HARRISONBURG — The way his team played near the end of last season has given New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell good reason for optimism heading into this one.
McDonnell and company missed the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2003 last year, ending a string of 14 consecutive appearances.
“Unfortunately, over the last bunch of years, people kept talking about the streak and everything that was coming with it,” McDonnell said. “And I think you got to focus on the task at hand, one game at a time and when we’ve been through it good, that’s what we’ve done. We don’t worry about postseason and we’ve just been a good football team when we’ve played for that day.”
And while preparing for his 21st season at the helm of the Wildcats, McDonnell, now the longest tenured coach in the Colonial Athletic Association after former William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock’s retirement, said he thinks the upperclassmen in his program understand that systematic idea.
New Hampshire finished 4-7 overall and 3-5 in the league last year, but won three of its final four contests including a 35-24 home whipping of James Madison in a game the Wildcats led by as many as 25 points.
The Dukes host New Hampshire at Bridgeforth Stadium this season on Nov. 9.
“Just looking at that momentum swing going into the winter, I think a lot of guys felt that we were getting back,” McDonnell said.
Including the players in his secondary, which McDonnell tabbed as the strength of his team.
The Wildcats return All-CAA second team safety Pop Lacey to headline a group also featuring fellow safety Evan Horn and cornerbacks Isaiah Perkins and Prince Smith. Lacey, Horn and Smith all had interceptions in the win over JMU and Horn returned his pick 75 yards for a touchdown. All four have at least two seasons of starting experience, and McDonnell said sophomore safety Pop Bush is an emerging talent, too.
“They’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of understanding,” McDonnell said. “They’re good football players and I think they’ll set the tone for the defense back there while also helping in run support, helping us in coverage and in everything we need to do.”
With that many seasoned players in the defensive backfield as well as at linebacker with All-CAA second teamer Quinlen Dean, a senior who had 79 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles in 2018, and Mike Balsamo, another senior who tallied 35 tackles last year, the defense is ahead of schedule.
Over the last four games of this past season, UNH gave up only 14.5 points per contest.
“They understand the scheme, the system and, more importantly, know how to practice the way we need to practice to become a good football team,” McDonnell said. “And if they do a great job, because we’ve got a bunch of young kids in the program who won’t have to play major roles unless somebody gets hurt, those kids will get to see how it’s done the right way and how we practice, how you play, how you prepare, how you watch film and I think it’s really important for us as a program to keep developing that bounce that took us into the offseason after those last couple of games.”
Where the Wildcats reset is the quarterback position.
Former three-year starter Trevor Knight graduated, leaving McDonnell with a three-man race to fill the job.
McDonnell said sophomore Tommy Herion, who played behind Knight last season, in addition to redshirt freshman Bret Edwards and true freshman Max Brosmer are all still involved in the competition. Brosmer was an early enrollee during the spring.
“Herion is a great little leader,” McDonnell said. “He’s got a feel for the game of football, and he’s not as dynamic or explosive as Edwards and Brosmer, but he’s got a knack and that you just can’t put a price tag on.
“All three are different types of players and I think it’s going to take all summer, 20 practices into fall camp to figure who the starter is going to be going into the opener.”
Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, the offense won’t be dependent on the passing game at least early in the year since the UNH has a trio of running backs — Carlos Washington Jr., Evan Gray and Dylan Laube — McDonnell wants to lean on.
Washington carried 99 times for 582 yards and six touchdowns in his first season with the program and was a two-time CAA Rookie of the Week last year. The power back, Gray, fought through injuries last fall, but has played in 37 career games while Laube is a redshirt freshman McDonnell compares to former UNH standout running back Dalton Crossan.
“And then I’m also excited about [wide receiver] Malik Love,” McDonnell said. “He’s a kid that played for us and we missed him probably as much as we missed anything last year in a lot of different ways. He pulled his hamstring in preseason camp and pulled it again in the Colorado game and then missed the rest of the year, so he’s a kid I’m counting on for senior leadership at the wide receiver position.
“But with Washington and Gray, I think it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback having to make plays and allows us to put the ball in the hands of our skill kids, which is something we always work hard to do at New Hampshire and that’s spreading the wealth and having the quarterback be the distributor.”
UNH opens its season on Sept. 7 against Holy Cross.