Gridders Look Towards 2009

Gridders Look Towards 2009

Few small college football programs have as rich a history as Franklin & Marshall. The Diplomats were the first non-Division I team to play 1,000 football games and only the fourth to accumulate 500 wins. The 1972 team won the Lambert Bowl following an unblemished season and the unbeaten 1974 team was the subject of an NFL Films feature dubbed, A Saturday in October.

Recent history has been less kind to F&M's vaunted gridiron tradition. Only one season in the new millennium has produced a winning record. In the fourth year of his rebuilding process, Diplomats' head coach, John Troxell, is set to lead a young but athletic squad that appears poised to bring a winning record back to Lancaster.

The 2009 squad will feature only eight seniors and 14 juniors. A sophomore class that represents 31 games started and another freshman class that will produce a handful of immediate impact players will bolster the upperclassmen.

"I feel like we have caught up to the middle of the conference in terms of combining talent and depth," said Troxell. "We are not too far from where we need to be to join the league's elite teams competing for a title on an annual basis. We are making steady progress on closing that gap."

Progress in developing a winning mentality has been noted as well.

"Last year, the defense played with the relentless effort we as a staff have been seeking. I think we will see a little more of that on both sides of the ball this year."

The Diplomats went 4-6 in 2008, with four of the six losses coming against teams that made postseason appearances. F&M posted that mark with a slew of freshmen manning skill positions on offense.

At the center of the class of 2012 was signal caller, John Harrison, the first freshman to take the season's first snap under center since Rob Shepardson in 1979. Shepardson completed his freshman campaign with a 58.3 completion percentage for the second best on record at F&M - a mark matched precisely by Harrison in his rookie campaign. Harrison tied the Centennial Conference's freshman record for touchdown passes with 14, while his 1,328 yards represents the fourth best season in terms of yards by a Centennial rookie.

"John will be the guy that makes us go," says Troxell. "With a year's experience in the offense, he can now play without thinking his way through game and he will put us in a position to win."

Depth could be an issue at quarterback as no other field general on the roster has taken a meaningful snap.  Sean Kenny, a freshman from Gladstone, N.J. will likely land second on the depth chart. An athletic 6' 4", 200-pounder, Kenny ran and threw for 1,000 yards as a senior at Bernards.

Harrison will have plenty of weapons in his aerial arsenal to choose from. Jarrell Diggs, George Eager and Jay Ridinger may constitute the conference's top receiving corps. All three members of the trio possess the speed to beat you deep and the agility and vision to turn a five-yard dump into a backbreaking sprint to paydirt.

A senior, Eager was an All-Centennial Second Team selection last year after catching 51 passes for 637 yards and six touchdowns. Ridinger has been a favorite target for F&M's quarterbacks in each of his two seasons on the roster, averaging 11.1 yards on his 67 career receptions.  Diggs exploded onto the Centennial Conference radar as a freshman by producing big plays in all facets of the game. Against Ursinus, he threw a 67-yard touchdown pass, caught a 31-yard touchdown pass and rushed 15 yards to the endzone to complete a touchdown trifecta.

While F&M's top three receivers are clear, the battle for the fourth spot will be a pitched fight between quarterback converts Colton Weaver and Brian Kelly, and their fellow sophomore, Kevin O'Shea. O'Shea has made the most progress in terms of refining his game since arriving on campus last August. Kelly is a big, physical receiver whose downfield blocking could add to the ground attack. Weaver ran scout team receiver last fall and gave the Diplomats' seasoned secondary fits., earning him a second look in camp.

In addition to any one of six receivers ready to play, Harrison will have Michael Deutch lined up at tight end. At 6' 4" Deutch is a huge target who Troxell projects will breakout as the league's premier tight end in 2009.

"Deutch does everything you would ask your tight end to do and he does it well," notes Troxell. "He will be a critical component to any success we enjoy this year."

All three of F&M's returning backs can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. The Diplomats are blessed in having three running backs, each with their own unique style. Ryan Murray is a punishing physical runner when moving north and south, while Alan Williams is a prototypical scat back that can line up anywhere on the field. John Kaschak is a hybrid of the two combining power and quickness.

Kaschak emerged as the feature back in 2008, carrying the workload in the season's early going with success.  He toted pigskin 119 times through the first four games averaging 96.25 yards per contest. Alone in the backfield while Murray and Williams were injured, the freshman was nicked up by midseason. Murray ended his 2007 season with one of the top rushing performances on record at F&M, but struggled to regain that form after a leg injury in camp. He still managed 3.4 yards per carry on the season, and broke out for 74 yards on 10 carries in the season finale at Gettysburg. Williams' season was marred by a severe arm injury suffered in the first half of the season-opener. He showed flashes of brilliance upon his return, particularly when provided with space to work. In four games he recorded at least one reception of 10 or more yards, mostly coming after the catch and broke off several long runs.

"Running effectively will be critical for our continued development as a team. We have three guys that could play for any school in this conference in our backfield. The challenge we face is how to make best use of the abundance of talent at runningback."

The talent pool increases with additional depth that will be provided by freshman, Jacob Kelly. A back built like Williams, Kelly was the team MVP on a 12-0 squad that won the San Diego section his junior year. 

The challenge facing the offense is not in finding talent at the skill positions, but grooming what will essentially be an entirely new offensive line. Clarke Miller will return at right tackle for his third year as a starter. Five capable freshmen will battle seven upperclassmen for the remaining spots.

"While we lost experienced starters across the front, I feel like we upgraded the unit as a whole," says Troxell. "This group is what you think of when you think of lineman. They have a blue-collar toughness about them."

Nick Gerace (LT), Zach Robinson (LG), Nick Tucciarone (C) and Danny Peretz (RG) took the bulk of the snaps in the spring along with Miller. Steve Barna, Arman Rogers and Stephen Sheehan also return with experience and knowledge of the offense. Freshmen Nick Ballas, Ryan McGrath, Kenny Provost, Connor Spellman and Sam Wojciechowski will all factor heavily as the unit dusts it up to fill open spots in August.

Defensively, the issue is the same for the Diplomats. The F&M staff will have to sort out who is playing and get them onto the same page in a hurry. Mark Surma, Kyle Wengerter, and Donald Wiezik bring experience and tenacity up front. Mike Marcinek will factor into the rotation as well. Identifying and developing the next two lineman will be a priority when the squad arrives.

"I am interested to see what sophomores Mike Landberg and C.T. Marsh do in August," said Troxell. "Our hope is that they are ready for meaningful snaps."

The incoming class of linemen has the staff excited about the future.

"Mike Sisco and Christian O'Connor could both see time at nose early on," said Troxell. "They are both big, strong, nasty kids who need a little refinement. Hopefully they can get on board with the defense quickly and contribute. Jordan Studevan and John Gandolfo are both freshmen in the same boat and could be in the rotation at tackle early on."

Amongst the known commodities on the line, Surma is the most experienced with 16 games through his first two years, including nine starts last year. Wiezik was forced onto the line because of injuries last year, and despite being undersized, performed admirably. He has added weight on his frame this year to go with his experience and fearless approach to the game.

For as much work that needs to be done to square away the line, there is little work that needs to be done in the secondary. The unit returns three of four starters from a year ago in Jeff Liberatore, Barry Lovett, Jeff Kellar. Lovett will start for the fourth year coming off of an All-Centennial First Team season. He recorded a pair of interceptions and broke up four passes to go along with a forced fumble. Kellar was an All-Centennial Second Team selection in 2008. He is tops amongst returning players in terms of tackles with 55 (39 solo) stops including 6.5 for losses of 10 yards. His three interceptions were tops amongst all players on the roster in 2008. He also broke up four passes. Liberatore had 45 stops (33 solo), second best amongst returning players, broke up a pass and recovered a fumble last year.

Sophomore, Ty Savastio, and junior, Lipton Thompson, will battle for the corner spot left vacant by Paul Sousa's graduation.  Savastio recorded an interception in the season opener as a freshman. At 6' 1", Savastio matches up well against the conference's biggest receivers. Thompson is a speedster who can flat-out fly up and down the field with the league's fastest receivers.

For the first time in the Troxell era, the secondary will have depth to exploit. Scott Williams, a freshman and brother of Alan Williams, is another speedy player, while Kevin Sonnett, Chris Ambrogi and Mike Shin ensure a physical presence in the secondary into the future.

Physical presence will not be an issue at linebacker either.  The corps remains formidable despite the graduation of two all-conference backers on the inside. Shane Gray will start on the outside for the third year. The junior recorded 45 stops (30 solo, 6.5 TFL), broke up three passes and recovered a fumble last year. There will be a battle for the right to step into the sizeable void left by the graduation of inside backers, James Gregory and Zach Romash, but the staff feels good about its options.

"We have six guys who we think can occupy the two spots with outstanding results," said Troxell.

James Freeman and Lewie Briggs have demonstrated a nose for the football. Briggs, a converted fullback, recorded five tackles and forced two fumbles in his first defensive start last year. Freeman has been a special teams standout who made the most of his time spelling the all-conference graduates last year. Frank DiMattia, Brian Low, will battle for the starting spots as will Nick Barbieri and Sam Massaro.  The unit will be a force on special teams as well.

In this phase of the game, the Diplomats are solid on the returning aspects, but the punting and kicking component will need to be sorted out. Eager, the Centennial's first team choice at return specialist will handle kickoffs, while Diggs will handle the punts.

Eager averaged 27.1 yards per return last year on 19 touches, including an 85-yard touchdown at Dickinson. He will share the kick return duties with Alan Williams. Diggs averaged 12.2 yards on 23 punts returned last year, including a 49-yard return that weaved through Washington & Lee for a touchdown in the season opener.

The kicking and punting jobs are up for grabs amongst a group primarily consisting of freshmen. The Diplomats were 2-of-5 on field goals last year, both in the 20-29 yard range, and missed six extra points. To that end, the staff brought in three players with punting and kicking experience. Sophomore, Ben Farquhar is the only returning player in the mix and will likely battle Devin Hunter, a freshman, for the job. Safety, Mike Shin, hit 48-of-50 PATs at his high school last year, and could factor in the mix as well. Brian Prater, an All-Maryland selection in 2008, will likely battle Andy Canzonetti for the punting duties. 

Franklin & Marshall hits the practice field on Sunday, August 16. The Diplomats open the 2009 slate at Washington & Lee and will then face Catholic at home before diving headlong into the Centennial Conference schedule. All five of Franklin & Marshall's home games will feature live streaming video on B2 Networks, as will the season opener at Washington & Lee. All other road games will not feature live audio or video from the host school will be aired live with free audio over B2 Networks.