Football Set To Begin 2017 Season
By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
As it heads into the 2017 season, the Holy Cross football team is looking to build a squad which can challenge for the Patriot League title. Despite going just 4-7 last year (2-4 Patriot League), the Crusaders return a number of talented players on both sides of the ball. In addition to 12 returning starters, Holy Cross brings back numerous individuals at key positions who missed all or part of the 2016 campaign due to injury.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Crusaders welcome the return of 16 of the 22 players off last year’s final two-deep chart who are hungry for success. They will look to build on what they did a year ago, averaging 356.0 yards of total offense, 23.5 points and 19.2 first downs per game. Even though five starters need to be replaced, Holy Cross has the ability to put one of the top offenses in the Patriot League on the field.
“I think we can be very explosive this year, and we will be able to move the ball more consistently because of our leadership and talent,” said head coach Tom Gilmore. “There is nothing more valuable than experience and that will be a key, especially in the early part of the season.”
As for the defense, the Crusaders have six starters back on a unit with the potential to develop into one of the top defenses in the conference. During the 2016 season, Holy Cross gave up 414.6 yards and 32.3 points per game. The Crusaders will look to improve upon those numbers in 2017, with several key players returning.
“We showed some glimpses of what we are capable of doing last year, and we followed that up with an outstanding spring where we gained size and strength and refined our technique,” said Gilmore. “I expect this to be a much improved unit overall.”
With a great deal of talent and experience, the Crusaders have the chance to be in contention for the Patriot League title and a trip to the NCAA playoffs this fall.
“Our starting units are very strong, and we also have some good depth that can help us finish strong in the fourth quarter of games,” said Gilmore. “If we stay healthy, work hard and focus on playing one game at a time, we have the opportunity to be very successful.”
Here is a breakdown of how Holy Cross should look in 2017.
Senior Peter Pujals returns as a fifth-year senior for the Crusaders in 2017. He missed the majority of last season due to injury, after previously being named first team All-Patriot League in 2015, second team All-Patriot League in 2014 and the Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2013. Over the course of his Holy Cross career, Pujals has hit on 833 of 1,366 passes for 8,919 yards and 67 touchdowns, while rushing 429 times for 1,605 yards and 16 scores. He enters his final season ranked second all-time at Holy Cross in career completions, pass attempts and yards of total offense.
Junior Geoff Wade will serve as Pujals’ back-up this season, after playing in six games with five starts in 2016. Last year, Wade completed 90 of 143 passes for 1,184 yards and seven touchdowns, while posting an impressive 144.4 rating pass efficiency rating.
In the offensive backfield, Holy Cross returns numerous players with significant playing experience. Fifth-year senior Gabe Guild looks to lead the way, after sitting out most of the 2016 campaign due to injury. He enters the season having rushed the ball 321 times for 1,589 yards and 16 touchdowns in his collegiate career, in addition to catching 49 passes for 417 yards and a score.
Senior Diquan Walker should be another huge factor after starting five times at tailback in 2016. Last year, Walker led the team in rushing with 411 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries. He enters his senior season with career totals of 233 carries for 1,003 yards and 11 scores.
Sophomore Miles Alexander and sophomore Domenic Cozier also look to be key parts of the rotation at tailback. Alexander ran the ball 43 times for 140 yards during the 2016 season, while Cozier rushed 50 times for 219 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior Richie DeNicola looks to once again be among the top targets in the passing game, after having a breakout season in 2016. Last year, he ranked third on the team with 49 receptions for 513 yards and four touchdowns, including a career-high 14 catches at Albany.
Senior Darrius Lacy and junior Jordan Montgomery will also look to play key roles at wide out. Lacy caught 14 passes for 258 yards a year ago, with a career-high 104 yards during the season finale against Fordham. Montgomery totaled 22 receptions for 262 yards and two scores last season, while starting six times.
Senior Blaise Bell will bring a new dimension to the table, after seeing action primarily at quarterback during the last three seasons. In spot action at wide receiver over the last two years, Bell has caught 17 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Martin Dorsey and senior Andre Harton are also expected to play much more significant roles in the offense this year.
Senior Matt Millett, junior Tate Beachley, junior Derek Mountain and sophomore Liam Sullivan will be counted on to contribute more this season, while sophomore Jon Jon Roberts, freshmen Tenio Ayeni and Will Sirmon will attempt to break into the rotation.
Senior Jayke Simsheuser should take over as the starting tight end this year, after playing a key role as a backup for the last three years. Over the course of his collegiate career, Simsheuser has caught eight passes for 84 yards.
On the offensive line, the Crusaders return three starters and a number of other experienced players. This group continues to get bigger and stronger, and has become very well versed with the system. Last season, the line paved the way for Holy Cross to average 356.0 total yards and 23.5 points per contest.
Fifth-year senior James Murray and fifth-year senior Nick Piker are great leaders who have improved their size and strength significantly over the course of their careers. Murray earned second team All-Patriot League honors last year and enters the season having started 29 consecutive games for the Crusaders, while Piker has started 23 times of the course of his collegiate career. The third returning starter is senior Charles Steele, who owns 11 career starts at right tackle.
Several others will look to compete for starting spots or provide outstanding depth, in senior Daniel Bernard, junior Brett Boddy, junior Rory Costello, junior Travis DeGoey, junior Jackson Dennis and sophomore Max Daurelle.
Others who will look to become factors along the offensive line include sophomore Justin Knotts, sophomore Daniel Kurkowski and sophomore Joe Mattingly, while freshmen Jack Bowler, John Brekke, Noah FitzGerald, Brian Foley and Michael Mambuca will provide additional depth.
The Crusaders return two starters along the defensive line in junior Teddy Capsis and senior Jack Kutschke, who have the ability to become dominant players up front. Last season, Capsis totaled 22 tackles with one quarterback sack and one pass breakup. Kutschke also had a strong year in 2016, recording 25 tackles with three quarterback sacks, five tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a blocked field goal.
Junior Jake McArdell, junior Neil Vorster and senior Phil Zobrest are three other players who have continued to improve and will look to play bigger roles this fall. McArdell made 10 tackles last season, while Zobrest added seven tackles and Vorster had four tackles. In addition, sophomore Mark Ebo and sophomore Dillon Hart are expected to develop into significant contributors along the line.
Senior Nick McBeath returns to lead the Holy Cross defense after earning first team All-Patriot League honors last season. An extremely intense player, McBeath led the Patriot League with 106 tackles in 2016, to go along with eight tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Junior Andre Chevalier also comes back as a starter at linebacker, and looks to be a consistent performer this season. In 2016, he ranked fifth on the team with 42 tackles, to go along with two interceptions, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
A number of other players will look to compete for the third starting spot or play key roles as backups. Junior Ryan Brady totaled 23 tackles last year with a quarterback sack and three tackles for loss. Senior Brett Laurie recorded 17 tackles with four tackles for loss, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 2016, while junior Jack Haddon added five tackles. Junior Kevin Bucceroni and junior Corey Stefanik, who both missed significant time last year, should also be factors.
Senior Alim Muhammad returns to one of the starting cornerback spots and should be a consistent force in the secondary. Last season, Muhammad totaled 30 tackles with an interception and a pass breakup. Senior Mike McCaffrey looks to man the other cornerback spot after missing the majority of the 2016 campaign due to injury. Despite playing in just four games last year, McCaffrey made 15 tackles.
Junior Damion Baker and junior Akeem Walcott are two others with solid experience at cornerback who will be expected to push for starting spots or play significant roles off the bench. Baker recorded 15 tackles last year with four pass breakups, an interception and a tackle for loss, while Walcott totaled 20 tackles and two pass breakups in 2016.
Senior Ahmad Tyler, who returns as the starter at free safety, has continued to develop and is expected to have an outstanding season. Last year, Tyler totaled 40 tackles to go along with a fumble recovery, an interception and five pass breakups. Senior Chase Stratton, who started five games a year ago, looks to step up his game and man the other starting safety spot. In 2016, Stratton ranked sixth on the team with 41 tackles, in addition to posting a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
Sophomore Alex Johnson and sophomore Chris Riley both gained valuable experience as true freshmen and will look to push for increased playing time this fall. Johnson recorded eight tackles with one tackle for loss last year, while Riley totaled 15 tackles.
A number of players are looking to compete for the starting spots in the kicking game this fall. Senior A.J. Wells will contend for positions at placekicker, punter and on kickoffs. Last season, Wells punted 41 times for 1,602 yards, good for an average of 39.1 yards per punt. He previously handled kickoff duties in 2015, averaging 58.0 yards on 41 kickoffs with four touchbacks.
Senior Will McGrail will compete with Wells for the starting spot at punter. In 2016, McGrail punted 15 times for 622 yards, for an average of 41.5 yards per punt. Sophomore Cody Wilkinson has also improved and will look to see playing time as either a placekicker or on kickoffs. Added depth at the kicking positions will be supplied by freshman Jackson McLarty.
At long snapper, junior Stevie Rainero and junior Jack Dixon both return after performing well over the last two seasons. Rainero is expected to handle the snaps on field goals and extra points, with Dixon manning the position on punts.
In the return game, the Crusaders have a number of talented players with the ability to contribute. DeNicola, Guild, Harton, Lacy, McCaffrey and Muhammad could all be in the mix as both kickoff and punt returners.
The 2017 schedule looks to be challenging, as it includes six Patriot League games and five tough non-conference contests. In the non-league portion of the slate, Holy Cross will take on an FBS opponent for the first time since 2002 when it travels to Connecticut for the season opener. The Crusaders will also face Dartmouth and Yale on the road, while playing host to Monmouth and New Hampshire, a team which has made 13 straight appearances in the NCAA playoffs.
During the conference portion of the schedule, Holy Cross will play host to Colgate, Georgetown and Lafayette at Fitton Field, while heading to Bucknell, Fordham and defending Patriot League champion Lehigh.
“There should be a lot of parity in the Patriot League this year,” said Gilmore. “I believe there is a very narrow gap from the top to the bottom of the league, and I expect it to be a very competitive season.”
To make sure you are there for every minute of Holy Cross football action this fall, purchase your 2017 season tickets today! For details, click here or call 1-844-GOCROSS.