The 10th-ranked 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 premier FCS football league, the 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 iconic 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 No. 13/No. 15 Lehigh, the defending Patriot League champion and fellow 2010 NCAA quarterfinalist, 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 No. 16/No. 19 Richmond, 3rd/4th-ranked William & Mary and Towson and home games against the likes of No. 14/No. 13 Villanova, Rhode Island, No. 15/No. 16 James Madison and Maine. Also, the second Colonial Clash is on tap for Oct. 22 against No. 25/NR UMass at Gillette Stadium.
While the 'Cats had to bid farewell to six offensive starters from the '10 squad, the opening day 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 co-captain Kevin Decker has waited patiently in the wings for his chance to lead the offense, which finally arrives in his fifth season on campus. Decker has shined when his number's been called, never brighter than his lone start of the 2010 season when he was at the helm of the Wildcats' 45-20 NCAA second-round playoff victory at Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 4. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound QB completed 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. Junior James Brady (6-0, 203), a transfer from Georgetown who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations, earned the backup job in traning camp. Brady saw action in parts of two seasons (2008, '09) with the Hoyas.
RUNNING BACK: 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, 195-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, 236) packed on 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason and should 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. Redshirt freshmen Jimmy Owens (5-8, 210) and Nico Steriti (5-11, 216) both show great promise and big-play ability out of the backfield. Owens rambled for a 65-yard touchdown in the spring Blue-White Game, while Steriti scored three touchdowns on seven carries in the fall Blue-White scrimmage.
WIDE RECEIVER: As a sophomore, Orlando (5-11, 195) ranked second on the team in receptions (50), yards (585) and touchdown catches (six). 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, 215-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, 178). 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, evidenced by his multi-faceted performance in the spring Blue-White Game. Mangieri made four receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown, rushed one time for 17 yards and even completed a 60-yard pass. The veteran will be looking to return to the fine form he displayed during his sophomore campaign when he paced 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 topped those numbers in the fall scrimmage with a team-leading five grabs for 83 yards and a pair of scores. He'll be expected to step up this season and compete for playing time with redshirt freshmen Jimmy Giansante (6-2, 195) and R.J. Harris (6-0, 194).
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, 290) is the only senior in the trenches. The Cresskill, N.J., native will be flanked by a combination of Seamus O'Neill (6-3, 284) and Walter McCarthy (6-5, 265) at left tackle, as that duo will be counted on to replace the departed Seth Price. At center, junior incumbent Chris Zarkoskie (6-1, 288) has battled with impressive redshirt freshman Mike Coccia (6-3, 282) for the starting nod. Sophomore Ricky Archer (6-2, 280), who started games at both guard positions in '10, will vie for playing time at right guard, while junior Mickey DiLima (6-4, 310) prepares to start at right tackle for the second year in a row. Sophomores Sean Ryan (6-2, 300) and Tyler Brnger (6-2, 287) will provide depth along with redshirt freshmen Rob Bowman (6-5, 303) and Alex Blane (6-4, 288).
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, 261) showed a glimmer of his big-play ability with a game-breaking 12 catches for 110 yards against FBS foe Pittsburgh last 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 Harold Spears (6-4, 235) and Mike Mitchell (6-3, 246).
DEFENSIVE LINE: UNH's front four will be anchored by bookend senior defensive ends McNally and James Jenkins, who each started all 13 games in 2010. McNally (6-3, 272), a co-captain, 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, 243) 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. Junior Randi Vines (6-3, 248) 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. He figures to see significant time at DE this year, as will redshirt freshmen Brian Ciccone (6-3, 245) and Robbie Zauck (6-2, 242). Junior Jared Smith (6-3, 295) dropped 30 pounds during the offeseason to lock up a starting spot at defensive tackle. In 2010, the Greencastle, Pa., native amassed 38 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a blocked kick while appearing in all 13 games. Sophomore Sean McCann (6-2, 262), who made seven tackles in seven games last season, gets a crack at the other starting tackle post, with sophomore Jimmy Vailas (6-3, 265), redshirt freshmen Tim Johnson (6-2, 271) and Matt Kaplan (6-1, 285) providing depth.
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 Evans and Alan Buzbee. Evans (6-0, 227) 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, 242) 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 include senior Mark Petercuskie (5-11, 232) and sophomore Steve Collister (5-10, 235), who are ready and willing to step in when summoned.
SAFETIES: A unit that was deep on seniors a season ago will now rely on a collection of inexperienced players needing to fill the vacancies left by the graduations of Hugo Souza, Ryan McGuinness, John Greer and Mike Perkins. Senior Rod Walker (6-0, 212), who also saw time at linebacker during trainng camp, earned the starting 'whip' safety job 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, 194) takes on the critical role of free safety after amassing 20 tackles in 10 games during his redshirt freshman campaign, and sophomore Manny Asam (6-0, 184) looks to make a successful conversion from backup wide receiver to starting 'strike' safety this season. Expect to see a lot of playing time for junior Tyler Sargent (5-10, 202), redshirt freshmen Chad Wilkes (6-0, 191) and Tre Williams (6-3, 193), and senior Tyrone Conley (6-2, 209), who walked on to the program last spring after an illustrious four-year basketball career at UNH.
CORNERBACKS: 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. Sophomore Chris Houston (5-9, 172) won the battle for the other cornerback position to replace four-year starter Dino Vasso. Senior Anthony Gorrell (5-10, 164), who registered seven tackles, one interception and one pass break-up last season, will serve as a primary backup with redshirt freshman Steven Thames (6-0, 178).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Mike MacArthur (5-10, 190) 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 has added punting to his list of responsibilities this season. Able sophomore A.J. DeLago (5-10, 207) returns in a backup kicking role after booting four field goals in as many attempts last season. Redshirt freshman Brad Prasky (5-11, 190) and true freshman Christian Breda (6-2, 178) supply punting depth.
Peters is back to return kickoffs after averaging 22.7 yards per return last season (seven returns-159 yards), and Sargent recorded a team-best 25.0 yards per kick return last year before an injury ended his season prematurely. Orlando is expected to be the primary punt returner after returning three punts for 28 yards last season. Mangieri should also get the assignment of returning punts two seasons after returning three punts for 64 yards.