|Senior quarterback Mike Granieri|
The University of New Hampshire football team showed steady improvement at the end of last season, winning three of its last four contests, including an impressive victory over top 25 squad Maine, 47-27. With the graduation of just six seniors from the final two-deep, look for the Wildcats to continue their improvement on last year's 5-7 record and 3-6 mark in the Atlantic 10. The Wildcats boast 36 returning letterwinners, while the squad lost just 10 to graduation. UNH also returns most of the squad's starters with eight back on offense and seven returning on the defensive side of the football. And, nearly the entire veteran coaching staff returns intact providing a smooth transition into the new season. UNH returns nearly all of its offensive skill players from a squad that compiled an impressive mark of 4,968 yards. Of that total yardage, only 347 yards compiled by wide receiver Jermaine Stevens are lost due to graduation. That translates into the fact that 93 percent of UNH's offensive firepower returns from a team that averaged 414 ypg. On the defensive side of the football UNH ranked among the I-AA leaders in interceptions made and vastly improved its takeaway/turnover ratio as well. It all starts on Sept. 2 when the Wildcats travel to play Delaware, last season's I-AA National Champion. Here's a look at the team position-by-position:
Leading the offense once again will be senior quarterback Mike Granieri (Linwood, N.J.), who ranked among the top quarterbacks in the league and nation last season in several categories. A pre-season second-team All-Atlantic 10 selection, Granieri finished the 2003 campaign with 27 total touchdowns, 22 through the air and five on the ground. He completed 237-387 passes for 2,595 yards and threw only eight interceptions. He actually compiled more total yards than Delaware's Andy Hall, as Granieri had 602 net rushing yards for a grand total of 3,197 total yards. Look for Granieri to be a top candidate for several honors and awards in 2004. Three other field generals are on the roster and both senior Hassan Noble (Palo Alto, Calif.) and sophomore Matt Skoby (Concord, N.H.) saw playing time, as Noble appeared in seven games and completed 11-19 passes for 136 yards and a TD, while Skoby played in two games and connected on 5-8 passes for 84 yards and two TDs. Also in the mix is redshirt freshman quarterback Ricky Santos (Bellingham, Mass.), who has looked impressive for the 'Cats.
The Wildcats return their top eight rushers, led by senior starting tailback R.J. Harvey (Albany, N.Y.), who carried the football 164 times for 804 yards and 14 TDs. Also back is Granieri, as mentioned above, who was the second-leading rusher with 602 yards. Other players who have had an opportunity to run with the football last season included junior Paul McKinney (Philadelphia, Pa.), 75 times for 266 yards and three TDs for an average of 29.6 ypg. Also seeing time was junior John McCoy (Groton, Conn.) who rushed 53 times for 266 yards and four TDs. In addition, redshirt freshman running back Chris Ward (Waltham, Mass) has bulked up in the weight room to 6-1, 210 pounds and gives UNH a bigger presence in the backfield.
UNH will also feature several experienced and proven players at wide receiver with eight of its top nine ball-catchers back in 2004. Leading the receiving corps will be senior wide receiver David Bailey, who made 48 catches for 612 yards and five TDs in 11 games started. The rest of the returning receivers accounted for 20 TDs and 2,474 receiving yards. Junior tight end Jon Williams (Rochester, N.Y.) was one of the most prolific pass-catchers in the Atlantic 10 from his position with 44 receptions for 448 yards and four TDs. Sophomore wide receiver David Ball (Orange, Vt.) showed a tremendous ability to leap and get the football in 2003 as a true freshman, making 38 catches for 486 yards and four TDs. Harvey was a speedy threat as a receiver out of the backfield (26-153 yards, 2TDs), while sophomore Aaron Brown (Central Square, N.Y.) was impressive as a true freshman (23-332 yards, 2 TDs) and senior Sean Diner (Montreal, Quebec) was steady and sure-handed with 20 catches for 220 yards and 1 TD.
The offensive line loses seniors Brian Barbato and Jon Hart to graduation, but has the talent to be more productive with some very large and experienced players in place as probable starters. Junior Syracuse transfer Tim Carignan (6-4, 310), junior center Adam Triscila (6-2, 305) and senior left tackle Christian Leibl-Cote (6-2, 275) are all returning starters, have worked together on the line, and are one of the main reasons UNH gave up less sacks than any other team in the Atlantic 10 in 2003. Throw in the fact that a fomer true freshman starter on the offensive line, sophomore Tucker Peterson (6-3, 290) has moved back from a short stint on the defensive line and UNH looks tough and experienced up front in the trenches. With the final spot on the line possibly going to another large student-athlete in 6-4, 300-pounder Dave Sundberg (Erie, Pa.). The Wildcat offensive line, combined with all of the returning talent at the skill positions, looks to be capable of moving the football. As if that were not enough, UNH boasts several younger players coming up through the program ready to challenge the upperclassmen and they will provide the talented depth on the line and help get the squad through the long season.
On the defensive side of the football, UNH was much improved over the past two seasons, as evidenced by the fact that the team gave up just 17 points twice in the final four games and relinquished less than 30 points in three of the final four. The Wildcats lose three senior starters on defense in lineman Jeremy Hincman, and linebackers Chris Robinson and George Yasso, however most of the defense returns intact and the coaching staff and players are ready to continue building on the steady progress.
The defensive line will be anchored by three returning starters in 6-3, 255-pound senior Jared Perkoski at defensive end, 6-5, 250-pound junior Derek Stank at defensive tackle and 6-3, 240-pound senior defensive end George Peterson. Peterson, who won numerous post-season honors for his efforts last season, including second-team All-Atlantic 10 and first-team All-New England, led the squad in tackles for a loss with 13 and had three sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. He is the top returning tackler from the defensive line as well (28-21-49). Perkoski (15-9-24) had four tackles for a loss and a sack, while Stank finished the season with (5-18-23) and four tackles for a loss as a starter. Another player with solid experience from 2003 is junior noseguard Tim Beckett (6-1, 260). Beckett saw playing time due to injuries and finished with 1-3-4 and a half sack. There are many younger players coming up through the ranks competing for playing time as well.
UNH has two very experienced and talented linebackers returning in 6-2, 230-pound junior Alan Tallman and 6-2, 220-pound middle linebacker Amir Saadah. Saadah is back for his fifth year and has been a starter throughout his career, while Tallman has been a starter since his freshman campaign. Tallman was the team's third-leading tackler (64-52-116) and had one interception and a fumble recovery, despite nagging injuries in 2003. Saadah was the team's fifth-leading tackler with 27-31-58. In addition to the two seasoned veterans, look for junior Brent Barbato (Exeter, N.H.) to step up and play again, as he has gained valuable experience on the field dating back to his freshman season, as has junior E.J. DeWitt. Another player who will likely fit into the mix would be junior Mark Rutberg, who proved himself last year as a LB/DB last season with (21-12-33) a pass breakup and a forced fumble.
THE DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD:
The defensive backfield returns intact with both starting corners returning and both safeties. Junior left corner Giovanni Benson impressed with his great speed and led the team with five interceptions on the season, returning one for a touchdown. Throw in the three interceptions by starting sophomore Corey Graham and the Wildcat backfield has experience and skill. That trend carries over to safety where senior free safety Aaron Thomas will be a leader in the backfield. He is the top returning tackler for UNH (64-52-116) and also had seven tackles for a loss, an interception, and three fumble recoveries. At strong safety, look for junior returning starter Baron Flenory to pick up where he left off with three interceptions and five pass breakups. The Wildcats also have another returning starter in junior defensive back Etienne Boulay, who went out midway through the season due to injury in 2003, giving Graham an opportunity to start. When healthy he is one of UNH's best.
On special teams, UNH returns junior kicker Connor McCormick, who booted 45-48 PATS through the uprights and was 9-15 in field goal attempts as the team's second-leading point scorer with 72 on the year. UNH also features David Bailey, one of the top kick returners in the nation with 28.4 yards per return.