Despite a highly successful 2004 campaign, the College’s football team will try to improve upon last season’s 8-2 mark with hopes of winning the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) after finishing as the runner-up in the past three seasons.
Having lost numerous key players to graduation, the Lions will have some significant shoes to fill, namely those of offensive lineman Erik Sendel and defensive linemen Bryan Mulholland and Michael Sykes, members of the Class of 2005 who were all named to the 2004 All-East Team. Sendel anchored the Lions’ offensive line, while Mulholland and Sykes were playmakers on the defensive line.
“When you lose a large senior class, it creates a lot of spots to fill,” head coach Eric Hamilton said. “We just have to hope that our not-ready-for-prime-time players are ready for prime time.”
Last year, the Lions were among the NJAC leaders in several key categories, including rush defense, scoring defense and time of possession, but if they hope to continue to be among the league leaders, the team will have to incorporate many new faces into open positions.
One of the first things the team will need to address is the defense, the strength of last year’s squad. The Lions’ defense was dominant, holding opponents scoreless in 22 of 36 quarters and boasting three shutout victories.
Now, however, that whole defensive front is all but gone with only one of the seven players returning.
“Offensively, we have some key people coming back, but the defense is where we were hit more as a unit,” Hamilton said.
On the offensive side of the ball, many key players are returning, including sophomore quarterback Jeff Struble, who threw for 1,157 yards last year, and senior running back Leeaire Brown, who will return this fall after an injury cut short his 2004 campaign. Brown will join junior tailback Cory Schoonover in the backfield and add some versatility to the Lions’ running game.
However, the Lions will need to fill some core positions, specifically at wide receiver, tight end and linebacker.
“We’re hoping to blend in the new guys with the other guys returning,” Hamilton said.
With so many vacant positions, the team cannot only be concerned with replacing the talent, but also with reshaping team chemistry that may have flown along with the graduation caps. One of the big questions is how this team will play as a unit.
“You have to have your players play together,” Hamilton said. “That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish in practice.”
The players have spent hours of exhaustion training together in the summer heat since the start of camp on August 15.
From that day, they have three weeks to figure out who will fill the necessary roles while at the same time hopefully establishing some sort of cohesion before their season opener against Muhlenberg College on Sept. 2 at Lions’ Stadium.
With many quality teams in the NJAC, including archrival Rowan University, Montclair State University and SUNY Cortland, winning the conference in 2005 will be no easy task.
“The conference is going to be more balanced,” Hamilton said. “This is one of those conferences where on any given day, anyone can beat anybody. Every week it’s going to be a battle.”
On Sept. 30, the Lions will travel to John Page Field looking to avenge their sole conference loss in 2004 to eventual conference champion Rowan University. The annual game versus the Profs is always the most anticipated matchup for the College.