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After suffering through a gut-wrenching 4-6 season a year ago, Wilkes University head coach Frank Sheptock feels like he has the offensive firepower and a re-vamped defense to contend for the MAC crown.
Although the Colonels finished under .500 for the first time since 2001, four of the six losses came by a combined seven points. “We need to find a way to win close games,” Sheptock said. “For some reason we couldn’t do that last year. We lost six games by a combined 24 points.”
Sheptock hopes that his seven returning starters on offense grew from their experience last year of not being able to win the close game. “Last year was a tremendously big learning experience as a program. We were competitive, but we tried very hard in the spring to instill things like maturity and resilience.”
Of the seven returning starters, four will be on the offensive line in which Sheptock will rely heavily on to not only support his running game, but his passing game as well. Sheptock has plenty of depth to go around on the offensive front as four others have started a handful of games at some point throughout their time at Wilkes.
The four starters returning on the offensive line include Josh George, a 6-6, 275-pound senior, Joseph Lemoncelli, a 6-1, 255-pound sophomore, Matt Jackosky, 6-2, 260-pound junior and Mike McAloon, a 6-2, 260-pound junior. The four returnees will anchor the line for sophomore Alex Pearson, who is the lone returning starter in the backfield after leading the team in rushing with 545 yards on 147 carries while scoring six touchdowns in seven games.
Jamar Beverly will also see time in the backfield after appearing in seven games last season where he ran for 210 yards on 70 carries while reaching the end zone three times. “We have some excellent depth at the tailback position and with an experienced line in front of them, I look for our running game to be really strong this year,” Sheptock said.
Not only are the Colonels strong in the backfield, but Jason Prushinksi and Gennaro Zangardi, the two top receivers from a year ago, return to add to the offensive depth. “Our running game should be really strong this year and we will rely heavily on it, but we need to have more balance in our offense. We have our top returning receivers back which will allow us to throw the ball,” Sheptock said.
The only question mark Sheptock has about his offense, but perhaps the biggest one, is at the quarterback position. Gone is Al Karaffa, who was a four-year starter and nearly set the school mark for career passing yards. Other than Rob Johnson, no other quarterback has started a collegiate game.
On the other side of the ball, Sheptock will orchestrate one of the youngest defensive units he has had in his 12 years at the helm. Five starters return from a team that gave up 235 yards a game, including just 53 yards per contest. “It will be an interesting year for us on defense. We will be the youngest we have ever been,” Sheptock said.
The defensive front will have just one retuner in senior Tim Yeagley. Last year, the 6-1, 221-pound defensive end was tied for third on the team in tackles with 45 that included 14 tackles for loss, a team-high seven sacks, three pass break ups and a forced fumble.
Also returning for his final season is 6-0, 210-pound linebacker Corey Tucker. With his 47 tackles, five-and-a-half sacks, he will be called upon to anchor the defense.
The defensive backfield will be highlighted by returning starters Corey Gilroy, Darius Harrison and Justin Friedel. Gilroy appeared in nine games picking up 23 tackles and one interception while Harrison 19 tackles and three interceptions. Friedel returns to his safety position after picking up 45 tackles, 30 of which were solo, in 10 games.
“I am excited about our team this year. We have a good degree of athleticism as a group,” Sheptock said. He and the rest of the Colonels will start the season on Sept. 6 when they head to Allentown to take on Muhlenberg, followed by a Sept. 13 date with Montclair State in Montclair, N.J. The home opener will come against Christopher Newport after on Sept. 27 before the conference opener against Lebanon Valley on Oct. 4.