The Wilkes University football team will enter the 2006 season with high expectations. The Colonels, who have been ranked ninth in the Street & Smith Division III Pre-Season Top-25 Poll, fashioned an overall record of 8-3 and earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Division III Championships in 2005.
Head coach Frank Sheptock will have a plethora of experience to build around as he welcomes back 61 lettermen from a season ago. Included among the returnees are nine full-time starters from a season ago on offense and ten full-time starters from last fall on defense.
“We have a lot of people back from last season and we feel very good about our initial team chemistry,” commented Sheptock. “Last season we had to develop that chemistry and I think that the players were able to recognize that our success was directly attributed to our team chemistry and unity. Hopefully, we will be able to continue and foster that this season.”
Offensively, the Colonels lost only two offensive lineman from last year’s starting squad. Wilkes used a balanced attack to average 343.3 yards and 27.2 points per contest.
First team all-conference tight end and pre-season honorable mention All-American Matt Pizzaro leads the list of returnees on offense. A senior, Pizzaro had 31 catches for 336 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Junior quarterback Al Karaffa started all 11 contests and ended the season completing 54.8 percent of his pass attempts for 2,157 yards and 17 scores. Seniors Jim Jordan and Bo Tkach return at the wide receiver positions. Jordan led the team with 50 catches for 814 yards and five touchdowns, while Tkach had 29 catches for 403 yards and three scores. Both players earned second team All-Conference honors last season.
The Wilkes running game features senior Tom Andreopoulos. Andreopoulos toted the pigskin 156 times for 879 yards and seven TD’s. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 79.9 yards per game. Also returning to the starting unit is junior fullback Ryan Gallagher.
The Colonels offensive line is anchored by second team All-Conference selection Jordan Purdy. The junior guard is joined by a pair of sophomore tackles, Josh George and Angelo Marocco.
“We definitely have play-makers on offense,” said Sheptock. “But, we have to do a better job of getting the ball to these individuals. One of the keys for us is going to be maintaining a consistency that I feel we lacked at times last season. We need to do a better job of capitalizing on our scoring opportunities and must continue to take care of the football. We also need to develop some depth along the offensive line if we are going to continue to progress.”
The Wilkes defense welcomes back all but one starter from a season ago. The Colonels ranked among the Middle Atlantic Conference leaders in scoring defense allowing 19.1 points per game. The group also allowed only 332.6 yards per game in total offense. Opponents rushed for an average of 133.2 yards per game, while accumulating 199.5 yards per game through the air.
Leading the charge on defense will be junior linebacker Kyle Follweiler, who was named a pre-season All-American. Follweiler earned MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors a season ago after racking up 116 tackles, including 16 for loss. He also added two sacks and one interception during his sophomore campaign. For his efforts he was named a third team All-America by d3football.com. Senior linebacker Tyler Henninger, was a second team All-Conference honoree, ranked second on the team with 96 tackles. He had three sacks and one interception.
Senior Anthony Serafin, who was also named to the pre-season All-American team, leads the Colonels defensive line. Serafin earned first team All-MAC honors after finishing with 56 tackles and 20 tackles for loss. Second team All-Conference selection Jason Acquaye is also back. The junior had 34 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last fall. Senior Keith Cavallotti is another returnee on the defensive line. Cavallotti, a three-year starter, contributed 36 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2005.
Five seniors return as starters in the Wilkes secondary. John Darrah, a second team All-Conference selection last season, leads the group. Darrah, who has started each of his first three seasons, had 40 tackles and an interception a year ago. He is joined by Jake Grande, who ranked third on the team with 62 tackles and came away with three interceptions. Brock Snyder enjoyed a solid year after moving from quarterback to free safety. He finished the campaign with 45 stops and two interceptions. Mike Ferriero added 43 tackles and two interceptions, while Bryan Vivaldo chipped in with 38 tackles and one interception.
“Our biggest problem on defense last season was that we surrendered too many big plays,” commented Sheptock. “Our main goal this season is to concentrate and improve in the fundamental areas of tackling and shedding blocks. If we can do these things better I think that it will eliminate some of those big plays.”
Tkach will lead the Colonels on special teams after returning 29 punts for an average of 13.2 yards per return and a pair of touchdowns. He also averaged 23.1 yards per kick return. The kicking chores will fall on the shoulders of either senior Ryan Yurewicz or senior Kevin Keller. Both saw action a season ago when Yurewicz was successful on 2-of-5 field goal attempts and 24-of-28 extra point attempts, and.Keller converted 3-of-6 field goal attempts and 11-of-12 extra point tries.
“Special teams are going to be critical this season,” said Sheptock. “Last season our special teams did a great job of providing good field position and coming up with some big plays. We need to find a replacement for Kyle Devlin, who was very valuable to us as both our punter and as our kickoff man. That will be a focal point for us during the pre-season.”
Sheptock feels that the experience that the team gained a season ago can be a positive factor this season. “The NCAA appearance was a tremendously rewarding experience for our players and coaches. At the same time, it was also a very humbling experience. We accomplished a great deal, but learned that we still have room to grow and improve. The players have a great appreciation for how much hard work and preparation it took to get to that level and they felt a great sense of accomplishment in how much they improved throughout the course of the season.”
“Our goal this season is going to be the same as it has always been. We want to compete for the MAC title. In order to accomplish that goal we need to try and improve every day, and hopefully we will play our best football at the end of the season.”
Here is a look at the Colonels by position:
Karaffa has been the starter since the middle of his freshman season and has a 12-4 record as the starting signal-caller. Junior Jonathan Stroup, who appeared in six games last season, is also experienced. As a whole the quarterback position is deep, versatile and athletic.
Andreopoulos leads a solid group of players who will vie for time at the tailback position. Sophomore Jason Nabba saw action last season and scored five times on just 28 carries. Two other players, freshman Drew Letcavage, a transfer from William & Mary, and sophomore Kevin Drakes, who missed all of last season due to injury, will also compete for playing time.
The Colonels return their top two fullbacks from a season ago in Gallagher and junior Paul Signora. Sophomore Brian Lang will make the transition from the defensive side of the ball to fullback this fall and could also figure into the mix.
The Colonels top six wide receivers from 2005 return, including Jordan and Tkach. Also back is senior Stephon Burgette, sophomores Jason Prushinski and Gennaro Zangardi, and junior Randy Donato.
Pizarro leads a trio of veterans who are expected to see time at the tight end position this season. Junior Kyle Regner played in eight games last year and had one reception. Junior Rocky D’Aconti, who made the switch from wide receiver, will also push for time.
Purdy, George and Marocco should form a solid nucleus to build around up front. Among the candidates to fill the other two offensive line positions are five veterans who saw significant playing time last season. The group includes seniors Josh Hurlbutt and Dan Luskin, and sophomores Kyle Kutney, Don Fahringer and Geoff Michalesko.
Serafin, Cavallotti and Acquaye are expected to continue to provide leadership on the defensive line. Junior John Hunt and sophomore Luke Reidenauer gained experience last year and will figure into the scheme once again this fall. Junior Chris Applegate and sophomore Matt Archey have been moved to the defensive line and are expected to add depth.
Henninger and Follweiler have started together during each of the last two years and compliment each other well. Junior Kurt Dunbar and sophomore Tim Yeagley both saw playing time a season ago and will compete for playing time. Senior Frank Giammarino will also seek playing time after moving from defensive back.
With the return of Darrah, Grande, Snyder, Vivaldo and Ferriero the Colonels should be solid in the secondary. The depth is also outstanding with eight other veterans looking for playing time. Juniors Matt Mauro, Bob Sutjak, Dave Grega and Augusto Lombana, as well as sophomores Justin Friedel, Maximo Ortega, Ryan Holmes and Corey Tucker, round out the veteran group.
Yurewicz and Keller will battle it out for the kicking chores, although sophomore Mario Della Fortuna also has the ability to earn the job. Keller is the likely choice to take over as the team’s punter, while Matt Pizarro will once again handle the long-snapping chores. Tkach will be joined on the return unit by both Jordan and Darrah.