Preview: New Personnel, Same Goals for Football

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Joe Carlucci was being interviewed by a local reporter when he heard it.

“He used the word ‘rebuilding,’ and I was taken aback by that,” the senior quarterback and co-captain on the Muhlenberg football team was saying just a few days before Saturday’s season opener against The Apprentice School. “I haven’t heard that word once here in three years. It’s not something we do.”

For someone who joined the team after its last losing season (2009) and has watched the Mules compile a 22-10 record during his tenure, it’s no wonder the ‘R word,’ so rarely associated with Muhlenberg football, came as a shock to Carlucci. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s not difficult to understand the reporter’s logic.

Darnell Davis
Davis started the first six games of last season, making 25 tackles and intercepting a pass, before suffering an injury. He also scored a touchdown by recovering a punt he blocked in the end zone against The Apprentice School.
Eight new starters on offense. A quarterback with two career starts under his belt. A brand-new secondary.

Many of the classic ingredients for a rebuild are there. To wit, Muhlenberg was picked fourth in the Centennial Conference preseason poll. Just don’t expect the Mules to be content with that. After all, recent history suggests this could be a special season. The last two times it was picked lower than third, Muhlenberg went on to win the conference title.

“The last couple times,” Carlucci said, “we surprised some people. We want to do that again.”

“That’s motivating for me,” added fellow co-captain Kory Crichton. “I want to prove people wrong.”

He also is eager to get started.

“We’re definitely ready to hit someone else,” said Crichton. “We’re kind of bored hitting each other.”

Crichton is one of six starters back from a defense that did plenty of hitting a year ago. With plenty of help from the senior linebacker, who led the team with 94 tackles, the Mules paced the CC and ranked 19th in Division III in scoring defense (15.5 ppg). Junior linebacker Ian Gimbar, who set a single-season school record with 14½ sacks, joins Crichton to form one of the premier linebacker tandems in the nation. They’ll be joined in the linebacking corps by juniors Jeremey Thomas and Gene Blanco.

Along the defensive line, senior nose tackle Johnathan Charles is back to man the middle, while junior Greg DeLade (49 tackles, 6½ for loss) looks to build off a breakout season and sophomore Kyle Ruiz steps into a starting role.

Perhaps the only question mark on defense is in the secondary, where seniors Andrew Onimus and Darnell Davis take over at cornerback, and juniors Tyler Cerbo and Chris Flynn begin their first seasons as starters. Sophomores Matt Pagano is also expected to see time.

“We definitely had some good seniors to follow last year,” said Onimus, who had 38 tackles and an interception a year ago. “We certainly have some experience, but not all starting together. We’re really gelling in camp, and Coach Donnelly is one of the best at preparing us for games.”

The offense, meanwhile, has undergone a near-complete makeover. Carlucci gets the keys to the car after starting the final two games last year, but his supporting cast is unproven.

Chris Litzenberger
Litzenberger, who caught a touchdown pass against Dickinson last year, will also serve as the Mules’ long snapper.
Sophomore Marcus Allen made the switch from cornerback to the backfield, where he figures to share carries with senior Kevin Van Laar. Junior tight end Michael Long (25 catches, 250 yards) was an All-CC performer, but the rest of the receiving corps has little experience. Senior Chris Litzenberger (10 catches, 91 yards) is the leading returning wideout, while junior Cody Geyer and sophomore Mike Harris enter the fray.

Despite its inexperience, Carlucci expects big things from his new arsenal of weapons.

“We have a lot of guys that if you hit them on a 5-yard route, in stride, and give them a chance to make somebody miss, they”ll do it,” Carlucci said. “Yards after catch are going to be big for us. We might not have that flat-out burner, but I think we make up for it with that.”

The offensive line graduated three senior starters, but sophomore Andrew Kincaid, who moves over to center, will be flanked by others with starting experience in juniors Trevor Cardo and Tommy DeVito and sophomore Bryan Auvil.

With so many new faces, Carlucci says finding an offensive identity in the opener is paramount. Having another potentially suffocating defensive unit to take some of the pressure off the process, then, is a luxury.

“As a defensive guy, I tell the defense to do their job and let the offense handle theirs,” Crichton said.

Handling the kicking and punting duties for the second straight year will be junior Connor Winter, who missed only one extra point last season. Senior Joe Hogh, the third co-captain, was the Mules’ special teams MVP last year.

Whether on offense, defense, or special teams, the Mules are confident to a man that if everyone does their job, the wins will follow. And while so many things have changed from last season, one hasn’t. If Carlucci has his way, it never will.

“The goal is pretty simple: conference title,” Carlucci said. “I think that’s within our reach, and we’d all be disappointed if we didn’t get it.”