Saturday's game against Hamilton College at Ellis Oval / Zimman Field is a season opener unlike any other in 25 years as the Tufts University football team looks to build upon its run of recent success and establish itself at the top of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) this fall.
Not since 1992 has a Tufts team opened a new year behind the momentum of back-to-back winning seasons. In fact, with their 7-1 record last season and 6-2 finish in 2015, the Jumbos' 13-3 mark during the last two years is the best at Tufts since 1979-80. These are exciting times for Jumbo Football.
|Senior Micah Adickes is a two-time All-NESCAC recipient on the defensive line|
|Junior QB Ryan McDonald is at the helm of the Jumbo offense|
However, with success comes expectations. Last year Tufts met them and then some as they charged to a second-place finish in the conference. Finishing as the #7 team in the New England Division III poll, they proved that 2015's results were not a fluke. Now they have to show staying power and compete for a conference championship again in 2017.
The defense lines up as one of the better Jumbo groups on that side of the ball in a while. On the defensive line, senior Doug Harrison and Micah Adickes return from All-Conference seasons in 2016. Last year's freshman sensation Greg Holt was a NESCAC first teamer at linebacker and the league's Rookie of the Year. He and junior All-NESCAC cornerback Tim Preston have emerged as stars in the conference. Allowing less than 19 points per game last year, the Jumbos have eight starters back on defense and will look to be even stingier this fall.
Offensively the Jumbos will have to replace the production of Chance Brady, who established himself as arguably the best running back in Tufts Football history. He produced a stunning senior season in 2016 when he rushed for 1,099 yards and scored 19 touchdowns in eight games. Brady was the NESCAC Player of the Year for the second straight season and won multiple New England Player of the Year honors. He's one of eight starters gone from last year's offense, including All-NESCACers Jack Price and T.J. Muzzonigro on the line, as well as kicker / punter Willie Holmquist.
Tufts returns quarterback Ryan McDonald, whose 647 rushing yards last season are second-most among any NESCAC returnee. Linemen Gian Calise and Liam Thau and a veteran receiving group are also back, but it's clear that several Jumbos who will be stepping into bigger rules this fall need to perform.
Here's a closer look at head coach Jay Civetti's Tufts team:
QUARTERBACK – McDonald became one of the most exciting play-makers in the league last season. Included among his five touchdown runs was a 75-yarder at Bowdoin. The Jumbos attempted 160 passes last year, second-fewest in the league. McDonald's development in the air will be interesting to watch. Junior Ryan Hagfeldt is the back-up.
RUNNING BACK – Tufts led NESCAC with 239.1 yards rushing per game last season and scored 25 of their 33 touchdowns on the ground. Considering McDonald's rushing ability, as well as a talented group of backs, the Jumbos certainly expect to be effective in the run game again. Junior Dom Borelli was Brady's back-up for the last two seasons and has 73 carries for 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns to his name. Sophomores Andrew Sanders and Jay Tyler along with freshman Mike Pedrini are promising.
RECEIVERS – If the Jumbos do plan to pass a bit more in 2017, they have a veteran stable of receivers to throw to. Mike Miller, Joe Nault and Joe Byrnes are seniors, juniors Jack Dolan and Daniel de Leon are both projected starters and junior Kevin Lovaincy is in the mix. Miller grabbed a pair of touchdown passes last fall, including a 77-yard score at Bowdoin.
OFFENSIVE LINE – These guys paved the way for last year's 31.5 points and 374 yards per game on offense. Calise is the leader of the group – if not the whole offense – as a gritty guard starting for the third straight season. The team welcomes back junior Josh Thibeault, who was a starter to begin last year before an early injury. Thau returns as the starter at left tackle, while juniors Nick Roy and Tim Reitzenstein were atop the preseason depth chart at the other spots. Junior Jack Rhodes and sophomore Patrick Hull lead the reserves.
|Cornerback Tim Preston has 11 interceptions in 16 career games|
|Gian Calise returns as a three-year starter on the O-line|
TIGHT END – This is an inexperienced group following the graduation of Nik Dean. Senior Blake Potter, a transfer from Fordham a few seasons back, is a veteran amongst an otherwise young group that includes sophomores Jack Donohue and Winton Blount.
DEFENSIVE LINE – This is a tremendously talented group with Adickes, Harrison and senior Zach Thomas. Each is an All-Conference player, including Thomas in 2015 when he had a remarkable nine-sack season. Adickes has been an all-star since sophomore year and Harrison owned the line of scrimmage in his All-Conference campaign last fall. Sophomore Tom Baker is a new face along the line.
LINEBACKER – Few freshmen make the impact that Holt did last season. He had 20 tackles against Bates in the second game of his career and went on to record 98 stops (12.3 per game) to lead the league. In the midst of all these All-Conference players, senior Steve DiCienzo has gone about his business and been one of the league's leading tacklers in each of the last two seasons. He had seven TFL's among his 62 stops last fall. Senior Chuck Calabrese (two sacks last year), juniors Caden Bevilacqua and Markus Edmunds and sophomore Tylor Scales all have experience.
DEFENSIVE BACKS – As much as McDonald will be fun to watch on offense, Preston is a highlight waiting to happen as well. He has led NESCAC in interceptions in each of his two seasons and has 11 in 16 career games. Last year versus Colby he bolted down the sideline 99 yards in an interception return for a touchdown. With less flashy stats, but equally reliable, junior Alex LaPiana has started at the other corner since his freshman season. In the middle of the field, captains Garcia - who is as consistent as they come - and Phillips – coming back from an injury – are veteran safeties.
KICKING GAME: The Jumbos took big losses here. Holmquist was All-Conference at both placekicker and punter during his career. Mike Rando, another All-NESCAC player on special teams, will be missed returning punts and kicks. These important jobs will be handled by relative newcomers to the roles.