The Washington and Lee football program is in an unfamiliar position as the 2011 season approaches. Coming off of an unexpected Old Dominion Athletic Conference title last fall and, with eight starters returning on offense and nine starters back on defense, the Generals are the preseason favorites to win the conference title again this fall.
"It is not often that we enter a new season saying we have a chance to win a conference title," said 17th-year Head Coach Frank Miriello. "We have the confidence and the determination, and one title under our belts. No W&L football team has ever repeated as conference champions. We are looking to become the first. We must remain focused on playing one game at a time, and in the end, everything will take care of itself."
Washington and Lee was picked to finish fifth in the preseason conference coaches poll last season and the Generals began the year 1-2 overall before getting things rolling in the fourth game and finishing with an unblemished league record (6-0). Miriello believes that a quick start will be a key for this year's team to keep the momentum rolling.
"If we are to continue to produce results that haven't been done here before, we must remain focused, continue to put up big numbers offensively, and the defensive unit must improve," noted Miriello.
The 2010 team hung its hat on a vaunted rushing attack that finished the season ranked fifth nationally with an average of 359.6 rushing yards per game. The Generals rushed for 400 or more yards in a game six times, including a string of five-straight games in the middle of the conference season. All told, W&L averaged 438.8 yards per game and set a school record with an average of 35.3 points per game.
"We caught fire there in the middle of the season, no question," said Miriello of his team's offense in 2010. "We have four starters returning on the offensive line and plenty of skill players returning so I'm expecting the offensive unit to continue to be successful this year."
The Generals' offensive production begins with the guys up front. Despite losing four-time All-ODAC honoree Greg Kurkis, four starters are back, along with a fifth player who saw significant time last season. The leader of the group will be senior guard John Fitzgibbons, who earned First Team All-ODAC laurels last fall and has started every game since he arrived on campus – 31 games and counting. Fitzgibbons is a preseason First Team All-America selection by D3football.com.
"John will be a team captain this year and we are excited about that," said Miriello. "He is a take the bull by the horns kind of guy, and I have no doubt that he will effectively lead our offensive unit and team."
Junior guard Mike Stefanelli, and sophomore tackles Connor Hollenbeck and Bobby Jones return after starting for a majority of the 2010 season. Additionally, senior Matt Benson, who saw significant action up front a season ago, is expected to challenge for a starting position as well. Senior Philip Bassani and sophomore Lee Cummings were also cited by Miriello as players that could see plenty of time along the front.
"I feel very good about our group of offensive lineman and the tone that they can set for our football team," Miriello offered. "We will have a good mix of experienced returners and a few newcomers competing for playing time."
Under center, senior Charlie Westfal will be
back to bark the signals and make the Generals' offense go for the
fourth-straight season. Westfal took over as the starter in
the third game of his rookie season and has been productive ever
since. Last season, he completed 50.0 percent (51-102) of his
passes for 818 yards and 11 touchdowns with just two
interceptions. He also rushed 128 times for 523 yards and
seven touchdowns in receiving Second Team All-ODAC laurels.
For his career, Westfal has passed for 3,226 yards and 30
touchdowns and run for 1,539 yards and 16 more scores.
"Charlie has really come a long way as a football player and leader," said Miriello. "He is now a team captain and the players really respect, and look up to him. I feel confident that he will continue to help put points on the board. At the beginning of last season he was a little out of sync , but he turned it on and is now a very confident player. I am proud of what he has accomplished and his development as a player and young man."
While Westfal's decision-making and dual-threat ability will pose a significant threat to defenses, the weapons at his disposal continue to grow. Among those returning are junior all-conference backs Luke Heinsohn and Brett Murray. Heinsohn had one of the best seasons ever by a W&L running back last season, accumulating 1,321 yards (6.8 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns rushing en route to earning First Team All-ODAC and Second Team All-South Region honors.
"Luke has demonstrated that he possesses all of the tools to be an outstanding running back," Miriello remarked. "I love his toughness, his focus and his aggressiveness. When I think of him, I think of a hard-nosed, run over you kind of guy, but he's also possesses the speed to take it to the house if the opportunity presents itself."
Murray was the team's third-leading rusher with 738 yards and nine touchdowns on 103 carries (7.2 yards per carry) and he was the second-leading receiver with 14 receptions for 147 yards and three more scores. His 1,381 all-purpose yards led the team as he went on to earn Second Team All-ODAC accolades.
"If Luke is Mr. Inside then Brett is Mr. Outside," said Miriello. "I told him before last season that I thought he could be among the best backs in this league and he is starting to realize that potential. He is a competitive guy with good speed who is a real threat to score any time that he touches the ball."
Miriello expects junior Russell Stewart and sophomores Tate Bloomer and Justin Mitchell to compete for carries at the slotback position opposite Murray. Bloomer rushed six times for 90 yards and one touchdown last season, while Stewart rushed for 133 yards and one touchdown as the team's primary backup quarterback a season ago. Mitchell had three rushes for 22 yards in limited duty in the backfield last season.
"There are a few playmakers in that group and we feel really good about the talent and depth that we have there," said Miriello of his offensive backs.
The Generals weren't known much for their passing attack in 2010, averaging just 5.2 completions and 79 yards per game through the air. The receivers and tight ends have been known more for their blocking capabilities but they do pose a threat when needed. Seniors Tate Davis and Cody Smith both return at wide-out, while junior Eli Chester and sophomore Alex Evans are expected to compete for the starting nod at tight end.
Davis snared 10 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown last year, while Smith hauled in six passes for 77 yards. Chester was utilized mostly as a blocking end, while Evans was active in the passing game, catching five passes for 66 yards and one score.
"The blocking ability of our receivers and tight ends is critical to our offense and these guys all do an excellent job in producing open running lanes," said Miriello. "They are not all wrapped up in receiving statistics, they just want to win games. However, just when you're not expecting it, they all have the ability to beat you with their hands."
Another factor in the Generals' success during the 2010 season was the improvement of the defense as the season progressed. W&L allowed better than 350 yards per game, but the Generals were opportunistic, forcing 32 turnovers across the 11 games.
"The improvement of the defense from game 1 to game 10 this past season was tremendous and I expect that improvement to continue this season," quipped Miriello. "The most dramatic improvement was in the secondary and three of those four guys are back. We are still a relatively young secondary and I expect them to continue to improve."
The secondary helped W&L intercept an ODAC-best 22 passes led by junior safety Jake Pelton, who picked off a league-best six passes en route to receiving First Team All-ODAC and Second Team All-South Region honors. The Sporting News Preseason All-America selection also tallied 82 tackles and a half sack.
"Jake is the guy who improved more than anyone as the season progressed," said Miriello. "And the good news is, with another season of experience, he is going to get a whole lot better."
Big things are also expected from senior safety John Kavanagh, a two-year team captain and two-year starter. Last season, Kavanagh totaled 43 tackles, four interceptions and one sack in posting Honorable Mention All-ODAC honors.
"John has been a solid player for us and we're hoping to take advantage of his versatility. He possesses the ability to be a second or third level player depending on the package we employ," said Miriello. "He will play outside linebacker or safety depending on the personnel grouping declared."
Miriello will look for a big step forward from sophomore Mitchell Thompson, who will play safety in defensive sets that utilize Kavanagh at linebacker. Last season, Thompson appeared in all 11 games, totaling nine tackles.
Senior Mike Hartford returns at cornerback after logging 36 tackles, four interceptions and a team-best seven pass breakups a season ago. Senior John Beriont may lock down the opposite starting corner spot, while sophomores Lee Peaseley and Jake Rudolph will be in competition for the job. Beriont recorded 17 tackles and two interceptions last fall, while Peaseley and Rudolph combined for seven total stops.
"Our defensive backs had a solid season for us last year, and I feel very confident that we'll be able to call upon some talented young players if the need arises," said Miriello.
Along the defensive front, the Generals will be young and will remain undersized, but Miriello is excited about the possibilities. Junior Greg Barton returns at one end position, while junior Stephen Peck will move from linebacker to defensive end where he will compete for reps with senior William Patton. Sophomore Aaron DiGregorio moves to defensive end from tight end and Miriello believes that his size will be an added bonus up front. In the interior of the line, sophomores Hal Hundley and Michael Unholz are expected to received plenty of reps and will be joined by classmates Mark Burlee and Kevin Travaline.
Last season, Barton logged 20 tackles and one interception, while Patton posted 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Peck had 33 tackles and two sacks as a linebacker and Hundley had 18 tackles and one sack. Unholz posted 23 tackles and a shared sack, while Burlee had six tackles.
"We possess good talent up front on defense, but with inexperienced players you don't always see the attention to detail, things like hand placement and proper footwork and gap control," said Miriello. "We'll be a little bigger this year and we've got some good depth. Combine that with the experience they will gain throughout the season and I expect some dramatic improvement from this group."
Washington and Lee will return plenty of talent and skill at linebacker led by senior Rob Look and junior Jesse Jenkins. Look was a Second Team All-ODAC pick in 2009 and despite injuries last season, he managed 62 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. Jenkins was a Second Team All-ODAC pick in 2010 after leading the team with 84 tackles, one sack and one interception.
"Rob is unquestionably the leader of the linebacker corps and Jesse is the physical guy who likes contact," said Miriello. "We need for both of them to continue to make big plays."
Junior Doug Fraser saw plenty of action last season when he tallied 51 tackles, three fumble recoveries, one sack and one interception. Miriello believes that experience to pay off this season.
"We saw improvement in Doug's performance as the season progressed," he said. "He has a linebacker 'get after it' attitude and the experience he gained last year will enhance his performance."
Senior Taylor Malone, junior Zach Zoller and sophomore Sam Zimmer are some more experienced players that Miriello can rotate in throughout the season. Malone notched 39 tackles, five pass breakups and one sack a year ago, while Zoller posted 27 tackles. Zimmer showed worlds of promise in limited action during his rookie year after registering 10 tackles and a team-best 2.5 sacks.
W&L has the luxury of returning experience on special teams as well. Senior placekicker Peter Alston and senior punter Spencer Richards are both back for another go-round, along with many of the team's return specialists. Alston set numerous records during the 2010 season, including hitting 50-of-51 PAT's and making good on 4-of-6 field goal attempts. He will enter the season having made a school-record 44 consecutive PAT attempts. Richards has been the team's primary punter for each of his first three seasons, averaging a personal-best 36.8 yards per punt last year.
"I feel good regarding our kicking game," said Miriello. "I think we need to see improvement with our net punting average, but overall I am pleased with what we have returning and I'm confident improvement will occur."
The Generals have an advantageous schedule in front of them, playing six of their 10 games at Wilson Field. Long-time rival Centre College returns to the schedule on September, 17, while newcomer Alma College will travel to W&L on September 24. It all begins with a home date against Franklin & Marshall on September 3.
"We have high expectations for the season," offered Miriello. "But, it is absolutely imperative that we start things off with a few early victories. Early success and focusing on 'one at a time' will hopefully help us achieve our goal of repeating as conference champions."
-- GENERALS --