The University of New Hampshire football team prepares to embark on its 2011 campaign filled with promise to extend the nation's longest Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) postseason streak to an eighth consecutive year. The Wildcats, who reached the NCAA Division I quarterfinals for the sixth time in seven years, completed the 2010 season with an 8-5 record, stretching their string of being ranked in the Top 25 to an astounding 97 consecutive weeks. That is the longest streak in the ultra-competitive Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and dates back to Sept. 13, 2004.
The 2010 UNH football team made history by defeating five ranked opponents for the first time ever and further established home dominance at venerable Cowell Stadium by completing the longest home winning streak in University history. The Wildcats blanked Richmond, 17-0, on Homecoming for a 12th straight victory at Mooradian Field, breaking a record that had endured for nearly 80 seasons. Additionally, New Hampshire's triumph against Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium in the inaugural Colonial Clash was not only the largest live crowd to view a CAA game (32,848), but also featured the best television rating in league history on Comcast SportsNet New England (0.88).
Once again in 2011, UNH will tangle with some of the top teams in the nation, kicking off with a challenge against the University of Toledo from the Football Championship Subdivision (FBS) on Thursday, Sept. 1, at the historic Glass Bowl. The Wildcat football program serves as the benchmark for upset-minded FCS schools with a record of 5-1 versus FBS competition since 2004. The non-conference schedule also includes a visit to Lehigh, the defending Patriot League champion, and the home opener against another traditional Patriot League power, Holy Cross, on Oct. 1. The always-difficult CAA slate consists of road tilts at Richmond, William & Mary and Towson and home games against the likes of Villanova, Rhode Island, James Madison and Maine. Also, the second Colonial Clash is on tap for Oct. 22 against UMass at Gillette Stadium.
While the 'Cats had to bid farewell to six offensive starters from the '10 squad, the spring depth chart includes 11 players who started games last season. Among this group is leading rusher Dontra Peters, second-leading receiver Joey Orlando and six offensive linemen with a wealth of playing experience, anchored by senior left guard George Pecoraro.
On the other side of the ball, UNH will need to fill the void left by the departure of six starters, as senior cornerback Kyle Flemings is the lone member of the '10 starting secondary back in the fold. The front seven, though, is loaded with experience, headlined by senior defensive end Brian McNally, who set a school record with 13.5 sacks last season, and junior middle linebacker Matt Evans, fresh off a 156-tackle campaign, the highest total by a Wildcat since 1981.
QUARTERBACK: Senior signal caller Kevin Decker has waited patiently in the wings for his chance to lead the offense, which finally arrives in his fifth season on campus. The 6-2, 201-pound QB has shined when his number's been called, never brighter than his lone start of the 2010 season. Decker was at the helm of the Wildcats' 45-20 NCAA second-round playoff victory at Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 4, completing 23 of 35 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, Decker saw action in all 13 games, connecting on 68.7-percent of his throws (46-for-67) for 447 yards with five touchdown tosses. The Armonk, N.Y., native also rushed the ball 28 times for 92 yards and a touchdown. The competition for backup quarterback is wide open this spring, including junior James Brady (5-10, 205), a transfer from Georgetown who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Brady will be vying with a pair of redshirt freshmen –Alex Park (6-1, 190) and Andy Vailas (5-11, 175)- for the right to back up Decker.
RUNNING BACK: Junior Dontra Peters enjoyed a breakout sophomore season, leading all UNH ball carriers with 707 yards rushing yards and seven touchdowns on a team-leading 142 carries in 12 games. The 5-11, 192-pound running back averaged five yards per rush, 58.9 yards per game and was named to the All-CAA Third Team. Peters notched a CAA-best 197 rushing yards on 19 rushes in a season-opening win against Central Connecticut State and is poised to be among the league's top RBs in 2011. Sophomore Chris Setian (5-9, 226) will complement Peters' speed with a bruising between-the-tackles running ability. Setian led UNH with 5.1 yards per carry last season, gaining 184 yards on 36 carries. The East Longmeadow, Mass., native scored one touchdown and his downhill style helped him avoid any rushes for negative yardage. A number of youngsters will be in the mix for carries, with sophomore Derek Coppola (5-7, 182) looking to bounce back from a leg injury that cut short his season after two games, nine carries and 19 yards. Redshirt freshmen Jimmy Owens (5-8, 200) and Nico Steriti (5-11, 205) bided their time on the practice field in 2010 and should provide depth to the backfield this season.
WIDE RECEIVER: Junior wideout Joey Orlando is on the precipice of stardom at UNH. As a sophomore, the 5-11, 197-pound receiver ranked second on the team in receptions (50), yards (585) and touchdown catches (6). With another year of experience under his belt, Orlando should be a favorite target of Kevin Decker. The wide receiving corps was buoyed by the news that senior Chris Chandler was granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA to play a sixth season with the Wildcats. The Wakefield, Mass., native serves as both an on-field and inspirational leader for his battle back from a devastating knee injury that essentially cost him two seasons (2007, 2008). Last year, the 6-2, 216-pounder played in all 13 games, collecting 12 receptions for 164 yards and a touchdown. Chandler will be joined by another Wildcat eager to put a past injury in his rearview mirror: senior slot receiver Mickey Mangieri (5-10, 180). Mangieri had his junior campaign derailed before it really even got started when he suffered a broken leg in the fall Blue-White game, but the native of Pound Ridge, N.Y., is back at full strength, seeking to build off a sophomore season that saw him pace the Wildcats with an impressive 19.8 yards per reception in 2009. Sophomore Justin Mello (6-0, 213) received some valuable on-the-job training in 2010, snaring three passes for 31 yards in six games. He'll be expected to step up this season and compete for playing time with promising redshirt freshmen Jimmy Giansante (6-2, 205) and R.J. Harris (6-0, 180), who should also see time at slot receiver.
OFFENSIVE LINE: After losing only one core member, the offensive line boasts a collective unit featuring six individuals with extensive playing experience –all of whom started multiple games last season. Incredibly, left guard George Pecoraro (6-3, 285) is the only senior in the trenches. The Cresskill, N.J., native should be flanked by left tackle Walter McCarthy (6-5, 275), who will be counted on to replace the departed Seth Price. The intriguing spring competition comes at center, where junior incumbent Chris Zarkoskie (6-1, 290) will battle to fend off sophomore Ricky Archer (6-2, 280), who started games at both guard positions in '10. Sophomore Seamus O'Neill (6-3, 280) is in line to nail down the right guard slot, which he shared with Archer last season, while junior Mickey DiLima (6-4, 317) prepares to start at right tackle for the second year in a row. After missing last season due to illness, junior Isaiah Martin (6-2, 300) is back in camp looking to move up the depth chart. Sophomores Sean Ryan (6-2, 295) and James Scafate (6-4, 296) will compete with redshirt freshmen Robert Bowman (6-5, 275) and Mike Coccia (6-3, 275) for backup positions on the line.
TIGHT END: Seniors Chris Jeannot and Sean Cullen both had promising junior seasons interrupted by concussions, but with a clean bill of health in 2011, the duo has the potential to serve critical roles in both blocking and pass-catching schemes for the Wildcats' offense. Jeannot (6-6, 254) showed a glimmer of his big-play ability with a game-breaking 12 catches for 110 yards against FBS foe Pittsburgh in September. Limited to just five games, the Moon Township, Pa., native finished the season with 24 receptions for 205 yards and a touchdown. Cullen (6-4, 235) saw time in nine games, amassing 20 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown. The experience of Jeannot and Cullen will be balanced out by the addition of up-and-coming redshirt freshmen Brian Ciccone (6-3, 215) and Harold Spears (6-4, 210).
DEFENSIVE LINE: UNH's front four will be anchored by bookend senior defensive ends Brian McNally and James Jenkins, who each started all 13 games in 2010. McNally (6-3, 258) had one of the most dominating pass-rushing seasons ever witnessed in Durham, setting a school record with a CAA-leading 13.5 sacks. The College Sporting News Sweet-63 All-America, All-CAA First Team member, FCS All-New England Team honoree and ECAC All-Star compiled 42 tackles, 25 solo, with a team-best 15 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Though overshadowed by his heralded classmate, Jenkins (6-1, 232) was a model of consistency with 22 unassisted tackles and 21 assisted stops for a total of 43 tackles, most among returning linemen. The Paterson, N.J., native added four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore Jay Colbert (6-1, 254) is slated to figure prominently at defensive end for a second straight season after collecting 12 tackles and forcing a fumble while seeing action in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman. Junior Jared Smith (6-3, 300) has a virtual lock on an interior lineman position after being a key member of the DT rotation last season. The Greencastle, Pa., native amassed 38 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a blocked kick while appearing in all 13 games. The early edge in the battle to replace the departed Steve Young is sophomore Sean McCann (6-2, 257), who made seven tackles in seven games last season. Junior Randi Vines (6-3, 255) was on the brink of a breakout season, evidenced by his 30-yard pick-six in the season opener against Central Connecticut State, but a knee injury suffered two weeks later ended his season prematurely. Redshirt freshman Tim Johnson (6-2, 275) is being transitioned from offensive line to defensive line and figures to be in the front-four mix this season.
LINEBACKERS: In UNH's unique 4-2-5 defense, the two middle linebackers must be able to read and react quickly in order to wreak havoc as sideline-to-sideline menaces. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have a pair who fit the bill in juniors Matt Evans and Alan Buzbee. Evans (6-0, 219) burst upon the national stage in 2010 by racking up 156 tackles, the second-highest single-season total in school history. The Hanover, Mass., native led the unit in unassisted tackles (79) and assisted tackles (77), tacked on four sacks, two interceptions (including a 25-yard pick-six vs. Towson), three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Deservedly, Evans was feted with a laundry list of postseason accolades: College Sporting News Sweet-63 All-America; Walter Camp FCS All-America; The Sports Network/Fathead.com All-America Second Team and All-CAA Second Team. Buzbee (6-3, 238) had an outstanding season in his own right, ranking third on the team with 86 tackles, 42 solo efforts, with eight tackles for loss and two forced fumbles after stepping into the starting lineup in week three for injured captain Devon Jackson. The Wildcats' backup linebackers are seniors, with veteran special teams stalwarts John Duffey (6-2, 233) and Mark Petercuskie (5-11, 225) ready to step in when summoned.
SAFETIES: A unit that was deep on seniors a season ago will now rely on a collection of young players needing to capitalize on a strong spring camp to fill the vacancies left by the graduations of Hugo Souza, Ryan McGuinness, John Greer and Mike Perkins. Senior Rod Walker (6-0, 207) is penciled in as the starting 'whip' safety coming off a junior campaign where he posted 17 tackles, including 11 solo stops, in mostly a special teams capacity. Sophomore Chris Beranger (5-11, 191) gets the first crack at free safety after amassing 20 tackles in 10 games during his redshirt freshman campaign, and sophomore Manny Asam (6-0, 180) looks to make a successful conversion from wide receiver to strong safety this spring. Expect to see strong candidacy from junior Tyler Sargent (5-9, 207), who made seven tackles in seven games last season before an injury ended his season early, and redshirt freshmen Chad Wilkes (6-0, 175) and Tre Williams (6-3, 190).
CORNERBACKS: Senior Kyle Flemings (5-10, 180) will serve the leader of the secondary on the heels of a junior season that saw him tie for the team lead with eight pass break-ups, nab four interceptions, force a fumble and recover two fumbles while starting every game. Senior Anthony Gorrell (5-10, 165) is primed to step into a starting role as the opposite corner, replacing four-year starter Dino Vasso. In 11 games last season, Gorrell registered seven tackles, one interception and one pass break-up. Sophomore Chris Houston (5-9, 170) and redshirt freshman Steven Thames (6-0, 170) begin the spring as backup corners.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike MacArthur (5-10, 177) was the only true freshman to see playing time for UNH in 2010, and all he did with that responsibility was earn All-CAA Third Team honors by going 10-for-13 in field goal kicking and a perfect 24-of-24 in PATs. The North Hampton, N.H., native is back to handle place kicking and kickoff duties, and able sophomore A.J. DeLago (Menands, N.Y.) returns in a backup role after booting four field goals in as many attempts last season. The Wildcats will have a new starting punter for the fourth straight season, and entering spring, redshirt freshman Brad Prasky (5-11, 180) has a leg up on the competition.
Dontra Peters is back to return kickoffs after averaging 22.7 yards per return last season (seven returns-159 yards), and Tyler Sargent recorded a team-best 25.0 yards per kick return last year before an injury ended his season prematurely. Joey Orlando is expected to be the primary punt returner after returning three punts for 28 yards last season. Mickey Mangieri should also get the assignment of returning punts two seasons after returning three punts for 64 yards.