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Muhlenberg College

Thursday, September 4, 2008

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Season Preview
Football Looks to Defend 2007 Championship

So the field is ready. But are the players?

After weeks of frantic construction activity, Scotty Wood Stadium has been deemed fit for action for the Muhlenberg football team’s 2008 opener against Wilkes Saturday night. The Mules also have been hard at work in the preseason as they try to follow up on an incredible season.

“It’s kind of like as [the field] was developing, so was the team, and now it’s all coming together Saturday night,” said senior linebacker James Corbett, who along with his teammates walked past Scotty Wood Stadium every day on the way to practice. “It gave us more to look forward to and some built-up anticipation.”

Anticipation already was high after Muhlenberg won its first outright Centennial
Joe Caporoso
Last season Caporoso finished fourth on the Mules in receptions. Of his 17 catches, 10 went for first downs.
Conference championship last year and went undefeated in the regular season for the first time ever. The Mules are ranked in the top 10 in three Division III preseason polls and were picked to repeat in the CC poll of coaches and sports information directors.

But championships are decided by players, not polls, and the Mules have plenty of outstanding players back to defend. Despite losing six first-team All-CC starters, including five from its nationally ranked defense, Muhlenberg returns one of its most experienced teams in recent memory.

Of the 17 returning starters, 12 are seniors and four others are juniors. Of those 16 players, nine earned All-CC honors last year, and three are two-time All-CC selections. The Mules also have several other juniors who are expected to challenge for the open starting slots, as well as a seasoned class of sophomores, many of whom gained valuable experience last year as the playoff run added two games to the schedule.

“We’re very well prepared, and everyone is excited coming off last season,” said Corbett. “It was a learning experience – learning how to win, and we hope to take that into this year.”

Nationally renowned for its defense for most of this decade, Muhlenberg may find the offense grabbing its share of the attention in 2008. The Mules’ offensive unit showed tremendous improvement last year, leading the CC in scoring offense just two years after finishing next-to-last, and returns 10 of 11 starters, including all five linemen and a preseason All-American.

If the Muhlenberg offense was a machine last year, its engine was more like an efficient hybrid than a powerful V8. The Mules relied on time-consuming drives and a minimum of turnovers rather than explosive big plays. They averaged 34:49 in time of possession, by far the best in the CC, and ranked fifth in Division III by turning the ball over only 10 times.

Making it all possible is the offensive line, which returns six players with starting experience. Senior co-captain Mike Nolan is a preseason All-American and two-year starter at center. Bookending the line at tackle are a pair of seniors, All-CC selection Mike Gawel and Steve Halupka. Junior Kevin Hussey and sophomore Mark Bigelli return at the guard spots. Sophomore John Allen started five games at tackle last year.

Edward DeRisi
DeRisi’s first career touchdown came off a 31-yard reception with 3:38 left to play in last season’s NCAA game against Salisbury. DeRisi’s touchdown clinched the 31-21 win.
Senior Eric Santagato will run the show for the third consecutive year. The two-year captain nearly reversed his numbers from 2006 to 2007, going from 17 interceptions and five touchdowns to 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He set a school record for completion percentage (.632) and ranked 18th in Division III in passing efficiency.

The two starting running backs, John DeLuca and Erik Snyder, are coming off breakthrough seasons. DeLuca rushed for a school-record 1,533 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Snyder scored six touchdowns from his fullback position.

Junior Phil Cresta is the top returning receiver after hauling in 43 passes for a 17.2 yard average and five touchdowns in his first year as a starter. Two seniors, Joe Caporoso (17 catches) and Edward DeRisi (7 catches) shared time at the other starting spot last year and are veterans of the offense.

The defense will need a little reworking, particularly in the front seven. Muhlenberg was among the top defensive teams in Division III in 2007, ranking in the top 20 in the country in total defense (third), scoring defense (fourth), pass efficiency defense (seventh), fumbles recovered (eighth), sacks (ninth), turnover margin (10th) and rushing defense (20th).

That was nothing unusual for the Mules, who have finished in the top 10 in Division III in total defense three of the last four years. So even though the unit lost five first-team All-CC players, it seems reasonable to believe that Muhlenberg will once again be strong on defense.

“It’s going to have to be a year where people will have to step up,” remarked Corbett. “We have a core group of guys returning and lots of senior leadership spread out at different positions.”

The most experienced part of the defense will be the secondary, which returns three All-CC players, all of whom will be three-year starters. Senior free safety David Mazzola, a co-captain, tied for the team lead with four interceptions last year and recorded 30 tackles. Senior Brandon Doyle (39 tackles, 7 pass breakups) and junior Cameron Ahouse (43 tackles, 5 pass breakups) give the Mules considerable proven talent at cornerback.

Contenders for the open rover spot include sophomore Jared Holenda (26 tackles), who started
Brandon Doyle
Doyle was named to the All-Centennial Conference first team for his work at cornerback. He led the Mules last season in pass breakups.
the last game of the 2007 season, and junior Ryan Keeley, who saw time as an extra defensive back after moving from running back.

The linebacking corps will have a very different look from the one that lined up most of last year. The lone returning starter is senior co-captain Matt Rathbun (72 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 4 fumble recoveries), and he will move to outside linebacker after two years as a starter on the inside.

Sophomores Scott Gavin (inside) and Scott Lissner (outside) saw their playing time increase during the course of their rookie campaigns and are poised to move into starting roles. Sophomore transfer Patrick McDonough, who practiced with the team in the spring, also will contend for starting time along with Corbett and junior Joe Germano.

On the line, the Mules hope to develop a rotation of six or seven players who can each play 30-35 snaps, instead of having the three starters line up for the entire game. The aim is to be fresher up front in the fourth quarter.

Returning to his starting spot at nose tackle is senior William Moates (34 tackles, 4 sacks). The other leading contenders are all juniors, the most accomplished being Frank Emmett (27 tackles, 7 sacks), Jeremiah Lachaud (15 tackles, 4 sacks) and Ewan Wright (23 tackles as an inside linebacker). Jake Floyd and Garrett Orr both lettered last year.

On special teams, Muhlenberg will look to improve its kicking game. Sophomore TJ Chiarlolanza, who made both of his field goals, is the lone returning kicker with varsity experience. The Mules ranked 13th in Division III in kickoff return defense, allowing only 14.6 yards per return, but because of short kickoffs, they were only sixth in the CC in kickoff coverage.

The punting story tells the opposite tale. Muhlenberg’s average of 32.6 yards per kick wasn’t too impressive, but with only 123 return yards on 72 punts and just one touchback, the Mules were third in the CC in net punting. Sophomore Jason LoPipero (34.9 yards per punt) came on strong at the end of the year and will push Mazzola (33.6) for the starting job.

Doyle has been Muhlenberg’s top return man the last two years, averaging 24.9 yards per kickoff return and 8.2 yards on punt returns.

Other key special teams returnees include long snapper JJ Contessa, short snapper Mike Bialko, holder Jim Jeffers and coverage leaders Wright, Emmett, Holenda and Corbett.

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