The Wilkes University football team is excited to begin defense of their Middle Atlantic Conference championship. The Colonels, who went through the regular season unbeaten, ended the 2006 campaign with an overall record of 11-1, which included their second straight trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs. Wilkes was ranked 12th in the final AFCA Division III Top-25 Poll.
The Colonels, who are ranked 13th in the Street & Smith Division III Pre-Season Top-25 Poll, will have to replace 11 starters from a season ago. However, head coach Frank Sheptock has a solid group to work with thanks to the return of 57 lettermen.
“We do have a lot of question marks heading into camp,” stated Sheptock. “But, I feel very good about the overall athleticism of our team. The skill areas on both sides of the ball will be a key for us. We need to find playmakers on both sides and we need to make the adjustments as a coaching staff to put those players in a position to be successful.”
The Wilkes offense returns seven starters from last season’s squad that averaged 339.7 yards and 26.2 points per game. The Colonels balanced attack piled up 165.8 rushing yards and 173.8 yards per game through the air last fall.
Senior quarterback Al Karaffa, who was a first team All-MAC and All-ECAC selection, will steer the offense. Karaffa completed 59.4 percent of his aerial attempts for 1,966 yards and 17 touchdowns last. Sophomore Drew Letcavage, who will move from running back to tight end this season, is the team’s top returning receiver after nabbing 15 passes as a rookie.
Wilkes will have two experienced fullbacks in seniors Ryan Gallagher, who was a second team All-MAC selection, and Paul Signora. They also return senior tight end Kyle Regner, who was a key component in the Colonels run to a championship in 2006.
The offensive line returns five of their top six players from a year ago, including four starters. Senior Jordan Purdy will anchor the unit that allowed only 27 sacks in 12 games last season. Purdy was named a second team All-American by the Football Gazette, while also gaining first team All-MAC and All-ECAC honors. Junior Josh George, who was named to the All-MAC second team, is back for his third season as a starter.
“We have a great nucleus to build around offensively,” commented Sheptock. “With Al at quarterback we have a great leader and proven winner. We have an outstanding group of offensive linemen to rely on and two fullbacks in Gallagher and Signora that give us an added physical presence, as does Regner, who did a great job in our two tight end set last season.”
“I am anxious to see what happens at the tailback and wide receiver positions,” said Sheptock. “We have great talent at both positions, so it is really a matter of whether or not we can be consistent and maintain a level of play that will help us to succeed.”
The Wilkes defense will have to replace seven starters from last season’s team that was among the best in the nation. The Colonels surrendered a mere 205.6 yards, including only 61.0 yards rushing, and 8.7 points per game to rank first in the MAC in all three categories.
Two-time All-American Kyle Follweiler is back for his fourth season as a starter at linebacker. Follweiler, who is a three-time first team All-MAC selection and a two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year, was named the ECAC Defensive Player of the Year last season after racking up 102 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Seniors Jason Acquaye and Erik VanGilst return on the defensive line. Acquaye, who had 45 tackles and eight sacks, was selected to the All-MAC first team after earning second team honors as a sophomore. VanGilst contributed 19 tackles, 12 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage, and 4.5 sacks last season.
The lone starter returning in the secondary is sophomore Corey Gilroy. Gilroy was credited with 25 tackles last season and helped Wilkes lead the MAC in turnover margin by picking off four passes and recovering a fumble.
“We took a tremendous hit on the defensive side of the ball due to graduation,” said Sheptock. “Despite that I believe that we have the potential to be outstanding defensively. We return a lot of players who saw significant playing time last season so hopefully they will be ready to take on additional responsibilities this season.”
The Colonels special teams were also hit hard by graduation, with only junior punter Mario Della Fortuna returning this season. Della Fortuna enjoyed a solid sophomore season when he averaged 35.6 yards last season and was able to drop the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line 23 times.
“Mario did a great job punting the ball last season,” stated Sheptock. “He created positive field position for us and we are very pleased with his development. How we are going to handle our place kicking and kickoffs will be a focus during the pre-season. We were also very senior oriented in our return game, so we will need to address that area.”
Sheptock is hoping that the momentum from last season will continue into the new campaign. “We are going to try and focus on what it takes to get to November with a chance to win the MAC title. The experience of earning consecutive NCAA playoff berths will hopefully pay dividends this year.”
COLONELS BY POSITION
Karaffa assumed the starting chores midway through his freshman season and has led Wilkes to a 23-5 record as the starter. Fellow senior Jonathan Stroup has also gained experience and completed 7-of-12 passes for 91 yards last season.
The Colonels will have to replace the 1,285 yards and 12 touchdowns that Tom Andreopoulos contributed last season. Sophomore Kevin Drakes is the most experienced tailback after seeing action in eight games last season. Three other sophomores will also vie for time including Zack Latourette, who played in three contests as a freshman, Corey Carter, who makes the move from wide receiver to tailback this year, and Sean Madden, who transferred to Wilkes from Iona College.
One of the strengths of the offense should be the fullback position thanks to the return of both Gallagher and Signora. The duo combined to pave the way for a rushing attack that piled up 22 touchdowns last season.
Wilkes will have to find replacements for their top two wide outs from a season ago. Among the candidates who will compete for the starting spots are seniors Randy Donato and Gil Flores, juniors Jason Prushinski and Philip Cimilluca, and sophomores Gennaro Zangardi and John Noon.
Regner and Letcavage will be among the players who will vie for time at the tight end position. Also expected to push for time on the field are senior Rocky D’Aconti and sophomore Eli Hollock.
Purdy, who plays right guard, and George, who occupies the right tackle spot, are not the only experienced lineman returning up front this year. Junior Angelo Marocco returns as the starter at left guard, while sophomore Matt Jackosky earned the starting nod at left tackle as a rookie. Junior Kyle Kutney, who saw ample playing time at center, and sophomore Tim Partridge, who gained experience at the guard position, will also figure into the mix.
Acquaye and VanGilst will provide a plethora of experience on the defensive line. Wilkes will also welcome back four other players who could figure prominently into their plans. Seniors Rex Harris, who had four sacks, and Jonathon Lazarchik had 12 tackles each last fall. Junior Matt Archey, who had nine stops and one sack, and junior Chris Applegate are also expected to vie for starting berths.
Follweiler has been the team’s top tackler during each of his first three seasons and enters the year with 303 career tackles. Others who are expected to compete for playing time include senior Kurt Dunbar, junior Tim Yeagley and sophomore Zach Pizarro. Dunbar had nine stops and two sacks as a junior, Yeagley contributed 18 tackles and one interception, while Pizarro was credited with six tackles.
Seven players who saw plenty of action last season will look to join Gilroy in the starting lineup this season. The list includes seniors David Grega, Augusto Lombana, Matt Mauro and Bob Sutjak, and juniors Justin Friedel, Ryan Holmes and Corey Tucker.
Della Fortuna will handle the punting chores once again this season, while sophomore Nick Genuardi will battle for the starting role as the place kicker.