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AU aims to defend Empire 8 crown, return to NCAA championships
8/18/11

All-American linebacker Nick Clark

All-American linebacker Nick Clark

ALFRED, NY - Expectations are high for the 2011 Alfred University football team, which is led by a punishing defense that returns 10 of 11 starters, including a pair or preseason All-Americans. The Saxons are ranked in a national preseason Top 25 poll and are picked to win the Empire 8 Conference title.

AU is coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history, in which the Saxons finished with a school record-tying 10 wins and went unbeaten (5-0) in conference play to secure the program’s first-ever outright Empire 8 crown. AU notched a pair of upsets in the NCAA Division III playoffs before falling to eventual tournament runner-up Mount Union in the national quarterfinals.

Now, AU will seek a third straight conference title and a deeper foray into the NCAA tournament. The Saxons are ranked 18th in the D3football.com national preseason poll and received six of eight first place votes in the Empire 8 preseason coaches poll. Alfred may struggle early on offense, despite the return of a pair of record-setting skill players in four-year starting quarterback, senior Tom Secky (Bemus Point, NY/Maple Grove), and sophomore tailback Austin Dwyer (Hornell, NY/Hornell), last year’s Empire 8 Rookie of the Year. Dave Murray, in his 14th year as head coach at AU, is counting on his defense to lead the team early, as the offense adjusts to the loss of seven starters from last year’s, including four of five first-string linemen.

"Just with the number of returning players and starters coming in, defense will be our strength," Murray said. "You have to remember, this is a veteran group that was pretty good last year."

Indeed, Alfred’s defense was stout last year, allowing only 277 yards per game (115 rushing, 162 passing), and was particularly strong against the run at season’s end and during the first two games of the NCAA’s. In last two regular season games (against Ithaca and Utica) and in the first two NCAA contests (against Maritime and Cortland), the Saxons allowed an average of 209 yards per game, including a mere 56 per contest on the ground.

Led by senior linebacker Nick Clark (Canisteo, NY/Canisteo-Greenwood) and junior nose guard Mike Raplee (Dundee, NY/Dundee) - both Second Team D3football.com preseason All-Americans - the Saxons are poised to build on last year’s success and be even better in 2011.

Clark had an outstanding season in 2010 en route to being named Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Year and a Second Team D3football.com All-American. He led the Saxons in tackles with 112 and had 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks to go with three interceptions, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery. His 269 tackles are 90 off the school record held by former star linebacker Wil Green.

"Nick had a great year last season and I think most people would consider him one of the best defensive players in the country," Murray said. "He forces other offenses to adjust to him, and he’s an outstanding leader who makes everyone around him better."

Clark is part of a talented linebacking corps that anchored the Saxons’ 3-4 scheme last season. While AU lost four-year starter Chad Pieri - who Murray credited with instilling toughness and physicality in the Saxon defense - the team returns starting backers, seniors Wes Smith (Turbotville, PA/Muncy) and Brady Bonacquisti (LeRoy, NY/LeRoy). Smith, a Second Team Empire 8 all-star in 2009, had 57 tackles (four for loss) and a pair of interceptions last year, while Bonacquisti had a pair of forced fumbles among his 57 stops.

"(Smith) is an outstanding, physical run-stop linebacker, and (Bonacquisti) is extremely intelligent player, always in the right place at the right time," Murray commented. "Both are great complements to Nick."

Senior Darrick Mason (Driftwood, PA/Cameron County), a solid backup in 2010 (21 tackles, one for loss), is a candidate to take Pieri’s spot in the starting lineup. Also competing for time at linebacker will be senior Dan Haasis (Rochester, NY/Greece Olympia), junior Brendan McGinnis (Walworth, NY/Gananda-East Rochester), and sophomores Dustyn Power (Farmington, NY/Victor) and Jalen Gayle (Niagara Falls, NY/Niagara Falls).

All three starters return on the defensive line, including Raplee, a Second Team D3football.com preseason All-American. He was an Empire 8 First Team all-star and a D3football.com honorable mention All-American in 2010, when he had 87 tackles (team-best 18 for loss) and six sacks.

"(Raplee) really came on last season and had a great year. He’s extremely fast and can create some problems with his quickness," Murray said of the 6-2, 255-pound nose guard. "He’s one of the strongest players on the team. He offers speed and strength, which is unique for an interior lineman. We need him to consistently have outstanding games for us."

Flanking Raplee will be a pair of veteran ends in senior Marcellus Jones (Lancaster, NY/Lancaster) and junior Chris Steeves (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili). A three-year starter, Jones had 58 tackles and led the team in sacks (eight) and fumble recoveries (three). Steeves, a starter since his freshman year, had 39 tackles (65 for loss, 4.5 sacks) and returned an interception 65 yards for a score.

"Those two are absolutely solid performers," Murray said of Jones and Steeves. "They’re excellent with their assignments and techniques. They (and Raplee) give us an extremely fast line, like having a defensive line with linebacker speed."

Junior Joe Dentino (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili) and senior Tracy Margarum (Port Jervis, NY/Port Jervis) will back up Raplee or play tackle when the Saxons are in a 4-3 alignment. Senior Charlie Engleka (Buffalo, NY/Bishop Timon-St. Jude) will be the primary backup at end.

The defensive backfield returns all four starters, including a pair of three-year first-stringers in senior cornerback Roland O’Brien (Hoosick Falls, NY/Hoosick Falls) and senior free safety Alec Currier (Peru, NY/Peru). O’Brien, a First Team Empire 8 all-star and D3football.com Second Team East Region pick, had 36 tackles and led the team and conference in interceptions (eight, one returned for a TD) pass breakups (13). Currier, who can also play corner, had 38 tackles and a pair of interceptions.

"(O’Brien) has an excellent nose for the football, and he’s a terrific return kid so when he does get a pick, he can make some exciting things happen," Murray said.
"(Currier) is our strongest defensive back and acts as the quarterback of the secondary."
Junior Reggie Pressley (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili) returns at strong safety. Always a solid run-stopper, Pressley developed solid pass coverage skills last season and finished the year with 75 tackles (6.5 for loss), an interceptions and six pass breakups to go with two force fumbles and two recoveries. Junior cornerback Jon Jackson (East Amherst, NY/Bishop Timon-St. Jude) took on a starting role late last season when O’Brien was briefly injured and never relinquished the spot, finishing with 22 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups.

"Reggie is a terrific run-support defender and an outstanding open field tackler who has greatly improved his coverage skills," Murray said. "(Jackson’s) opportunity came in the Utica game (four tackles, interception, two pass breakups) and he took full advantage of it. We couldn’t get him off the field after than and he had a great playoff run. He really gives us terrific speed at the corner spot."

"This will be the fastest secondary we’ve had in a long time, " Murray commented. "This gives us some pretty good options as far as being able to play multiple coverages. Having a seasoned group like this allows us to adjust to different formations more effectively."

Key backups in the defensive backfield will include senior Ryan Quinliven (Endicott, NY/Union-Endicott), and sophomores Andy Ruddock (Attica, NY/Attica), David Lee Tack (Newark, NY/Newark) and D.J. Welch (Avon, NY/Avon). Each of the four is capable of playing corner or safety, Murray said.

Murray is excited about the role his defense will play in the team’s success in 2011, particularly because of the depth and experience, but also due to the veteran leadership the unit brings.

"I think this group of players feel they’re capable of being dominating," Murray said. "I could safely say it has the potential to be the best overall defensive unit in the last 15 years. When you have this type of experience returning, you can get ahead of the game as far as X’s and O’s are concerned. Our schemes can be more complex because they have such a strong grasp of the basics. The experience of this unit is invaluable. We’ll go into game one with fewer question marks than normal. We won’t go in wondering, ‘can we play his defense?’ We’ll have those questions answered already."

Defense will need to be a strength early on, as the offense rounds into form. Having Secky and Dwyer in the lineup will certainly help an offense that returns only four starters.

Secky, a four-year starter at quarterback, gives the offense a veteran presence that can’t be understated. The 2008 Empire 8 Rookie of the Year, Secky is a three-time conference all-star who is approaching many of the school passing records held by former standout signal-caller Paul Keeley. Secky, a Second Team All-E8 pick in 2010, passed for 2,762 yards, with 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season. For his career, he has 7,572 passing yards (35 yards off Keeley’s mark) with 80 TD passes (tied with Keeley for the school mark). As important as Secky’s passing abilities are, Murray points also to the intangibles he brings to the table.

"With Tommy, it’s like having a coach on the field," he said. "Because of his football intellect, we can count on him to get us into a good football play on every down. He has such an understanding of protections and has great timing on his throws."

Backing up Secky will be senior T.J. Kilcarr (Nanuet, NY/Clarkstown South). One of four team captains - Smith, Clark and Secky are the other three - Kilcarr has played sparingly as Secky’s backup, but has performed well when given the opportunity. In a key 2009 road game at St. John Fisher, Kilcarr came off the bench to replace an injured Secky and led the Saxons on two late scoring drives to secure the win that would give AU a share of its first-ever conference title.

"T.J. is the ultimate team player. There’s a level of comfort knowing if he goes into the game, we’ll continue to run our offense effectively," Murray said. "He’s very intelligent and plays a great role helping Tom from the sidelines. He’s just an outstanding team leader."

Dwyer returns at tailback after an outstanding freshman campaign that saw him set a new school single-season record with 1,412 yards rushing (eight TDs), while catching 33 passes for 241 yards. He was particularly effective in Empire 8 games, running for 731 yards in five conference contests, including a career-high 273 against Ithaca. In a second-round NCAA playoff game at Cortland, he ran for 187.

"Austin had a great year in 2010 and has worked very hard in the offseason to get bigger and stronger," Murray said. Indeed, Dwyer, who was 160 pounds as a freshman, will come into camp this preseason at 180 pounds, better able to handle the physical pounding he took in 2010. "He has great hands as a pass-catcher and with his quickness can make exciting plays in the open field. He’s a great competitor, and has worked hard on his weaknesses (pass blocking in particular)."

Dwyer will have competition for the starting tailback spot. A pair of juniors - Jonathan Clemo (Salem, VA/Salem) and Tyler DeRosa (Miller Place, NY/Miller Place) - will be vying for playing time after transferring to AU from Washington & Lee and Western Connecticut State, respectively.

Clemo played two seasons (2008, 2009) at Washington & Lee, starting as a sophomore in 2009. That year, he was a Second Team Old Dominion Athletic Conference all-star after rushing for 923 yards (third in the conference) and 11 touchdowns. In two seasons at W&L, he ran for 1,017 yards and 12 TDs and caught 13 passes for 104 yards. DeRosa played the 2009 and 2010 seasons at Western Connecticut. He was the New Jersey Athletic Conference JAC Rookie of the Year as a freshman in 2009, when he want for 305 yards and three TDs, caught 24 passes for 132 yards and averaged 24 yards on 19 kickoff returns. He was an honorable mention conference all-star last season, his first as a starter at Western Connecticut, when he rushed for 739 yards and four scores and caught 17 passes for 183 yards.

"(Clemo and DeRosa) are outstanding backs," Murray said. "They’ll give us tremendous depth."

Also adding depth will be a pair or returning juniors who will compete for playing time: Chris Lopez (Rochester, NY/Pittsford Sutherland) and Chuck Beckwith (Victor, NY/Victor). Lopez was the starter at the beginning of the 2010 season before being supplanted by Dwyer in the fourth game. He finished with 470 yards and five TDs on 99 carries. Beckwith, hampered by injury each of his first two years, will look to increase his workload in 2011. Also competing for time at tailback, while also contributing to the return game, are senior Derek Echevarria (New York, NY/Cardinal Hayes) and sophomore Derek O’Dell (Nelsonville, NY/Haldane). Sophomore Brandon Yarnes (Cuba, NY/Portville) is the leading candidate to take over fullback duties; he’ll get competition from junior Jake Butler (Rock Tavern, NY/Washingtonville).

When the Saxons need to pound the ball on short down situations, they can turn to Clark, who in 2010 as the short yardage back led the team with 15 rushing touchdowns.

At receiver, AU will look to overcome the loss of record-setting standout wideout Ryan Thon. The team returns sophomore Josh Phillips (Syracuse, NY/West Genesee), a starter as a freshman in 2010, when he caught 46 passes for 566 yards and two TDs (including one in the NCAA loss to Mount Union).

Competing for time at wide receiver will be senior Frank Delia (East Meadow, NY/East Meadow), who returns after missing the 2010 season to injury; junior Andre McCloud (Bath, NY/Haverling), who as the third wideout last season had 27 catches for 456 yards and one TD (83 yarder against Ithaca); junior Nick Spadaro (Clay, NY/Cicero-North Syracuse); and sophomore E.J. Beauford (Syracuse, NY/Bishop Ludden) (nine catches, 90 yards, one TD in 2010).

Senior Adam Schutz (Geneva, NY/Geneva) is a leading candidate for the tight end job. Inserted mostly in passing downs last year, the speedy Schutz caught 18 passes for 303 yards and three scores. Others competing for time at tight end are sophomore Alec Ladonis (Nescopeck, PA/Berwick) and sophomore Justin Collen (Averill Park, PA/Averill Park), a converted defensive end).

The biggest holes to fill on offense will be along the line, which lost four starters from a season again, including three all-Empire 8 selections (one being All-American left tackle Zach Morgan).

The lone returning starter, sophomore Ryan DiFlavio (West Seneca, NY/West Seneca West), played right tackle as a freshman and moves over to left tackle this season.

"Ryan will be the cornerstone of the line," Murray said of DiFlavio, recruited to AU as a linebacker out of high school. "As a former linebacker, he has really good feet and is very tough. He’s going to be a really good player for us."

Going into the preseason, the following are penciled in to replace the departed starters: senior right guard Vito Sinisgalli (New Hartford, NY/New Hartford), senior right tackle Harold Spetla (Tupper Lake, NY/Tupper Lake), and senior center Tim Demersman (Rochester, NY/Rush-Henrietta). Sophomore Patrick Teta (Avon, NY/Avon), a defensive lineman as a freshman, and sophomore Zach Harrington (Rochester, NY/Greece Olympia) will be among those competing for time at left guard.

Murray is counting on a relatively inexperienced line to develop quickly as the early part of the season progresses. He’s confident the talent and ability is there.

"We have a good mix of size and speed. We are going to have to be great technicians and our assignments have to be perfect. We have the potential to put together a pretty good line. The negatives of having a very inexperienced offensive line, fortunately, will be helped by our seasoned group of skill players."

Special teams, as always will be emphasized as a key component to team success and Murray has some outstanding players in the kicking and return game.

Senior placekicker Eric Rockwood (Allegany, NY/Allegany-Limestone) is a four-year starter and two-time Empire 8 all-star (First Team pick in 2010). He made 56 extra points (school single-season record) in 59 tries and converted five of six field goals. Rockwood will also compete for the punter’s job with junior Matt Girolmo (Livonia, NY/Livonia). Girolmo started the season and averaged 32.1 yards on 31 punts and wound up earning Second Team Empire 8 honors. Rockwood took over for him after eight games and averaged 37 yards on 26 kicks.

Dwyer is a leading candidate to return punts and kicks. One of the nation’s leaders in all-purpose yards in 2010, he averaged 21.6 yards on kickoff returns and 9.1 yards on punts returns (including a 78-yarder for a TD). Echevarria (kicks) and O’Dell (punts) will play a role in the return game, as could Lopez, Clemo and DeRosa. "We really expect our depth at tailback to help our return game," Murray said.

Murray said the team’s success will depend on solid performances on offense, defense and special teams. How the offense progresses, in particular, will determine how far the team goes in reaching its goals.

"Offensively, I think we have great playmakers and we’ll rely heavily on them to make plays at critical times. Our offensive line needs to develop and progress quickly in order for our skill kids to make things happen," Murray said. "Defensively, we hope to have the capability to keep us in every game we play this year. It will be particularly important early on for them to be dominant."

Murray outlined some keys to help the Saxons reach their goals of winning the Empire 8 crown and making a deep run into the NCAA playoffs.

"We need to have a great preseason. The good thing for our offense is it will be going up against a very good defense in practices. As they (offense) gain success, it will give them confidence. We’ll need to be consistent every Saturday. We had some glitches last year (non-conference losses to RPI and Rochester). We have to eliminate that. We want to win the Empire 8 and see how far we can go (in the playoffs). We know it won’t be easy. You throw Salisbury (Empire 8 newcomer, home game in Week 6) into the conference, and add some tough Empire 8 road games (at Fisher and Ithaca) and our schedule is very challenging."