284-pound redshirt freshman Garrett Hussey (New Durham, N.H.) could also help in this area.
In the tight end slot, the coaching staff will be asked to replace all-conference pick Jeff Tripp and also Matt Fischer. Last year UNH utilized a two-tight end set often, but the team may be doing less of that in 1999. Look for 6-3, 251- pound Michael-Jean Depalma (Central Bridge, N.Y.) to get his chance as a starter after serving as the third-string tight end last season. He will battle with 6-4, 244-pound redshirt freshman Kane Anderson (Manchester, Conn.) The staff believes his size, speed and strength are all there, he only needs some practice time and to learn the system. He could be one of the better tight ends ever at UNH by the end of his career.
This area is loaded with experience and is ready to take on the challenge of a season without Jerry Azumah running the football. With Azumah gone, these players, who all return from last season, should be called upon to increase their production. Leading the way at wide receiver is the always dangerous threat of senior Jermaine Washington (West Milford, N.J.), who led all receivers with 28 catches for 531 yards and a team-high five receiving touchdowns. One of the top receivers in the Atlantic 10 last year, he averaged 19.0 yards per catch and 48.3 yards receiving per contest. He also proved to be an outstanding blocker when called upon. The other wide receiver slot is open to some solid competition. The inside track might go to sophomore Brian Mallette (Walpole, Mass.), who started eight games last season and was sixth on the team with nine catches for 96 yards and one touchdown. Also in the mix will be redshirt freshman Michael Taylor (Allentown, Pa.) who could surprise many with his pass-catching ability, speed and athleticism. Also returning with experience is junior burner Kamau Peterson (Windsor, Ontario), who would have been a starter last season, but suffered some nagging injuries. He has the potential to be a game-breaker. In limited action last season, he recorded five catches for 65 yards with an average of 13.0 yards per catch.
The loss of All-New England pick and first-team All-Atlantic 10 lineman Matt Crispino will be tough for the Wildcats as he was often double-teamed at the line of scrimmage, but the Wildcats have many returning players who have earned significant playing time over the years due to injuries. Senior defensive end Russell Genest (Amherst, N.H.) has seen plenty of action during his career and should provide solid leadership in the trenches with 6-22-28 tackles, five tackles for a loss and one sack. Joining him will be 6-2, 250-pound junior Stephen Dougherty (Middletown, N.Y). He recorded 21 tackles, six tackles for a loss, three sacks and one interception. He showed he was a big-play man when healthy and he is returning healthy in 1999. Also back with experience is 6-2, 256-pound senior Jody Trunfio (New Hartford, N.Y.) who struggled with a knee injury last season, but is back ready to go. Returning to the team is 6-4, 243-pound junior Matt Champion (Maplewood, N.J.), who was highly recruited entering college. Two defensive ends who could also push for significant playing time are 6-2,249- pound junior Brad Trottier (Lebanon, N.H.) and 6-6, 249-pound redshirt freshman Sean Maxwell (Wallingford, Pa.) who is a very promising prospect.
Linebacker is an area that was very young last year, but with another year under their belts, this group is deep and solid. Leading the way is 6-1, 220-pound junior Rudy Marciano (Moosic, Pa.), who is the top returning tackler from last season with 18-58-76, who started most of the games last year. Joining Marciano will be another linebacker with starting experience in 6-2, 199-pound junior Brett Bashaw (Newburyport, Mass.), who was hurt in the middle of last season, but came back late (6-22-28). One of the Wildcats' most promising young players is 6-4, 239-pound sophomore John Oosterhuis (Guelph, Ontario), who came on strong at the end of last season. The coaching staff believes he is on pace to develop into one of the all-time great linebackers at UNH and in the Atlantic 10 (15-20-35). After breaking his ankle last season, 6-0, 223-pounder junior John Paul (Manchester, N.H.) will be looking to return healthy. He was playing extremely well before getting injured (7-8-15). Linebacker is one of the most experienced areas on the team and there are several newcomers ready to push for time as well.
Another of the most experienced areas on the squad is the defensive backfield, where every single starter returns in the secondary and is ready to make even further improvements upon last year's efforts. Leading the way is the defensive captain in 6-1, 196-pound senior Mike Szweda (Shaker Heights, Ohio), who the coaching staff believes is good enough to compete for first-team All-Atlantic 10 honors in 1999. He finished last season as the squad's sixth-leading tackler (28- 30-58), while also notching two sacks, one interception and he led the team in pass breakups with 11. At the other starting corner position is junior incumbent Jason Marshall (Piscataway, N.J.). Marshall took the job midway through the season and was tremendous late in the season (17-11- 28) for the 'Cats. Also returning is one of the hardest hitting strong safeties in the Atlantic 10 in 6-0, 201-pound senior Wade Rowcliffe (Caledonia, N.Y.). He can be seen making bone-crushing tackles all over the field, as evidenced by the fact that he was UNH's third-leading tackler in 1998 with 32-35-67, five tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception, six pass breakups and no less than three forced fumbles. At the free safety position returns junior Erik Mitchell (Atco, N.J.), who was seventh in total tackles last season (23-26- 49), while leading the team with five interceptions. His ball-hawkling skills should help make the backfield extremely tough on opponent receivers. Also back with experience is sophomore Bryce Scottron (Hingham, Mass.), who showed he could get the job done in the backfield. There is plenty of depth as well in all positions, as many second-stringers have also seen significant playing time.