Amherst Football 2000 Preview
The 1999 Amherst College football team was a bit like The Little Engine That Could. It thought it could and thought it could, and eventually it did.
The Jeffs crept out of the gate at a snail's pace with a season-opening 19-7 loss at Bates, followed by a 10-7 "skin-of-your-teeth" win against perennial NESCAC doormat Bowdoin. Neither outing did much to boost confidence in a youth-laden, injury-riddled Amherst locker room.
Ironically, it was a heartbreaking 14-13 home loss the following week against Middlebury that sparked a turnaround in the Jeffs' season and ignited a momentum that carried all the way through spring workouts and the 2000 pre-season.
"We were disappointed early and had a serious confidence problem," said fourth-year head coach E.J. Mills. "We had a young team with a lot of injuries and we were struggling. We lost to Middlebury in the last 30 seconds, but coming out of that game we really grew up. If you saw us at Bates and then saw us blow out Trinity 27-0 later in the season, you noticed that this team had come a long way."
NESCAC opponents took notice. Amherst rebounded with four straight wins, including road victories at Colby (24-17) and Tufts (10-7), setting the stage for a season-ending showdown at ancient rival Williams.
"We had Williams on the ropes but just couldn't finish them," Mills added. "But from a coaching standpoint we were satisfied. We improved each week and our young guys stepped it up dramatically."
A 10-7 fourth quarter loss at Williams did little to diminish the Jeff's accomplishments. A 5-3 record, improved play and a host of outstanding individual performances were just what Amherst needed to jumpstart its launch into a new millenium of Lord Jeffs football.
The 2000 Jeffs will have to account for 13 departed lettermen, including four offensive and three defensive starters. Graduated defensive lineman Greg O'Neil leaves a huge void on defense, especially in the Amherst pass rush where he racked up a team second best six sacks last season. Classmate Mike Perrone, a staple at outside linebacker and the Jeffs' third leading tackler, will be similarly missed.
Meanwhile on offense, veteran running back and tri-captain Harold Henderson was a team leader and a solid contributor, despite missing much of the 1999 season due to injury. Fellow captain Luke Blocher anchored the offensive line at center, while stout offensive tackle Alex Zywotchenko leaves a considerable hole and big shoes to fill up front.
Despite losing key contributors on both sides of the ball, this season's club should be improved both offensively and defensively, with experienced players at most skill positions and a host of proven playmakers returning to lead an emotionally charged defense.
Senior signal caller Peter Honig emerged as the Jeffs frontrunner at quarterback three seasons ago and never relinquished the job. The three-year starter played all eight games as a junior and completed 81 passes for a team-high 982 yards and nine touchdowns. Behind him, there's tough competition for the top backup slot. Senior Jason Campbell gets the pre-season nod, while junior Bob Loree is an emerging talent. Furthermore, Jeff Browne and Jeremy Carrol are rising sophomores with bright futures behind center.
In the backfield, junior tailback Okey Ugwonali paced the Jeffs' ground attack in almost every game last season and finished with a team-high 594 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He'll share the workload with Kevin Kennard, who rumbled for a surprising 282 yards and two touchdowns as a first year player in 1999.
A trio of sophomores, Jeff Ryan, Brett Nicol and Brian d'Entremont, will man the fullback position. Ryan brings the most experience after filling in for injured senior captain Harold Henderson last season, while Nicol and d'Entremont showed a boatload of potential in off-season workouts.
Fortunately, Amherst boasts one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the NESCAC, led by senior captain Matt Hall and junior standout Derrell Wright, two of the most athletic wideouts in the nation. Hall was stalled by a broken collarbone last season but still managed five catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns despite missing six games. Wright torched conference opponents for a team-high 40 receptions, 665 yards and two touchdowns and was the Jeffs leading receiver in all eight games. Senior John Kaufman should also see significant action and could split time at tight end, while sophomores J.P. Zito, Grant Webb, Brian Hart and Todd Gately are all emerging talents.
At tight end, durable junior Matt Flavin played every offensive snap last season. An excellent blocker with reliable hands, Flavin is the perfect complement to Amherst's speedy battalion of wideouts.
On the offensive line, junior centers Josh Ahearn and David Greig lead a pack of brawny blockers up front. Precocious sophomore Brendan Carolan played nearly every snap last season and should once again occupy a starting offensive guard slot, while senior Mike Somerville will battle junior Alex Hochron for the other. Meanwhile, returning sophomore Rob Vernicek is firmly entrenched as one of the Jeffs' starting tackles, along with either John MacKinnon, Ryan Schenk or Jesse Weber - all sophomores - at the other.
The Jeffs' defensive line is sure to be a topic of conversation around the NESCAC with two-year starters Pat McGee and Ted Hollo poised to return at defensive tackle. McGee was Amherst's top pass rusher as a sophomore with a team-high seven sacks for a loss of 33 yards. Juniors Brad Hensley and Kevin Bush will occupy the nose guard position vacated by the graduated Greg O'Neil, while sophomores Pat Hayes, Jeff Bogino and Ryan Moriarty will provide much needed depth up front.
Junior two-year starters Dan Lalli and Brian Landolfi will anchor an experienced, hard-hitting linebacker crew from the inside slot. Lalli, a tri-captain, was voted All-ECAC and Team MVP as a sophomore with a team-high 54 tackles, including 31 unassisted. Landolfi started all eight games at linebacker and was Amherst's second leading tackler with 46 takedowns.
Junior Gregg Stankewicz returns at outside linebacker after racking up 33 tackles in 1999, including a game-high 10 takedowns at Williams in the Jeffs' 14-13 close shave season-finale. Seniors Ken Barrington and Will Knapick should also see action, along with talented juniors Gene Nogi and Colin Renz.
Consequently, Amherst returns its entire secondary, including perennial starting cornerbacks Brian Daoust, a senior tri-captain, and Steve Yung, a junior. Daoust enters his second season as team captain after tallying three interceptions in 1999, despite missing six games with a leg injury. Yung also had three picks and 25 tackles with a team-high five pass breakups.
Junior strong safeties Geoff Dewire and Jay Hutchins also return after rotating in and out of the lineup last season. Senior David Frankel is back at free safety after tallying 29 tackles as a junior. Meanwhile, versatile sophomore Paul Micelli will factor in at every position in the secondary as needed.
On special teams, senior Liam Flemming pulled double-duty as place kicker and punter last season, nailing a pair of field goal attempts, including a season-long 29-yarder in a 10-7 victory at Tufts. He also punted 58 times for 1,887 yards and a 32.5-yard average. Sophomore Mike Proman is also an accomplished place kicker with a pair of field goals in four attempts to his credit, while sophomore punter Geoff Bough has a strong leg and a bright future.
Additionally, speedsters Daoust, Frankel and junior Jerimy Hiltner are slated to handle kickoff returns. Wide receivers Hall and Wright are similarly experienced punt returners with long-play capability.
The Jeffs will play a challenging eight-game NESCAC slate, highlighted by the Pratt Field home and season opener against conference newcomer Hamilton College on Saturday, September 23. Additionally, Amherst Homecoming kicks off Saturday, November 11, when the Jeffs meet Williams College for the 115th time in one of the oldest rivalries in college football. Despite some familiar opponents, the 2000 season poses some uncommon challenges.
"We have three new coaches in the league, and our first two games are against two of them," Mills commented. "We open with Hamilton, who has never been in the NESCAC, and we don't know anything about them. Bowdoin has a new coach in Dave Caputi from Williams, so you know they'll be well prepared. Middlebury is probably a favorite to win the league with a lot of players returning from a 6-2 team. There are no breaks in the 2000 schedule. This has become one of the toughest Division III conferences in the nation."