August 17, 2010

2010 Washington and Lee Football Preview

Washington and Lee Head Football Coach Frank Miriello feels good about where his team is positioned heading into the 2010 season.  The Generals won just three games on the field last fall (a fourth was later gained via forfeit), but Miriello knows that his team was not far from a winning season considering that all seven losses were by a single score and that W&L actually outscored its opponents for the season (238-234).

“I am expecting to win a few more football games this fall,” noted Miriello.  “We have a good group of players returning that have been tested in some close ball games.  I expect that experience will help them move forward and play at a higher level this season.  Hopefully the ball bounces our way a few more times and we can stay healthy.  If those things happen, we will put a few more wins on the board.”

If the Generals are to find more success during the 2010 campaign, it will start with an offense that meets expectations and a defense that will hopefully exceed expectations due to youth and inexperience.

The W&L offense averaged 311.2 yards and 23.8 points per game a season ago and returns a significant portion of its offensive line and skill position players.

“We have nine guys back who have started or seen significant action on offense over the past couple of seasons and they all have improved over the past year,” said Miriello.  “I am expecting them to continue the improvement process and increase their productivity.  This is the third year of running the spread option offense. The work during our spring practices went really well.”

Any option offense is only as good as its quarterback and Miriello believes that junior quarterback Charlie Westfal is set for another solid campaign under center.  After just two seasons, Westfal has completed just over 53 percent of his passes for 2,408 yards and 19 touchdowns.  He has also rushed for 1,016 yards and nine touchdowns and can become the program’s all-time leading rusher from the quarterback position with 94 more yards.

“I’m expecting Charlie to have a good junior season,” said Miriello.  “He had a good spring season and I am confident that he will play with a lot of confidence this year.  He is well equipped to lead this team and hopefully will help us to continue the improvement process on offense.”

Sophomore Russell Stewart and a handful of first-year players will push Westfal for playing time and will be ready to step in if called upon.

The Generals’ running game ranked among the best in the ODAC last season and will feature many of the same cast of characters.  Junior Harrison Hudson and sophomores Brett Murray, Luke Heinsohn and Sasha Vandalov will all look to tote the rock a fair amount this fall.  Hudson and Murray are the most accomplished returnees, ranking third and fourth on the team in rushing last season. 

Hudson carried 52 times for 368 yards (7.1 per carry) and two touchdowns, and finished as the team’s leading receiver with 23 catches for 186 yards and three scores.

Murray rushed 46 times for 203 yards and two touchdowns and caught four passes for 69 yards.  He also averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and 26.4 yards per kickoff return to finish second on the squad with 801 all-purpose yards.

Heinsohn handled the kickoff duties for much of the season, but received more carries as the season progressed, toting the ball eight times for 43 yards.  Vandalov had just one carry, but is cited among those players that could make a big jump in contributions between his rookie and sophomore campaigns.

“Adequate talent and good depth is the best way to describe the situation at the running back position,” noted Miriello.  “This is a strong group of athletes and I consider them to be among our team’s strengths entering the season.”

The Generals’ wide receivers do lack experience, but Miriello feels they will do just fine.  W&L still must determine a big-play threat on the outside, but Miriello believes any one of a number of players can step up and produce.  Among the most accomplished pass catchers is junior Cody Smith, who caught 10 passes for 156 yards and one touchdown last season.  Senior captain Jason Zelesnik (4 rec., 36 yds.) is expected to move from running back to wide-out this fall, while senior Wit Robertson, junior Tate Davis (3 rec., 23 yds.), sophomore Steven Colliau and a number of talented first-years will vie for snaps as the season progresses.

“There is some talent in that group and we do have some depth, we just haven’t found that go-to guy that can get behind the defense,” Miriello said.  “I am hopeful the group will move the chains and score some points.”

Complimenting the receiving corps and the offensive line will be tight ends Patrick Conley and Eli Chester.  A senior, Conley split time at the position each of the past two seasons, while Chester switches from quarterback where he played last season as a rookie.

Up front, the Generals return several starters and a number of players who have seen significant playing time over the past few seasons.  The anchor will be senior captain Greg Kurkis.  A three-time All-ODAC honoree, ODAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Academic All-American, he will be starting for the fourth-straight season.  Juniors John Fitzgibbons and Connor Danielowski are both returning starters, while senior Eric Oyan, juniors Matt Benson and Philip Bassani and sophomore Ian Lenora are among the players Miriello cited as front-runners to compete for significant playing time.

“The offensive line looks solid with the guys that we have returning,” said Miriello.  “I have some concerns about our depth, but we do have some real talent returning up front, starting with Kurkis.”

Miriello views his defense as a question mark, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t optimistic to see what they can accomplish during the 2010 season.

“The defense has me excited because we have some talent on the depth chart – they just haven’t had to ‘be the man’ so to speak,” he said.  “The talent is there, but the question is ‘how quickly can they come around and execute during the games’,” he added.

The greatest question is related to the defensive line, where the Generals must replace three senior starters, including a pair of all-conference honorees, from a defense that ranked No. 1 in the conference in rush defense (109.3 ypg).  Senior captain Colin Campbell, and senior Beau Briggs will compete for the starting role at nose tackle.  Campbell has seen significant action over the past three years, notching 24 tackles over the past two seasons.  Briggs has seen spot duty over the past three years.

The defensive end positions are wide open though Miriello projects that junior William Patton and sophomore Greg Barton will be in the mix, along with a few of the first-years.  Patton recorded five tackles last fall, while Barton is seeking his first significant action.

“The defensive line will be a big factor in how our defense performs as a whole,” noted Miriello.  “This is going to be a good competitive situation because it is so wide open.  We have a few solid returnees and a couple of good young kids there so we’ll see how it all plays out.”

The linebacking corps will also feature plenty of new faces, but has depth and talent to go around.  Junior Rob Look is the lone known commodity at the position after recording 72 tackles and 3.0 sacks a season ago when he received Second Team All-ODAC honors.  Miriello expects sophomores Jesse Jenkins, Zach Zoller and Doug Fraser to battle for playing time at the other inside backer slot.  The trio combined to make 15 stops in their rookie seasons and all three have tremendous athleticism and potential.

Senior Pete Watson will look to hold down the rush linebacker job and junior Taylor Malone is among the favorites to start at outside linebacker.  Watson logged six stops last season, while Malone had 10 tackles.  Sophomores Alex Castelli and Stephen Peck are also expected to compete for the starting nod after combining for six tackles during their initial campaigns.

“The linebacker corps will be faster this season,” said Miriello.  “Rob Look will be the leader of the group, but we have as much talent and depth at the position as we have ever had.  We are strong across the board there.”

The Generals’ defensive backfield does return a good deal of experience and Miriello is banking that this will serve as a basis for improvement this fall after W&L allowed an ODAC-worst 213.5 passing yards per game last season.  Senior David Sternlicht and junior Mike Hartford are both returning starters at the cornerback position, while junior Kenny Sharpless and sophomore Jacob Pelton are also experienced returnees at the position.  Sternlicht notched 32 tackles and two interceptions and tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups.  Hartford had 43 tackles and one interception, while Pelton tallied 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Generals must find replacements at both safety positions.  Junior John Kavanagh moves from linebacker to strong safety and junior John Beriont is expected to compete for the starting nod at free safety.  Kavanagh had 48 tackles and two sacks and Beriont registered 14 tackles and two pass breakups.  Sophomores Blair Fowler and Parker Mangold are also expected to compete for time at the position.  Both saw spot duty as first-years and are ready to step up this season.

“Our secondary got burned a bit last year, but I am confident they are going to be much improved this season,” mentioned Miriello.  “We don’t have a ton of depth and hopefully we can stay away from the injury bug.  We have a good mixture of talent, and experience back there so I am expecting them to play much improved and more productive.”

The Generals’ special teams seem to be as stable as any unit in recent memory.  Senior Martin Prichard returns at placekicker after nailing 6-of-9 field goal attempts and 28-of-30 PAT attempts last fall.  He enters his final season ranked second all-time at W&L in career field goal percentage (11-15/.733) and fourth in career PAT percentage (46-50/.920).  Junior Spencer Richards also returns at punter for his third season.  Last year, he punted 46 times for a 32.8-yard average and dropped 10 punts inside the 20-yardline with 11 fair catches.

“Our kicking game is solid,” offered Miriello.  “Prichard now has some experience in pressure situations and Richards is a two-year starter so I feel pretty good about our kicking and punting.”

Kavanagh and Murray will again handle the kick return duties after another productive campaign last season.  Kavanagh led Division III with a 33.2 yard per return average and Murray averaged 26.4 yards per kick return and 12.3 yards per punt return.

The Generals’ schedule features some new opponents and exhibits a shift in the conference schedule.  Greensboro is out and Juniata from the Centennial Conference is in.  W&L will hit the road for six of its 10 games in 2010, including non-conference road trips to Franklin & Marshall, Sewanee and Juniata.  In-conference, the Generals will now open with Guilford while Emory & Henry moves to the early conference schedule and Catholic moves to later in the season on a Friday evening in our Nation’s Capital.  Another new feature is a mid-season bye week, which will occur on Sept. 18, the third week of the season.

“I think it is a competitive schedule full of hard-nosed opponents,” said Miriello.  “I like the location of our bye week. It will be a nice break for us early in the season.  It’s going to be a challenging schedule both in and out of conference, hopefully our luck will improve, and we can make a run in what I think is a wide open conference this season.”