If you only need a snowball to start an avalanche, John Troxell must be feeling pretty good about his prospects in 2008. Limping into the final three games at 1-6 in 2007, Troxell’s young squad arrived at a crossroads. One path would have been to pack it in. The other was to press on and play for pride. The Diplomats chose the latter and closed the 2007 season with three straight wins.
“We’ve got a little momentum going,” said Troxell. “We need to use that streak as the foundation for success going forward.”
Troxell will go forward into 2008 with 18 of his starters from 2007 – nine on either side of the football. Amongst the four positions that need to be filled, none is more apparent than the quarterback spot, vacated by the graduation of Kyle Turner, who threw for 4,773 yards in two-years as a starter.
Sophomore Jeff Hogan will compete with a crew of freshmen to fill the void. Hogan only threw 12 passes in 2007, completing three of them for 20 yards. The Wyckoff, N.J., native was an All-County selection playing at Ramapo two seasons ago. Hogan made strides in the spring, and now has good command of the Diplomats’ playbook. That, combined with his arm strength makes him the frontrunner for the job as the season approaches, but he will not be unchallenged.
John Harrison, a graduate of La Salle College High School, holds several passing records in Philadelphia, and piled up the second most yards and touchdowns in the city’s record books. The Maxwell Award winner will give Hogan healthy competition for the post, as will fellow freshman and local product, Mark Mellinger.Â¬â€
Mellinger sat behind Pennsylvania Player of the Year and current Pitt Panther Pat Bostick. He started as a senior for Manheim Township, but lost most of the year to injury. He still managed to throw for 486 yards and five touchdowns on 27 completions over the first two games of the season and should be in the mix to take the first snap come September 6.
Regardless of who is tossing the ball, the to-be-named quarterback will not suffer from a shortage of viable targets. The receiving corps returns intact and features three playmaking targets capable of running by corners on deep routes and turning a five-yard dump into a big play.
George Eager led all Centennial Conference receivers in catches in 2007, hauling in 70 passes for 766 yards and eight touchdowns to earn All-Centennial Second Team honors. His high school teammate at Manheim Township, sophomore Jay Ridinger, was second on the squad in receptions with 42 catches in 2007. He posted 519 yards and found paydirt six times on the season. Paul Sousa, the Diplomats’ leading receiver in 2006, caught 26 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown last year. Fellow senior Mike Wood emerged as a possession receiver with a knack for timely catches in 2007.
Freshman, Jarrell Diggs, is expected to contribute from the outset. The Baltimore Touchdown Club All-Star and All-MIAA selection is a five-tool receiver offering hands, speed, size, smarts and desire.
Three tight ends who saw significant playing time last year also return to the roster. Stew Ryan caught seven passes for 94 yards, while Matt Jenschke contributed the only touchdown from the position group last year. Michael Deutch was also heavily involved in the running game. That trio will join in the blocking scheme with an offensive line that lost just one player to graduation in two-time All-Centennial pick Brian Rice.
Returning up front are seniors Dan Muller, Steve Paveglio and Pat Boyle, along with sophomores Clarke Miller and Kiah Gidron. All five started at least a pair of games last year. In 2007, the group of mostly first-year starters cleared the way for a committee in the backfield that suffered from injuries or inexperience, but emerged as a dominant force in the latter half of the season with a healthy Ryan Murray running behind them.
Murray, who was hampered by a leg injury early in the season, rushed for over 100 yards in each of F&M’s final three games, surpassing the 200 yard mark in two of those games. In the season finale, he pounded out school records of 240 yards and five touchdowns, including a 50 yard jaunt into the end zone. Murray combines speed and power, and is a viable threat out of the backfield, having caught 19 passes for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
First year Allan Williams will also see time at tailback. The Kentucky product posted ridiculous numbers on the prep level with school career records of 5,021 yards rushing, 2,200 yards receiving, and 88 touchdowns. The three-time All-State selection tied for ninth in total touchdowns in all-time high school football history, and boasts a career per-rush average of just under 10 yards per carry.
Classmate John Kaschak is also expected to contribute at tailback. The New Jersey native was a First Team All-Morris County, All-Area, and All-Conference selection. A sprinter on the track and field team, Kaschak set school records in the 55 meter, 100 meter and 200 meter dashes.
Second-year fullback Lorenzo Daughtry-Chambers will return at fullback. He was good for 3.3 yards per carry on his 56 rushes last year and caught 12 passes for 64 yards. He is a relentless blocker who will deliver a blow to opposing linebackers.
The team’s lone captain Andrew Rocks will lead an experienced defensive unit. The four-year starter was fifth on the team in tackles from his spot on the line and piled up five sacks for losses totaling 25 yards. That effort earned him All-Centennial Honorable Mention.
Alex Pastore, an athletic lineman who makes good use of his hands to separate from blocks, joins Rocks up front. The third-year starter recorded 18 stops in 2006, including a sack. He also broke up a pass.
Powis Forjoe, Mark Surma, Oliver Tingling and Jackson Whitmore will battle for the final starting position up front. All of them showed promise in the spring.
All four starters return at linebacker. Two-time All-Centennial pick James Gregory will be joined on the inside by Zach Romash. Shane Gray and Mike Clark will flank them on the outside.
Gregory was fourth in the Centennial in stops last year with 87 tackles. That included 47 solo stops and 10 for losses of 29 yards. He also broke up six passes. Romash was second to Gregory on the team in tackles with 82 stops. That ranked him seventh in the league in tackles. He forced two fumbles, recovered three, picked up two sacks and batted down three passes. Coming off an impressive spring, sophomore James Freeman will look for increased playing time in 2008. He saw time in seven contests last year, making four tackles including a sack.
Clark missed the 2007 season with an injury, but posted 39 tackles including seven for losses of 22 yards in 2006. A sophomore, Gray started from the outset a year ago. He put up 29 tackles including a pair of sacks. He further disrupted the opposition’s passing game with six deflections and an interception.
Converted fullback Lewie Briggs will battle with Byron Avery to spell Clark and Gray on the outside. Avery had 17 tackles in 2007 to go along with a forced fumble and a recovered fumble.
Three starters return in the secondary from last year. Jeff Liberatore and Barry Lovett will hold down the corners, while former corner Jeff Kellar returns from an outstanding season at safety. Liberatore showed improvement in every contest as a first-year starter, finishing the season with seven pass breakups and an interception. He posted 35 tackles, forced and recovered a fumble in 2007.
Lovett, who returned to the roster after a year’s layoff, was nicked up throughout the season, but showed his athletic prowess and potential talent over the stretch of the final three games. He defended six passes and recorded an interception down the stretch.
Kellar is a threat to any passing game with his athletic ability at safety. He knocked down seven passes, picked off three more, and returned one interception for a touchdown in 2007. Additionally, he was fourth on the team in tackles, dropping the ball carrier 61 times.
Sophomore Drew Hutcheon is likely to line up at the other safety spot. He showed improved speed, strength and knowledge of the defense in the spring. As a first year, he posted six tackles, three of which were solo stops.
The Diplomats return all of their specialists from a season ago. Eager and Ridinger are a dangerous return tandem on kickoffs. Eager averaged 20.1 yards per return, while Ridinger gained 18 on each return. Eager also handled punt return duties in 2007, averaging 8.1 yards per return with a season long of 48 yards.
Jeff Hogan and Chris Minck will again share the punting duties. Hogan got the bulk of the work in 2007 handling 52 of the 71 punts on the year. His season average of 32.0 yards per punt is deceitful. He left 11 punts inside of the 20-yardline while rolling just one into the end zone. Ten of his punts had sufficient hangtime to force a fair catch. Minck averaged 31.5 yards per attempt with one landing inside of the 20 and six being fair caught.
Paul Sousa will continue to handle the placekicking duties with a range of about 40-yards. He hit on four of six attempts a year ago including a career long of 40 yards at Johns Hopkins. He clicked on 20 of 22 extra point tries.
With a bevy of returning starters across the board and on a slight swell of momentum, Troxell is eager to get the 2008 campaign underway. His eagerness is curbed only by his real concerns about depth.
“The strides we have made as a program are still fragile,” cautions Troxell. “Our total roster is still a bit smaller than we would ideally have it, and we aren’t deep in terms of experience at several positions.”
Still, Troxell is undaunted.
“We are poised to make a serious run at the Centennial Conference. Health will be a factor, but it is more a matter of maintaining that attitude that we saw over the final three games.”