Washington and Lee Head Football Coach Frank Miriello is looking
for his 2009 team to rebound. After posting four winning
seasons and a 26-14 overall record from 2004-07, the Generals
dipped to 4-6 during the 2008 campaign. It was just the
fourth losing season in Miriello’s 14 years at the helm and
the first since 2003.
“I was a little disappointed with how we finished last season because I would have liked to keep the string of winning seasons going,” Miriello noted. “We had a chance to do something (five-straight winning seasons) that hasn’t been done here very often and we just didn’t get it done.”
The Generals jumped out to a 4-1 record at the halfway point of the 2008 season, but dropped their final five contests. W&L led at the break in four of five season-ending setbacks.
“We were right there, but just couldn’t finish,” said Miriello. “Some things just did not go our way. Many things did go our way over the past four years and last year it just did not happen. Some of it depends on coaching and talent – and then again, some of it is just plain luck.”
Miriello doesn’t want his 2009 squad depending on luck and, at least early on, he will look to the offense to carry the load.
“The offense will be the strength of the team,” he said. “We have two all-conference lineman back, along with the starting center, and the quarterback is returning so I hope the offense will move the chains and keep the defense off the field.”
Anchoring the offensive line will be guards Charlie Craigle and Greg Kurkis. A senior, Craigle earned First Team All-ODAC laurels last fall, while Kurkis received Second Team All-ODAC recognition for the second-straight season. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Sophomore John Fitzgibbons returns after starting all 10 games at center during his rookie season and the combination of junior Eric Oyan and sophomores Connor Danielowski, Matt Benson and Philip Bassani will fill out the two tackle positions.
“We are going to have a good offensive line,” stated Miriello. “The interior of the line is solid and we expect them to perform at a high level.”
Sophomore Charlie Westfal returns under center after rushing for 511 yards and three touchdowns and completing 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,310 yards and 10 more scores.
Westfal will have some weapons around him, but foremost will be replacing the offensive production lost by the graduation of two-time All-ODAC all-purpose back Stuart Sitterson. Sitterson accounted for 2,096 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
“We have some weapons out there,” quipped Miriello. “They’re not Sitterson, but they are more than capable – they are football players.”
“We are going to have to share the workload – it must be a group effort,” noted Miriello of replacing Sitterson’s productivity. “The running backs are good, but they are untested. The wide receivers are talented. Hopefully the combination of multiple weapons can make us more difficult to defend.”
Though Miriello expects the Generals to incorporate more shotgun into their offense this year, W&L will continue to operate an option-based approach. Sophomores Jonathan Clemo and Harrison Hudson will be the primary ball carriers, with junior Jason Zelesnik and perhaps a few first-years filling out the rotation.
Clemo carried the ball 27 times for 94 yards and one touchdown, while Hudson rushed five times for eight yards. Zelesnik did not have a carry last season, but rushed eight times as a rookie in 2007.
At wide receiver, seniors Ryan Welsh and Tucker Laurens, along with sophomore Cody Smith will see plenty of playing time. Sophomore Tate Davis will also figure in the mix, while senior Daniel Kohl and junior Patrick Conley return at tight end. Senior Jason Bacaj is likely to switch from tight end to wide receiver as well.
A team captain, Welsh caught 20 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown last season. Laurens has battled injuries his entire career, but snared 14 passes for 110 yards and one score, while Smith had 20 catches for 241 yards and four touchdowns. Kohl, Conley and Bacaj combined to make nine receptions for 110 yards and three touchdowns.
“The wide receiver corps is a group that must develop and become more productive,” said Miriello. “It is a talented group – the talent is there. They must become a consistent threat.”
Defensively, the Generals have a number of question marks and will shuffle players around in an attempt to gain more speed.
Senior captain Matt Cassilly moves from his hybrid rush linebacker position to a more traditional down lineman defensive end position. Last season, Cassilly earned Second Team All-ODAC honors after totaling 62 tackles 2.5 sacks and two interceptions. He will be joined up front by classmates Jeff Boateng and Rick Barron. Senior Ethan Smith, junior Colin Campbell and sophomore William Patton will also see playing time on the defensive line. Boateng tallied 20 stops over eight games last season, while Barron posted 29 tackles. Campbell had 17 tackles a season ago, while Patton saw limited action and Smith played offensive line.
“We have some questions on defense that must be answered for sure,” said Miriello. “Can our defensive line develop and replace some good players that we graduated? Can our linebacking corps become more productive and dominant? Can our secondary play better? These are the questions that must be answered.”
The linebackers also have some conversions for the sake of speed. Seniors David Love and Joseph Roane and juniors Scott Thomas and Pete Watson, all converted defensive backs, will compete for the outside linebacker positions. Senior captain Gus Cavanaugh, junior Zac Barbieri and sophomore Rob Look will compete at the inside spots.
Love had 26 tackles as a linebacker last season, while Thomas had six stops in the secondary. Cavanaugh had 30 tackles and one sack and Barbieri notched two tackles. Roane and Watson combined for nine tackles, while Look posted 25 tackles during his rookie campaign.
“When you look at Love, Thomas, Watson and Roane at linebacker, there is going to be speed on the field,” said Miriello. “We just have got to play better at the linebacker positions.”
Seniors Frank Dale and Donavon Sawyer will man the safety positions, while junior David Sternlicht and sophomore Mike Hartford will play the corner positions. Sophomores John Kavanagh and John Beriont will also figure in the mix.
“Frank Dale will be the quarterback of the defense and will make the adjustment calls,” said Miriello. “His move to safety is going to be a good move. Sawyer is a good player. The entire secondary will be more confident than they were last year. A year of experience makes a big difference.”
Dale had 49 tackles and six pass breakups at cornerback last season, while Sawyer had 63 tackles, six breakups, two interceptions and a shared sack. Sternlicht posted 36 stops, six breakups and one interception and Hartford had 13 tackles and one interception as a nickel corner a year ago. Kavanagh notched 21 tackles and Beriont saw time on special teams for much of the season.
The Generals’ special teams appear to be in good shape with the return of junior placekicker Martin Prichard and sophomore punter Spencer Richards. Clemo and Smith will handle the bulk of the return duties. Prichard was 5-of-6 on field goals and 18-for-20 on PAT attempts, while Richards averaged 33.9 yards per punt. Miriello also believes that Smith has a bright future in the return game.
As always, a few first-years could figure into the season as 23 new faces join the program, the fifth year in a row with better than 20 new recruits. Miriello believes the latest group is solid and has a number of athletes that could help the team right away.
In addition to the always rugged ODAC slate, the Generals’ schedule will feature some familiar faces. The first three games will be played on the friendly turf at Wilson Field and non-conference foes include Franklin & Marshall, Sewanee, Greensboro and Averett.
It all gets underway on Sept. 5 as the Generals attempt to answer all the preseason questions against F&M at 1:00 pm.