By Charles Bare
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Coming off a 2011 campaign in which it finished in second place in the Patriot League, the Holy Cross football team enters the season with expectations to contend for a conference title once again in 2012. The Crusaders posted an overall record of 6-5 last season, while going 4-2 against Patriot League foes. Having finished with a winning record in each of the last seven seasons, Holy Cross should once again be among the best in the Patriot League in 2012.
On the offensive side of the ball, Holy Cross returns eight starters and 16 total players from last season's final two-deep chart. That group will look to build on what they did a year ago, averaging 22.9 points, 268.0 passing yards and 400.9 yards of total offense per game. Even though three starters need to be replaced, Holy Cross looks to once again have one of the top offenses in the Patriot League this season.
"We have a lot of players on offense who will give us great versatility and depth," said head coach Tom Gilmore. "We anticipate being able to run some different things this year, which should make our offense stronger."
As for the defense, the Crusaders have six starters back on a unit that should be one of the top defenses in the Patriot League. Holy Cross gave up just 342.4 yards and 20.0 points per game in 2011, good for the team's fewest points allowed since the 1992 season. The Crusaders will look to improve upon those numbers in 2012, with several experienced players returning.
"We expect to have a very athletic defense," said Gilmore. "We have depth at most positions, which in some cases we have not had it in the past, and are really looking forward to an exciting year on the defensive side of the ball.
"If we can become more consistent on both offense and defense, while also improving on special teams, we should be contending for a championship this season."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of how Holy Cross should look in 2012.
A number of players will compete for the starting quarterback spot prior to the start of the season, led by fifth-year senior Kevin Watson. Although he did not see any action last year, Watson played in seven games in 2010, hitting on 42 of 74 attempts for 375 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The other players competing with Watson do not have any game experience on the collegiate level, but they bring an abundance of talent to the field. Junior Max Librizzi and sophomores Steven Elder, Ryan Laughlin and Michael Shewchuk will all attempt to win the starting spot under center.
"Kevin Watson has been around the program, knows what we are doing and has been game tested," said Gilmore. "He has a leg up on the competition, and we have a lot of confidence in his ability. However, we have also been impressed with the other quarterbacks, who have all improved dramatically since last year. There should be an interesting battle to earn the starting spot at the start of preseason practice."
Sophomore Michael Reardon will provide added depth for the Crusaders at quarterback.
Whoever wins the starting quarterback spot will have a number of excellent targets to hit, as the Crusaders return their top five wide receivers from last season. Senior Gerald Mistretta leads the way, after catching 60 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns a year ago, while earning first team All-Patriot League honors. Junior Mike Fess also had an excellent season in 2011, being named second team All-Patriot League after totaling 45 receptions for 417 yards and two scores. The third returning starter at wide out is junior Kyle Toulouse, who caught 40 passes for 472 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Juniors Jon Smith and Nate Stanley both became significant contributors off the bench in 2011, and will look to earn even more playing time this year. Smith had 23 receptions for 274 yards and a touchdown last season, while Stanley caught 18 passes for 216 yards.
"Wide receiver is a position where we are fortunate to have quality depth," said Gilmore. "Not only do we have all three starters coming back, but there are some very capable backups who are ready to step into a starting role at any time. If some of the younger players are able to emerge and earn time on the field, it will only make us stronger."
Others who will look to break into the rotation at wide receiver include juniors Jimmy Jordan and James Lizotte, and sophomores Tyler Artim, Jereme Murray and Shane Taylor. Freshmen Zach Buzzard, Kyle Keyser, Kalif Raymond and Don Webber will also join the competition for playing time.
At tight end, Holy Cross returns fifth-year senior Alex Schneider, a two-time All-Patriot League selection. Schneider caught 15 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns last season, and has now totaled 78 receptions for 654 yards and nine scores over the course of his collegiate career.
"Alex Schneider is a guy who has made a lot of progress in different areas," said Gilmore. "Not only is he an excellent receiver, he has also worked hard to become a better blocker. He has been hampered by injuries at a few points during his career, but he is projected to be fully healthy heading into the start of the season."
Senior Reed Apfelbaum should continue his role as a key player for Holy Cross, after catching three passes for 12 yards in 2011. In addition, sophomore Ted Deily will look to earn playing time at tight end.
"Reed Apfelbaum is a versatile player with the ability to help us both at tight end and at fullback," said Gilmore. "And Ted Deily has made noticeable improvement, putting himself into a position to be on the field quite a bit."
Freshman Danny Bosse will also look to contribute at tight end.
Holy Cross looks to be strong in the offensive backfield as well, with the return of four players who have started at least seven career games at tailback. Senior Eddie Houghton took over as the starter late last season, and led the team in rushing with 506 yards and four touchdowns on 86 carries. He now leads all active Crusaders with 1,041 career rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 193 carries. Junior Reggie Woods also enjoyed a solid year in 2011, and should once again be a factor after carrying the ball 87 times for 328 yards.
Senior Sam Auffant ran for 72 yards and a score on 18 carries a year ago, in addition to leading all running backs with 13 receptions for 153 yards. During the 2010 season, Auffant was the team's top tailback with 118 carries for 451 yards and two touchdowns. Fifth-year senior Matt Bellomo should also contribute, after rushing just eight times for 47 yards in limited action last season. Bellomo was the team's starting tailback in 2009, when he carried the ball 91 times for 442 yards and four scores.
"The nice thing is that the competition at tailback has made them all better," said Gilmore. "It is probably top to bottom the deepest position we have on the team, as far as having talented guys. We expect the competition among them to continue throughout the season, and all four of them are in a position to play significantly and compete for the starting role."
At fullback, the Crusaders return sophomore Michael O'Dwyer, who missed the entire 2011 season due to injury. He will be pushed by freshman Caleb Gilligan-Evans, along with Apfelbaum.
"We have some legitimate players on the roster who will give us solid depth at fullback," said Gilmore. "That is going to help us become a lot more multiple offensively, which we find very appealing."
On the offensive line, the Crusaders return three starters from a year ago. Last season the line paved the way for Holy Cross to average 400.9 yards of total offense and 22.9 points per contest. The Crusaders also allowed just 21 sacks during the 2011 season, while the team attempted 431 passes (just one sack for every 21.5 times the team dropped back to pass).
Leading the way will be fifth-year senior Sean Whited, who earned second team All-Patriot League honors last year. Whited started all 11 games at center in 2011, and has now played in 23 career contests with 19 starts. Senior Kyle Pedretty will be back in the starting lineup at left tackle, while senior Casey Bessemer returns as the starting left guard. Pedretty started the first six games of 2011 at right tackle before missing the remainder of the season due to injury, and has now started 17 career contests. Bessemer started all 11 games a year ago at either left guard or right tackle, and has played in 22 career games.
"Sean Whited is a veteran player, who is definitely the leader of that unit," said Gilmore. "Kyle Pedretty was having a great year in 2011 before being injured, while Casey Bessemer is our most athletic lineman with good strength and explosiveness. We are expecting all three of them to have excellent seasons."
Junior Blake Berresford looks to take over as the starter at right tackle, after making three starts at the position in 2011. Junior Jay Knighton, who played in nine games with one start last season, is the favorite to earn the starting spot at right guard.
"Both Blake Berresford and Jay Knighton have game experience and really know the offense," said Gilmore. "We expect a real easy transition if they step into the starting lineup."
Senior Billy Lang and junior Emanuel Mendoza are also expected to push for starting spots along the offensive line, while junior Mike Chieco, junior Jake Keller and sophomore Pat Restrepo will play key roles as backups.
The defensive line looks to be a strength for Holy Cross, with all three starters from last season returning. Leading the way is senior defensive tackle Jack Maliska, who earned second team All-Patriot League honors a year ago. Maliska totaled 35 tackles in 2011, including 27 solo stops, two quarterback sacks and four tackles for loss. Junior Gary Acquah returns at one defensive end spot, after finishing last season with 40 tackles, two quarterback sacks and three tackles for loss. The other defensive end position will continue to be manned by junior Matthew Boyd, who had 10 tackles and a pass breakup last year.
"Jack Maliska has shown the ability to dominate the middle of the line," said Gilmore. "We anticipate him being able to take it to the next level, and become a really disruptive force. Gary Acquah and Matthew Boyd are now much bigger and stronger. We are looking for both of them to step up their games now that they have gained valuable experience."
Junior Daryl Howell is the most experienced of the Crusaders' backups along the line, after recording 13 tackles, a quarterback sack and a forced fumble in 2011. Sophomores Tom Kohlhauff, Aaron Lewis, Charlie Murphy and Max Phelps will also look to work their way into the rotation.
Junior Jack Daly will provide additional depth, along with freshmen Dewayne Cameron, Mike Galantini, Jacob Gonzales and Clint Jackman.
At outside linebacker, junior Mike Tucker returns to the starting lineup after earning second team All-Patriot League honors in 2011. Tucker led the team with nine quarterback sacks last season, in addition to finishing with 27 total tackles and a pass breakup. Junior George Sessoms has a shot to become the starter at the other spot on the outside, after moving over from safety where he made two tackles a year ago.
"Mike Tucker is a really versatile guy, who can also play defensive end," said Gilmore. "He plays with a really high motor all the time, and always finds a way to make big plays. George Sessoms is still learning the position, but he has great athletic ability and we are confident that he will be ready to go both from a physical and mental standpoint."
Others who will push for playing time at outside linebacker include senior David Herman, junior Pete Anastasio and sophomore Andrew Mizzoni. Herman made three tackles during the 2010 campaign, and will look to break back into the rotation after missing the last year and a half due to injury. Anastasio had one tackle and one blocked punt on special teams last season, and should challenge for playing time on defense in 2012. Mizzoni saw action in four games as a true freshman in 2011, and looks to build on the two tackles and one sack he recorded a year ago.
Senior Roman SanDoval is the most experienced player for Holy Cross at inside linebacker, and should win one of the starting spots. SanDoval played in just three games last season due to injury, totaling 15 tackles. Previously in 2010, SanDoval totaled 34 tackles with appearing in all 11 games and earning one start.
"Roman San Doval was on the verge of having a great season before getting injured last year, said Gilmore. "We saw that he has a lot of ability, and now that he is physically ready to go, we expect him to use that experience to move his game up to the next level."
Four other players will push for a starting spot or play key roles as backups at inside linebacker, in seniors Pat O'Connell and Erik Wachter, and juniors Scotty O'Donoghue and Tyler Zeoli. O'Connell finished last season with six tackles, one tackle for loss and two pass breakups, and Wachter totaled 16 tackles and two pass breakups a year ago. O'Donoghue recorded seven total tackles in 2011, while Zeoli played in just one game last season due to injury and is looking to work his way back into the lineup.
"There will be a lot of competition to see who will be a starter at inside linebacker, as well as to see who is going to be on the field at different times," said Gilmore. "It is a good problem to have, because they are all guys who have been in the program, understand what we are doing, and have game experience. We are really looking forward to see how that sorts itself out in preseason practice."
Sophomores Ryan Neumann and Shane Thompson will also supply depth at inside linebacker, along with freshmen Kenny Acquah, Kobe Osei-Boaten and Justin Todd.
The secondary will be led by senior strong safety Tom Mannix, a second team All-Patriot League selection in 2011. Mannix ranked second on the team with 87 total tackles last season, in addition to recording a quarterback sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, three forced fumbles and 10 pass breakups.
"Tom Mannix is a great leader, not just because of his knowledge of the defense, but also his work ethic," said Gilmore. "He has that football savvy that you need as a safety, and it puts him in position to make a lot of plays."
Junior Andrew Zitnik will look to win the starting spot at free safety, after spending last season at cornerback. In 2011, Zitnik totaled 34 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups. Others who should earn a good deal of playing time at safety include senior Nick Mercurio, junior Philip Gough and sophomore Logan Silver. Mercurio moves over from wide receiver, where he caught six passes for 41 yards a year ago. Gough and Silver played primarily on special teams last season, and will look to become factors on the defensive side of the ball in 2012.
"Andrew Zitnik will be one of the most athletic safeties in the league," said Gilmore. "Nick Mercurio is probably the fastest guy on the team, and we anticipate him being a major factor after making the move to defense. Both Gough and Silver have gained a lot of experience, so they should push for significant playing time as well."
Junior Irvin Scott returns to the lineup at one of the cornerback positions, after starting the final seven games of 2011. Scott totaled 26 tackles and five pass breakups a year ago. Sophomores Ben Coffaro and Sam Jones will look to compete for the other starting cornerback spot. Coffaro had seven tackles, an interception and two pass breakups last season, while Jones made a pair of solo tackles.
"Irvin Scott is the most athletic player we have on the defensive side of the ball," said Gilmore. "He is becoming more consistent, and we are looking for him to have a breakout year. Ben Coffaro and Sam Jones should also both see significant action at cornerback. Coffaro is a very competitive athletic player who we have a lot of confidence in, and Jones has worked hard and had an outstanding spring. We anticipate that those two guys will be competing really hard against each other for the starting role."
Junior Chris Higgins and sophomore Diego Quintanar will also push for playing time at cornerback, backed up by freshmen Dabness Atkins, Coan Calabrese and Steven Martinez.
Junior John Macomber returns as Holy Cross' placekicker, after tying the school single-season record by making 12 field goals in 2011. Macomber finished last season with 56 points scored, connecting on 12 of 15 field goals and 20 of 26 extra points. He also shared kickoff duties last season, averaging 58.2 yards per kick. Others who will look to push Macomber for the placekicking spot are freshman Connor Fitzgerald and senior Patrick Jarvis.
At long snapper, sophomore Matt Fava returns after being named to the College Sports Journal National All-Freshman Team. The punting position will be up for grabs during preseason practice, with both Macomber and Fitzgerald in the competition.
"John Macomber has a very strong leg and he is very capable," said Gilmore. "He just needs to get more consistent, and he has been working on that both as a placekicker and a punter. Connor Fitzgerald is a very talented guy, so we expect him to push both Macomber and Patrick Jarvis for the kicking spots. Matt Fava had a great year long snapping in 2011, and we only anticipate him getting better."
As for kick returners, Holy Cross returns a number of talented players who could play key roles. Zitnik averaged 22.5 yards on 19 kickoff returns last season, while Coffaro had a 25.0-yard average on nine kickoff returns. Fess, Mistretta, Silver and Toulouse also have experience returning kickoffs and could work their way into the rotation. At punt returner, Auffant, Bellomo and Coffaro could all be factors.
"With so many return men coming back, it is a nice problem to have," said Gilmore. "There is going to be a lot of competition for both the kickoff return and punt return roles, and we could use a number of different guys in those positions over the course of the season."
Holy Cross' overall team depth should also provide a boost to all of the coverage and return units on special teams.
"We have a lot more depth on the defensive side of the ball and with our skill positions," said Gilmore. "We are looking forward to that translating into success for us on special teams this year."
The 2012 schedule looks to be tough, as it includes six Patriot League games, three contests against top teams from the Ivy League, and a full-scholarship Colonial Athletic Association opponent. The Crusaders open the season with a home date against New Hampshire, in only the second night game ever at Fitton Field. Following an off week, Holy Cross remains at home to take on Brown, before playing host to Dartmouth as part of Homecoming weekend. The Crusaders will then hit the road for a game at Harvard, before returning home for their Patriot League opener against Bucknell.
Holy Cross will be on the road for its next two games, at Colgate and Lafayette. The Crusaders next play Fordham at Fitton Field as part of Family Weekend, before playing host to Lehigh in their final home contest of the season. Holy Cross wraps up the slate with contests at Wagner and Georgetown.
"We have been playing one of the most competitive schedules in the Patriot League for the last several seasons, and this year is not any different," said Gilmore. "We are excited to open the season at home, but we know that the non-league games we have to start the year will all be challenging.
"In the conference, this should be the most competitive year in the Patriot League in a long time. I do not see any weak teams in the league, so we will need to play our best every week in order to have success."