By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
During Tom Gilmore's tenure as head coach, the Holy Cross football team has established itself as one of the top programs in the Patriot League. The Crusaders stand 21-12 overall and 13-5 in the conference over the last three seasons, both of which are the best marks in the league during that time frame. Holy Cross has also posted a winning record for each of the last four years, and produced the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year in three of the past four seasons. This fall, the Crusaders will look to build upon that success by winning their first Patriot League title since 1991.
On the offensive side of the ball, Holy Cross returns six starters and 17 of the 22 players on last season's final two-deep chart. That group will look to improve on what they accomplished a year ago, when they led the conference in scoring offense (34.4 points per game), total offense (455.4 yards per game) and passing offense (348.9 yards per game). With all of this experience returning, Holy Cross should once again have one of the top offenses in the nation this season.
"We can be very good on offense this year," said Gilmore. "Over the last few years, we have shown that we can be productive, move the ball and score points. In order to continue having success, we will need to protect the football, block well up front and finish off drives when we get into the red zone."
As for the defense, the Crusaders have nine starters back on a unit which looks to be one of the top defenses in the Patriot League. Holy Cross allowed 25.8 points and 367.3 yards per game in 2008, and will look to improve upon those numbers with a number of experienced players returning to the lineup. The strength of the defense could come from the linebackers, where all four starters return from 2008.
"We can get a lot better on defense this year," said Gilmore. "We have been improving over the last few years - now we just need to be more consistent and put it all together. There are a number of experienced and talented players on that side of the ball, and I know they are going to challenge themselves to perform at a high level this season."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of how the Crusaders should look in 2009.
The Holy Cross offense will be led by senior quarterback Dominic Randolph, who has won two straight Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year awards and finished ninth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award last season. In 2008, Randolph completed 340 of 520 attempts for 3,838 yards and 34 touchdowns. He led the nation in completions, passing yards and total offense (3,917 yards), while setting school single-season records for passing yards, total offense, completions, pass attempts and touchdown passes.
This fall, Randolph will be one of the favorites to win the Walter Payton Award, as only two other returning players in the nation received more votes for the award than he did last year.
"Dominic Randolph has a tremendous amount of experience and has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in Holy Cross history, so it is a huge plus to have him back for another year," said Gilmore. "We know he has the ability and the work ethic necessary to become an even better player this season. And not only is he a great player, but he is an outstanding leader, becoming the first three-time captain in Holy Cross history."
Senior Joe Kosich looks to return to his role as Randolph's backup, but he will be pushed by sophomore Kevin Watson for that spot. Junior Ryan Taggart and sophomore Mark Tolzien will also attempt to move up on the depth chart, with freshman Grant Enders joining the competition this fall.
Randolph should have a number of excellent targets to hit, as Holy Cross returns five of its top seven wide receivers from last season. Leading the way is junior Josh Jenkins, who totaled 35 catches for 329 yards last season. Senior Nick Cole is also coming off a strong year in 2008, when he totaled 30 receptions for 281 yards and two scores. Junior Freddie Santana added 27 catches for 310 yards and three touchdowns last season, while senior Bill Edger totaled 24 receptions for 345 yards and four scores, and junior Luke Chmielinski caught 24 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown.
"At wide receiver, we have lost some starters over each of the last three years, but we play so many people that the guys coming up wind up being able to fill in and pick up where the last group left off," said Gilmore. "We have several players with an awful lot of playing experience, including Luke Chmielinski, Nick Cole, Bill Edger, Josh Jenkins and Freddie Santana. We know that all of those guys will be very productive, and we feel very comfortable with them on the field."
Several other players look to be in contention for starting spots, including senior Mike Frawley, junior Rob Koster and sophomore Charles McCall. Senior Taylor Glor, junior Rob Turner and sophomore Paul McKelvey will also look to become factors at wide receiver, while freshmen Jack Karlovec, Nick Mercurio, Gerald Mistretta and Kyle Toulouse will provide added depth.
At tight end, seniors Paul Nielsen and Josh Nims look to compete for the top spot. Both players have been hampered by injuries throughout their collegiate careers, but will look to stay healthy and become major factors in 2009. Nielsen played in five games as a backup last season, while Nims saw action in seven contests.
"We are hoping that Paul Nielsen and Josh Nims can have breakout years," said Gilmore. "They have both shown glimpses in practice since they have been here, but they have not consistently been on the field because of injuries. We think both of them have the potential to help us a lot at tight end, so we are hoping they stay healthy throughout the season and produce."
Sophomore Alex Schneider is expected to push Nielsen and Nims for playing time, while senior Mike Argillander, freshman Hank Brigham and freshman Josh Hauser and will also look to contribute.
The Crusaders have two young players who will compete for the starting spot at tailback. Sophomore Matt Bellomo leads the way, after rushing for 150 yards on 39 carries and catching four passes for 37 yards in six games last season. Sophomore Francis Camara should also be a key factor, after totaling three carries and one reception in six appearances last year.
"Both Matt Bellomo and Francis Camara are very talented players who gained some experience last season," said Gilmore. "They both have the potential to be great players here at Holy Cross. We obviously lost a lot at tailback with the graduation of Terrance Gass and Mike Kielt, but we feel good about Bellomo and Camara being able to pick up the pieces and produce for us."
Senior Matt Jackson will also look to earn playing time, along with freshmen Reed Apfelbaum, Sam Auffant, Anthony Blake, Aleck DaGrosa, Eddie Houghton and Colin Reno.
In addition to all of the talent returning at the skill positions, the Crusaders return four out of five starters and two All-Patriot League selections on the offensive line. Last year, the line paved the way for Holy Cross to average 455.4 yards of total offense and 34.4 points per contest. The Crusaders also allowed just 16 sacks during the 2008 season, while the team attempted 523 passes (just one sack for every 33.7 times the team dropped back to pass).
Leading Holy Cross this season will be four players who started at least nine games during the 2008 campaign. Senior Chris Smith will be back for his fourth year as the starting center, while senior Chris Poole and senior Rob Petrosino return as the starting guards, and senior Aaron Jones is back as the starting left tackle. Junior Mike McCabe, who may be the most talented of all the linemen, is expected to be back in the starting lineup at right tackle, after missing the final nine games of the 2008 season due to injury.
"I expect this to be the best offensive line we have had since I have been at Holy Cross," said Gilmore. "We have a lot of experience, and it is one of the biggest offensive lines we have ever had. They also work well together as a unit, having played so many games together, and are a very tight-knit group both on and off the field. An offensive line that has this kind of ability and experience does not come around very often."
Senior Chris Fucillo, junior Mike Bernazzani, junior Scott Wise and sophomore Kyle Seddon all saw action as backups last season, and will look to push the starters for playing time, along with sophomores Andrew Jameson and Sean Whited. Others who will look to contribute, include seniors Matt Brady, Justin Johnson and Brandt Tierney; junior Graham Gawryszewski; and freshmen Casey Bessemer, Fred Hilow, Billy Lang and Kyle Pedretty.
"There are a number of backups on our offensive line who are very good players," said Gilmore. "We are very comfortable putting them on the field, knowing that they can perform without the offense missing a beat."
The linebackers look to be a strength for Holy Cross, with all four starters and two All-Patriot League selections returning. Senior Marcus Rodriguez is back at one of the inside linebacker spots, after totaling 68 tackles, four sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2008. Senior Andrew Cialino, who recorded 26 tackles while playing in just five games due to injury, returns as the other starting inside linebacker.
"Marcus Rodriguez and Andrew Cialino are two guys who really understand what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish," said Gilmore. "And they are starting to take bigger leadership roles than they have done in past years. So we are looking to both of those guys, not only to be productive players, but to be the leaders of the defense."
Junior Perry Townsend, sophomore C.J. Martin and sophomore Ricky Otis, who saw action as backups and on special teams last season, are also expected to be key contributors. In addition, senior Wayne Nesbit, junior Brian Mauthe, freshman Pat O'Connell and freshman Roman SanDoval will look to win playing time.
On the outside, senior Sean Lamkin will be back in the starting lineup, following a 2008 campaign in which he led the team with 71 total tackles, including six tackles for loss. Senior Anthony Campbell returns as the other starter on the outside, after recording 24 tackles and four tackles for loss a year ago.
"Sean Lamkin is the most experienced outside linebacker we have," said Gilmore. "He is one of the toughest guys we have on the team, and he is very well respected. He has been a very productive, physical player for us. Anthony Campbell is a guy who had the opportunity to step in halfway through last season, and he had a couple of outstanding games. He had a breakout year in 2008, and we expect him to continue to improve."
Junior James McLaughlin, junior Rory Sullivan and sophomore Jimmy Thomas should also play key roles off the bench at outside linebacker, while freshmen Donald Harvey, David Herman and Erik Wachter will provide added depth.
The secondary should also be strong this season, with three out of four starters and an All-Patriot League selection returning. At one cornerback spot, senior Michael Wright returns as the starter, after totaling 34 tackles, an interception and a team-best 12 pass breakups in 2008. Junior Anthony DiMichele, who recorded 66 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups a year ago, is back as the other starting cornerback.
"It is great having both Anthony DiMichele and Michael Wright back," said Gilmore. "Wright is a great cover corner. He is not the biggest guy out there, but he has done a great job of building himself up physically. DiMichele battled through some injuries last season, and still made a lot of plays for us. We are really excited to have both of them back at those critical positions."
Senior John Myrick and sophomore Chandler Fenner will look to push Wright and DiMichele for playing time, and should also see action in nickel and dime packages. Junior Kyle Smith and sophomore Cav Koch will also look to become factors.
At free safety, junior Alex Johnson returns as the starter, after totaling 47 tackles and five pass breakups last season. Several other players will compete for the starting strong safety spot, including senior Dakota Allosso, senior Pat Haidon, senior Quentin Liggins and sophomore Clay Swigert.
"Alex Johnson has become a lot more comfortable at the position, and you could see that as last year went along," said Gilmore. "He is starting to command better knowledge of the defense, and how offenses are trying to attack us. Then at the other spot, the guys who are battling to play are Clay Swigert, Dakota Allosso, Quentin Liggins and Pat Haidon. It will be an interesting competition to see who ends up starting, but we know all four of those players are capable of helping us."
Senior Jachin Leatherman and sophomore Colby Husby will also look to win playing time, while freshmen Jake Bauder, Kevin Gallagher, James Lizotte and Tom Mannix will provide added depth.
The defensive line will be led by a pair of returning starters in senior Alex Carson and junior Mude Ohimor. Last season, Carson started every game, totaling 28 tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups. Ohimor is also coming off a solid year, during which he recorded 17 tackles and two tackles for loss. Senior Nicholas MacDonald will look to take over as the other starter along the defensive front, after posting 15 tackles and two sacks in 2008.
"I really like the guys we have coming back on the defensive line, in Nicholas MacDonald, Alex Carson and Mude Ohimor," said Gilmore. "We have a lot of talent and toughness in that group, and we are starting to see those guys become very productive. MacDonald and Carson are two seniors with a lot of experience, and Ohimor is someone who we expect to have a breakout year."
Junior Marcus Morgan and junior Anthony Ruoti are also expected to be key factors on the defensive line. Also looking to compete for playing time will be junior Matt Ferrel, sophomore Ryan McGinn and sophomore Eric Oldiges. Freshmen Jack Maliska and Schuyler Waterhouse will look to contribute.
The Crusaders will need to replace their top placekicker and their top punter from last season. Junior Rob Dornfried and junior Don Lemieux will compete for the placekicking spot, while both of those players will battle with sophomore Corey Page to be the starting punter. Lemieux took over the kickoff duties late last season, and averaged 59.8 yards on 13 kicks with two touchbacks. Dornfried also saw limited action in 2008, punting once for 37 yards.
"Don Lemieux and Rob Dornfried have completely different styles, but they have found ways to be very productive on the field," said Gilmore. "Both of them had good springs, and the unique thing is that they both kick and punt. The situation with those two competing for the same positions has made them both better. In addition, Corey Page has a lot of potential, and is going to be in that competition for the punting position."
As for kick returners, the Crusaders have a number of experienced players. Jenkins led the team by averaging 6.3 yards on 23 punt returns last season, in addition to posting a 18.6 yard average on 25 kickoff returns. Santana could also be a factor on both kickoff and punt returns, while Fenner, Alex Johnson, McCall, Swigert and Wright should see action as kickoff returners.
The 2009 schedule looks to be tough, as it includes five contests against schools which won at least seven games in 2008. The Crusaders will open the season with a three-game homestand, staring on Sept. 5 against Patriot League rival Georgetown. Holy Cross will then play host to Sacred Heart on Sept. 12, before welcoming 2008 Ivy League co-champion Harvard to town on Sept. 19. Following a bye week, the Crusaders travel to Northeastern of the Colonial Athletic Association on Oct. 3, then head to 2008 Ivy League co-champion Brown on Oct. 10.
Holy Cross returns to Fitton Field to face Dartmouth on Oct. 17, and will then play host to 2008 Patriot League champion Colgate on Oct. 24. Next, the Crusaders will play two straight road games, at Fordham on Oct. 31, and at Lehigh on Nov. 7. Holy Cross will play its final home game of the season against Lafayette on Nov. 14, before closing out the year at Bucknell on Nov. 21.
"We are playing another very competitive schedule this season," said Gilmore. "There are a number of challenging teams in our non-conference schedule, and then in the Patriot League there is going to be a lot of parity. Every single game is going to be critical, so in order to have success, we will have to take it one game at a time, and step up in the big games."