2007 SPRINGFIELD COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW
The 2006 Springfield College football season was very successful. The team finished 10-2, served as the Empire 8 Conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth qualifier, finished 10th in the D3football.com final poll, won its 500th game in school history, and reached the second round of the NCAA’s before bowing to a squad that eventually reached the Final Four.
At the cusp of the 2007 season, the Pride hopes to be every bit as successful. Yes, expectations are high for Head Coach Mike DeLong’s troops, who return 12 starters overall, including seven on offense, which includes its entire starting backfield and the Division III National Player of the Year in senior quarterback Chris Sharpe.
The Pride is rated highly in all 2007 Division III pre-season polls, including 9th in D3football.com, 9th in USA Today, 14th in Lindy’s, and 14th in Street & Smith’s. Sharpe, the record-setting quarterback, who earned the 2006 Melberger Award, emblematic of the National Player of the Year in his division, has been named a Pre-season First Team All-American by D3football.com. We’ll talk about Springfield’s leader of the triple-option attack a lot more in a little bit.
There are more reasons to be excited about Springfield College football. The Pride has won 14 of its last 18 games (which coincides exactly when Sharpe took over the starting role at QB midway through the 2005 season). In the last 12 years alone, Springfield’s overall record is 86-39, for an excellent .688 winning percentage. In the past five years alone, Springfield has manufactured a 40-13 mark for an even better .755 percentage.And here is more to mull over since the start of that 1995 season – when the College turned from a Division II program to Division III. Since then, Springfield has produced six national rushing titles (including one in 2006), five NCAA Tournament berths (’98, ’00, ’02, ’03, and ’06), six conference titles (including a co-title in ’06), sixteen All-Americans, and one unbeaten regular season in 2003.
DeLong will enter the 2007 campaign as the winningest active Division III coach in New England with his 146 victories (134 at Springfield). With those 134 victories under his belt, DeLong became the winningest coach in Springfield College history many years ago. To put it in perspective, tied for second best with 69 wins each is the combination of James H. McCurdy (1895-’03; ’07-’16) and Ted Dunn (1958-75). In addition, eight of the last 12 seasons at Springfield have been winning ones.
A year ago, Springfield finished 5-1 in the extremely tough Empire 8 Conference, splitting the championship with St. John Fisher, the team the Pride eventually lost to (27-21) in the second round of the NCAA’s. St. John Fisher has been rated as high as #3 in 2007 pre-season polls. Alfred, Ithaca, and non-conference foe Union, as always, are also very well respected by the pre-season pollsters. So the Pride has its work cut out for it.
Can the Pride repeat as NCAA automatic qualifiers?
The schedule, in one sense, is exactly the same as it was in 2006. But the venues are reversed. Which means the first four games, and five of the first six are on the road. In all, Springfield will play only four home contests – the first not coming until October 6 when it plays up-and-coming Husson.
It all starts Saturday, September 8 when the road show begins at always-powerful Union in what is scheduled to be Springfield’s only night game of the season.
Now let’s examine the Pride in more depth.
There is much to be optimistic about when discussing the offense, led by coordinator Mike Cerasuolo. Discussion begins, but does not end, with Sharpe. Strong and durable, the 5-9 scatback-type is 14-4 since he took over the starting QB role with a memorable 50-49 victory over Western Connecticut in game #5 of the 2005 season. In that game, he scored the winning two-point conversion in the first overtime with a scamper to his left. That’s when a legend was born.
Sharpe produced a season for the ages in 2006. He led the nation in average yards rushing per game (161.8), average points per game (17.7), and touchdowns (35). He set six NCAA Division III records, eight New England Division III records, and 12 Springfield College records. He scored an NCAA single-season record 35 touchdowns for a QB, and rushed for a New England Division III single-season record 1,941 yards. His 212 points smashed the New England Division III single-season record in that category.
He led his team to nine straight wins (last two of 2005, first seven of 2006). He led his team to a 9-1 regular-season mark, including a remarkable 280-yard, 7-touchdown effort in a 55-38 victory at St. John Fisher. He ran for 200 yards or more five times. He scored four TDs or more in a game four times. He guided Springfield to its first Empire 8 title (not to mention the school’s 500th career triumph) in a regular season ending 35-0 shutout victory at Norwich. He then led his team to its high-water mark of the campaign, a first-round NCAA victory over a Curry squad that was 11-0 at the time (42-14).
Along the way, Chris Sharpe became the school’s most-highly decorated athlete in history. Highlights included his winning the following: the Melberger Award, the ECAC Division III Offensive Co-Player of the Year, the NEFWA Gold Helmet Award, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s Joseph P. Zabilski Award (the latter two symbolic of New England Division II/III Player of the Year), and the Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year. He also became just the second player in New England annals to earn three weekly Gold Helmet awards. He also received All-America honors – AP Little All-America (Second Team), and from D3football.com and Don Hansen’s Football Gazette (both honorable mention).
He has been named a 2007 pre-season First Team All-America by D3football.com.
But Sharpe is just one of four members of a backfield returning intact. The others include junior fullback Andrew Jackson, and senior halfbacks Derron Walker and Tim Brouillard. Overall, the Pride returns its top six rushers of 2006.
Jackson was Second Team All-Empire 8 in 2006. The bruising fullback ran for 928 tough yards for a 5.1 average. He also scored 11 touchdowns. Those totals surely would have been much higher had he not missed two full games, and one half of two others with an ankle sprain.
But he returns healthy, as do the halfback tandem of Walker and Brouillard. Walker ran for 455 yards and three TDs, including a career-best 160 yards and two TDs in the win at Norwich. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Brouillard ran for 390 yards and three more TDs. Among those who ran at least 50 times, that included a team-best 7.8 yards per carry.
Behind Sharpe is sophomore Anthony Nalen, who saw fourth-quarter action in several games last season. Junior Justin Fernandez also returns at QB. John Schmaltz has looked promising as a freshman.
The fullback position is blessed with great depth as proven last year when Jackson was unavailable. Sophomore Bret Manning rushed for 238 yards and one TD (6.4 average per carry), while junior Dante Calabrese ran for 237 yards (4.2 average). (Look for Manning, however, to jump to defensive end in 2007). Calabrese ran for 117 of those yards in the 55-38 win at St. John Fisher. Junior Nick Tymoczko (8 carries, 63 yards, one TD, 10.3 ypc) also bears watching.
When Sharpe passes, it is no doubt considered a surprise. But he did pass for 476 yards and four TDs last season, including 107 yards and two TDs in the win over Union. Brian Rose, an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American (District I), caught 201 of those yards and three of those TDs, but he has graduated. Candidates to replace Rose include seniors Erich Timmerman and Kyle Anderson, as well as junior Ben Deptula.
Juniors J.P. Gagnon and Mark Boardman are candidates to replace the graduated Tim Fledderjohn at tight end, an underrated position in the vaunted Springfield offense.
Which brings us to the offensive line. Springfield College takes a great deal of pride when it wins a national statistical category such as “rushing yards per game.” That is exactly what it accomplished in 2006 by averaging 374.7 yards per game on the ground, significantly higher than the number two-ranked Division III school in that category.
True, Springfield lost consensus First Team All-America Adam Feit, a guard, from that line, and First Team All-Empire 8 center Mike Mestieri. But Springfield returns three starters to that unit, including sophomore Jon Mercer at left tackle, senior Dan Connors at right guard, and senior quad-captain Nate Germain at right tackle.
Others expected to contribute mightily to the O-line include seniors Sean Kemp, Chris Fee, Conor Hughes, and Dave Marocchini, and junior Chris Simister.
The Springfield defense also proved to be the nation’s best in a very significant category. Any defensive coordinator, including our own Jack Holik, now in his 27th year at Springfield College, will mention that “turnover ratio” is one of the most telling statistics in any game.
Score some big-time points for the Pride in that it led all of Division III last season with a plus-1.92 turnover-per-game average. The Springfield “D” created 36 turnovers, including 25 interceptions, while giving it up only 13 times, including just 11 fumbles and two interceptions. Holik is certainly looking for a defense that can be every bit as opportunistic this season.
There are probably more questions on defense than there are on offense. But there are a lot of good things to talk about. Let’s start with the linebackers.
First Team All-Empire 8 inside linebacker Andrew Madigan and his 77 tackles (second-best on the team) has graduated. But the team’s leading tackler (who took that mantle in the final game), junior Tom Caporale, returns with his 80 tackles. Expected to team with Caporale at the other ILB position in Springfield’s 3-4 defense is sophomore Jeff Creedon, who DeLong thinks very highly of.
Others who will contribute at inside linebacker include juniors Mike Adams and Todd Pelletier.
At outside linebacker, senior quad-captain Brian Hess will lead the charge. Hess was the team’s fifth-leading tackler in 2006 with his 42 stops overall. He also had a team-high-tying seven pass break-ups. Who will be on the other side? Candidates include junior Sean Richey, and sophomores Ken Goodwin and Ed Rosiak.
The team also returns its two starting cornerbacks in seniors Joe Harasymiak and Paul Zalenski. The two combined for 14 interceptions a year ago.
The most decorated returnee on defense is Harasymiak, a quad-captain. Joe intercepted 10 balls in 2006, tying a single-season school record (Keith Sweeney, 1991). Joe was a Don Hansen’s Football Gazette honorable mention All-America. He was also a D3football.com Second Team All-East Region performer. He had 137 return yards. He also blocked two kicks on special teams.
Zalenski picked off four more passes and had seven pass break-ups. He was the Empire 8 Co-Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Brockport State (a 27-3 victory) in which he had two interceptions and three pass break-ups.
Senior Brian Bert, junior Miles Daniels, and sophomore Chris Bush could see time at the corner slots.
All-Empire 8 Second Team strong safety Kevin Fessette, and his 75 tackles and six interceptions, has graduated. But junior Greg Webster showed promise in filling that role at times last season. Sophomore Pat Blackford is also in the mix.
Fourth-leading tackler Lucas Maciarello (60 stops) has also graduated from his free safety position. But junior Jason Antonucci is expected to step in. Sophomore Jarred Burrell could also see time in the spot that is the last line of defense.
Perhaps the area of the team with the most questions is the defensive line, where all three starters have departed. But DeLong and Holik have created some solutions. Chief along the losses there is Mike Nicol at an end slot. The solutions?
Now please find sophomore Bret Manning, an erstwhile fullback, at one end position. The other end could be some combination of any of the following – seniors Steve Brutus, Jason Bakoulis, Roody Joseph, or junior Mike Harris. The nose tackle could be manned by sophomores Derrick Weekes and/or John Ward.
The place-kicking duties were mainly manned by sophomore Chris Bush last season. Also added was Gordie Barr, a transfer from the University at Albany. A significant loss was that of All-Empire 8 First Team punter Mike Mahoney (38.5 yards per punt). Junior Jason Hurlock has a chance to claim that job, with Barr also in the hunt. A host of candidates will be vying for kick-return and punt return slots. Sophomores Jarred Burrell and Jared Livingston are initial front-runners.