The University of New Hampshire
football program enters the 2012 season as owners of the
nation’s longest active streak of NCAA Division I Football
Championship Subdivision playoff appearances with eight. The
Wildcats finished the 2011 campaign with an overall record of 8-4,
a 6-2 mark in the CAA and the No. 11 ranking in The Sports
Network/Fathead.com season-ending Top 25. The ‘Cats had their
season end in heartbreaking fashion, 26-25, in the second round of
the NCAAs at Montana State University when a blocked PAT with six
seconds remaining dashed the hopes of overtime mere moments after
senior quarterback Kevin Decker’s improbable 29-yard TD pass
to wide receiver Justin Mello in the back right corner of the end
UNH turns the page after bidding farewell to Decker, the co-captain, CAA Offensive Player of the Year and team most valuable player who threw for 3,272 yards, the third-most in school single-season history, during his one memorable year as the starter. Now the competition is wide open to determine his replacement. Senior James Brady (6-0, 210) held a slight advantage over sophomore Andy Vailas (6-2, 187) following spring camp, with redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich (6-3, 205)also vying for an opportunity to win the starting job. Brady, who gained valuable playing time during two seasons at Georgetown prior to transferring to New Hampshire, went 13 of 17 for 300 yards in the spring Blue-White Game and has the edge in terms of experience. He threw for 690 yards and three TDs during his freshman season with the Hoyas in 2008 before seeing action in three more games as a sophomore in ’09. Last season, Brady played a very limited role as Decker’s backup, completing one of two passes for six yards in the season-opener at Toledo. Vailas raced for a 90-yard TD in the Blue-White Game last spring while completing 2 of 7 passes for 18 yards and a score. The Bedford, N.H., native completed 3 of 4 passes for 18 yards in two games as Decker’s understudy last season. Goldrich has a season of learning the offense under his belt; the signal caller has a winning track record, evidenced by his 25-4 mark as starting QB at Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Conn. In the Blue-White Game, Goldrich went 10 of 15 for 147 yards and a touchdown.
The running back position boasts nearly as much experience as the QB post lacks, with all four of last season’s top RBs returning to the backfield this season. Senior co-captain Dontra Peters (5-11, 197) is the incumbent at tailback. For the second straight year Peters led the team in carries (117), yards (595) and rushing yards/game (54.1) while finding the end zone seven times. The Annapolis, Md., native was also the backfield’s top receiving threat with 27 receptions for 174 yards. Sophomore Nico Steriti (5-11, 214) proved capable when called upon, highlighted by a career day in a win against Maine when he rumbled for 150 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. The Toms River, N.J., native saw action in all 12 games, chalking up 370 yards on 65 carries to pace the team with 5.7 yards/rush, including a team season-high 87-yard TD rush at Toledo. H-back Chris Setian (5-10, 235) specialized as the Wildcats’ between-the-tackles battering ram, pounding his way to 338 yards on 80 carries with three TDs. The junior tacked on 15 receptions for 125 yards and a TD and even registered 11 tackles, nine solo, with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on special teams. Sophomore Jimmy Owens (5-8, 211) looks to gain a stronger foothold among this deep corps of RBs in ’12. Owens played sparingly in his initial season with five carries for 13 yards. Granite-Staters Jim Earley (5-10, 179), a Bishop Brady product, and Mike Kelly (5-9, 190), a Bishop Guertin grad, round out the Wildcat ball-carriers.
A talented and deep receiving corps, buoyed by a pair of All-CAA members, should ease the transition of UNH’s new starting quarterback. Sophomore R.J. Harris (6-0, 190/Second Team) and senior Joey Orlando (5-11, 194/Third Team) were a dynamic duo last season. Harris burst upon the scene en route to a place on the College Sports Journal All-Freshman Team. He nabbed 50 receptions and led the ‘Cats with 714 receiving yards, 14.3 yards/catch, 64.9 receiving yards/game, and seven TDs, which tied for the CAA lead. He recorded four 100-yard receiving games, highlighted by a career-best 190 yards and 66-yard TD reception against Villanova, and was a two-time CAA Rookie of the Week. Orlando paced New Hampshire with 54 receptions as the only WR to start all 12 games. The two-year starter was on the receiving end of three TDs, racked up 679 receiving yards and had a career day in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa., with 10 catches, 166 yards, two TD grabs and a 56-yard punt return for a TD in an overtime triumph against Lehigh. Mello (6-0, 217), in addition to his clutch grab at Montana State, totaled 23 receptions for 416 yards and five TDs, second-most on the team. The reliable target notched five multi-catch games, including a career-high 60-yard scoring grab against Holy Cross. Sophomore Jimmy Giansante (6-2, 198), who started two games, is primed to take on a larger role in the receiving game after collecting three TD catches among his 11 receptions, and junior Tim Farina (5-9, 168), who was honored with the Todd Walker Teammate Award in May, also hopes to join the fray as a veteran presence. Joining this collection is fleet-footed redshirt freshman Jared Allison (5-8, 164) looking to make an immediate impact.
With the departure of senior Sean Cullen, the battle for the starting spot rests between sophomores Brian Ciccone (6-3, 248) and Harold Spears (6-4, 245). Spears (one catch-18 yards) missed most of the ’11 season after suffering a leg injury in September that opened the door for Ciccone (one catch-two yards) to transition back from tight end after playing as a defensive end for the first two games. Mike Mitchell (6-3, 251), a sophomore, and Matt Murray (6-2, 257), a junior, enter camp with visions of climbing the depth chart with another year of seasoning under their belts, while redshirt freshman Ekene Nowkoye (6-5, 216) also will get an opportunity to compete for playing time.
All five starters, plus two key reserves, remain intact, making this unit potentially the strongest on the team. Junior Seamus O’Neill (6-6, 270) earned a berth on the All-CAA Third Team after starting all 12 games at left tackle. He’ll once again pair up with left guard and co-captain Chris Zarkoskie (6-1, 286), who is preparing for his third year as a starter. Sophomore Mike Coccia (6-3, 290) won the competition at center last season and proceeded to start all 12 games in his first collegiate campaign. Junior Ricky Archer (6-2, 278) parlayed his first season as a the starting right guard into a spot on both the FCS All-New England Team and the All-CAA Second Team, and senior Mickey DiLima (6-4, 313) will be looking to earn the nod at right tackle for a third consecutive season. Beyond the starters rests an impressive collection of backups looking to take on more definitive roles this season. Senior Walter McCarthy (6-5, 272) and sophomore Rob Bowman (6-5, 307) both played significant snaps at right tackle last season and will be part of the mix again in ’12. Returnees Alex Blane (6-4, 291) and Sean Ryan (6-2, 286) will vie for higher positions on the depth chart with a slew of talented newcomers: Cameron Finn (6-2, 280), Austin Heter (6-4, 261), Zach Hundertmark (6-4, 276) and George Kallas (6-2, 310).
A front four that was experienced on the edges and young in the middle takes on the opposite look this spring. Gone are co-captain Brian McNally, an All-CAA, All-New England and ECAC First Team All-Star defensive end, and James Jenkins, the Jack French Unsung Hero award winner and two-year starter at DE. The bookends combined for 71 tackles and 11 sacks last season. The departure of the senior tandem should be offset by the return of junior ends Jay Colbert (6-1, 262) and Cody Muller (6-2, 250), both of whom are geared up to return to the forefront after missing the ‘11 season recovering from injuries. Also looking to fill the void will be sophomore Robbie Zauck (6-2, 250) and senior Randi Vines (6-3, 261), who will be joined by newcomers Danny Riley (6-4, 256) and Dab Ukwuani (6-3, 240). The defensive tackle position features a group of experienced players that should be very effective in plugging the middle of the line. Jared Smith (6-3, 300) is expected to remain a stalwart at DT, a position he has helped fortify the past two seasons. The senior ranked second among all UNH linemen with 43 tackles, including 2.5 sacks, a season ago. Fellow tackle Sean McCann (6-2, 275) is back in the fold after starting 10 games, with 27 tackles and a sack, during his sophomore campaign. Junior Jimmy Vailas (6-3, 256) will also be counted upon to once again provide depth at that spot, along with sophomore Matt Kaplan (6-1, 291), who collected 15 tackles, nine solo, with 1.5 sacks as part of the rotation last season. Classmate Tim Johnson (6-2, 284) also saw plenty of action last season and should be an integral part of the D-line once again. Look for redshirt freshmen Rashid Armand (6-0, 307), Jullian Turner (6-0, 306) and Ryan Welch (6-3, 273) to also battle for playing time.
To suggest expectations are high for this group would be a massive understatement. Both incumbent MLBs are senior co-captains entering their third year as starters, and one of them –Matt Evans (6-0, 226)- is seeking an encore on the heels of winning the Buck Buchanan Award as the nation’s top defensive player last season. Evans, who became the first player in school history to earn that prestigious honor, was tabbed a consensus All-America by such outlets as the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Phil Steele, The Sports Network/Fathead.com, College Sports Madness, Beyond Sports College Network to go along with winning the Gold Helmet Award as New England’s FCS player of the year. The Hanover, Mass., native paced the squad with 165 tackles (No. 2 nationally), snared three interceptions, including two pick-sixes, recorded two sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. With 334 career tackles, he is ranked fifth all-time at UNH and is just 100 tackles shy of the school’s No. 1 spot. Though overshadowed by his acclaimed classmate, Alan Buzbee (6-3, 238) has proven to be a consistent force in his own right. The Chester, N.J., native started all 12 games last season and ranked third on the team with 88 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack, one INT, one fumble recovery and a team-leading five pass breakups. His leadership both on and off the field should make him an integral part of the Wildcats’ 2012 success. Shane McNeely (6-2, 243) was one of only two true freshmen to see action in 2011, which demonstrated his quick assimilation to the defense. The native of Whitehall, Pa., registered at least one tackle in each of the nine games in which he appeared and notched a fumble recovery. Junior Steve Collister (5-10, 249) and senior Michael Bradley (6-2, 229)provide depth and experience to the linebacking corps, while sophomore Damien Francis (6-0, 211) and redshirt freshman Akil Anderson (6-1, 197) will seek to open some eyes with an impressive camp.
New Hampshire’s 4-2-5 defense emphasizes the importance of the safety position, employing a ‘free’, ‘strike’ and ‘whip’ safety. Chris Beranger (5-11, 195) capitalized on his first season as the first-string free safety by starting all 12 games and becoming one of the CAA’s most potent defensive backs. The Winthrop, Mass., native compiled 142 tackles, the fourth-most in school history. He ranked third in the CAA and ninth in the nation with 11.8 tackles/game and led the ‘Cats in tackles seven times. Beranger posted double-digit stops in eight games, tallied an interception, a sack, two forced fumbles and tied for team-high distinction with five pass breakups. A year ago, Manny Asam (6-0, 184)was making the transition from wide receiver to defensive back. Now the junior is entrenched as the starting strike safety coming off a season that saw him record 75 tackles while starting all 12 contests. The Bloomfield, N.J., native notched three interceptions, added four pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The whip safety job is up for grabs following the graduation of Rod Walker. Tre Williams (6-3, 194) is the most experienced of the candidates to step into that role. The Syracuse, N.Y., native battled through injuries to rack up 20 tackles, 17 solo, in eight games. Nick Cefalo (6-2, 190) is back in the mix after earning playing time in five games as a true freshman in ’11, and competition should be fierce among sophomore Tim Pike (5-10, 199) and redshirt freshmen Khyheem Finley (5-10, 193) and Keith Parkinson (6-1, 191) to gain a stronger foothold on the depth chart.
Junior Chris Houston (5-9, 170) took a major stride forward in 2011 by leading the Wildcats with six interceptions as the starting ‘field’ cornerback for all 12 contests. The Harrisburg, Pa., native snatched five picks in the final four games of the season and concluded the year with 57 tackles, including 43 unassisted stops, which ranked tops among CBs. Sophomore Steven Thames (6-0, 181) served as the primary backup at corner last season and, with the departure of Kyle Flemings, will be looking to fill that vacancy opposite Houston in ’12. The Fort Washington, Md., native totaled seven tackles in eight games, seeing most of his action on special teams. D.J. Moss (5-10, 166), Kalil Bailey (5-10, 172), Lamar Edmonds (5-10, 165) lead the redshirt freshmen who will be in the mix for significant playing time.
Junior Mike MacArthur (5-10, 184) is geared up for his third year as starting place-kicker and will enter the fall looking to get the nod at punter for the second consecutive season. The All-CAA Second Team kicker went 15-for-18 (83.3%) with a long kick of 47 yards last season while converting 40 of 43 PATs for a team-leading 85 points. The North Hampton, N.H., native averaged 38.3 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Among those who will get a closer look as potential backups are junior Nick Pellino (6-1, 208), sophomores Brad Prasky (6-1, 185) and Anthony Guidice (5-8, 164) and redshirt freshman Christian Breda (6-2, 181).
Peters ranked third in the CAA with 24.6 yard per kickoff return last season. He returns along with both Steriti (13 returns-278 yards) and Harris (13 returns-212 yards), who bring experience to that facet of the game. Orlando is in line for a second straight year as the primary punt-return specialist a season after averaging 10.6 yards/return, highlighted by 56-yard TD at Lehigh.