High-Powered Offense to Lead Amherst in 2009

2008 Recap
Amherst scored at least 30 points in each of its first two games last year to get off to an impressive 2-0 start, but for the third consecutive year Middlebury prevented the Lord Jeffs from improving to 3-0. The Panthers closed out the game with 17 unanswered points after the teams were notched at 17-17 at halftime. The Purple and White got back on track by outscoring opponents 64-12 in the next 10 quarters en route to three straight victories, putting them in position to contend for the NESCAC title.

Trailing 14-13 after three quarters during a key matchup with Trinity, Amherst once again let things slip away late as the Bantams piled on 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. With second place in the conference standings on the line, Amherst and Williams met the following Saturday in yet another instant classic. The Jeffs carried a 23-17 lead into the final quarter but had a blocked extra point come back to haunt them, as the visiting Ephs took a 24-23 lead and held on for the win.

Amherst featured the best offensive line in the NESCAC last year.

The Jeffs were ranked as high as No. 3 in the New England Division III Football Poll during the year, but they would finish at No. 10 and in a tie for third place in the conference standings. The Jeffs placed a conference-high four defensive players on the All-NESCAC First Team, with two offensive players also earning a spot on the First Team. Amherst featured Division III’s third best rush defense (60.9 ypg) and allowed a nation-low five sacks on the year. The Jeffs led the NESCAC in both categories, as well as in total defense (260.4 ypg) and sacks (26).

The Class of 2009 left enormous shoes to fill as one of the program’s most gifted groups of the past decade. The defense will need to replace an outstanding linebacker core of Travis Doering, Mike Flanagan, Preston Puryear, Guy Matisis, Pat Moriarty, Carson Reed, Jake Spadafora and Alex Widen. Notably, Matisis was a two-time All-NESCAC First Team selection and Spadafora was one of the team’s leading tacklers in each of his final three seasons. Other key losses on the defensive side of the ball are lineman Greg Smith—a 2007 All-NESCAC selection—and defensive back A.J. Scola. Scola was a two-time All-Conference honoree who finished his career with eight interceptions and led Amherst in solo tackles as a senior.

The offense takes just as big a hit with the loss of linemen Tim Rose, Sam Rudman, Justin Wiley and Jay Hebb, who last year formed arguably the best offensive line in the NESCAC. Rose and Wiley were each named to the All-NESCAC First Team and D3football All-Region Team last year, while Rudman was the conference’s lone offensive lineman to earn a spot on the ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District First Team. The 2008 o-line allowed only one sack through the first five games of the season.

Rounding out Amherst’s losses are running back Eric NeSmith and wide receiver Jim Eckenrode. A regular in the starting lineup since 2005, NeSmith finished his career with 1,576 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. NeSmith rushed for at least 300 yards in each of his four years, including a career-high 509 as a junior, and ran for three touchdowns three times. Eckenrode upped his receptions and receiving yards in each of his final three seasons, finishing his career with 589 yards and four touchdowns.

Once again taking the snaps for Amherst will be Alex Vetras, who last year finished third in the NESCAC in pass yards per game (233.6) as a sophomore. Vetras threw for at least one touchdown in each game, finishing the season with 1,869 yards, 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a completion percentage of 64.1. Vetras got off to a great start by completing 25 of 34 pass attempts for three touchdowns and 239 yards during a 30-6 win over Hamilton. Vetras also had multiple-touchdown games against Colby, Tufts and Trinity.

Head coach E.J. Mills is beyond confident in Vetras’ ability to lead Amherst this year, but he is also excited about sophomore backup quarterback Brian McMahon. With incredible quickness and the ability to do things differently from Vetras, McMahon may see significant time in order to give the Jeffs interesting options. Rounding out the quarterbacks are sophomores Blake Grauer and Mike Samela, and first-year Sean Berman.

Running back Aaron Rauh '10 was named to the All-NESCAC Second Team in 2008.

Running Backs
Amherst returns a pair of experienced running backs in senior Aaron Rauh and junior Femi Oyalowo, each of whom is expected to make a big impact this season. Rauh burst onto the NESCAC scene as a first-year by rushing for 470 yards and five touchdowns, outdoing himself the following year with 501 yards and six TDs. Rauh was named to the All-NESCAC Second Team last year for averaging 72.6 all-purpose yards per game and adding four touchdowns. Described by Mills as a Mack truck, Oyalowo packs a different punch than anyone Amherst will have to defend this season. Last year Oyalowo averaged 70.5 all-purpose yards per game, and this year will get more carries with the loss of NeSmith to graduation.

Sophomore Eric Bunker is an explosive running back who, along with junior Mark Seager, could play a significant role as a third option at running back. Amherst also welcomes a pair of promising backs in Oblaise Mercury and Chris Toppin.

Wide Receivers
Amherst is loaded with talented wide receivers this year, which, as Coach Mills notes, is never a bad thing. Highlighting the group is senior Brandon Bullock, a quick and elusive receiver who has been Amherst’s prime target for the past two seasons. After racking up 240 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore, Bullock landed on the All-NESCAC Second Team a year ago by catching a team-high 33 passes for 311 yards while leading the Jeffs in all-purpose yards per game (82.8).

Amherst’s junior class boasts three exceptional receivers in Brian Murphy, Sean Legister and Andre Gary, who last year combined for 70 catches, 695 yards and five touchdowns. Murphy—who Mills describes as the Energizer Bunny of the team—led Amherst in receiving yards (318) last year and was second in receptions (30). Legister matched Murphy’s two touchdowns from a year ago and came up just shy of 200 receiving yards as a physically gifted player with a great attitude. Gary is as dynamic as anyone in the conference, but last year he got hurt in the first game and missed a significant chunk of the season. Gary showed up for the Williams game, however, and caught eight passes for 109 yards, including a 29-yard reception that gave Amherst the lead in the third quarter.  

The sophomore class is also promising. Brothers Andrew and Will Reed combined for 15 catches, 115 yards and a touchdown last year and will factor into the mix this season. Kevin Heller is a tremendous athlete with great potential, while Luke Zambetti and Arlen Greenberg will add even more depth to the impressive group. Rounding out the upperclassmen is junior Dan Pozner, who will hope to battle through knee problems after making the jump from quarterback to receiver. Mills is also excited about first-years Robert Johnson and James Durham, with Justin Ramos, Austin Capaviella, Thomas Matthew and Malcolm McClain also joining the team.

Offensive Line
The loss of last year’s seniors has left some big holes to fill on the offensive line, but Coach Mills is confident in this year’s group despite being thin in numbers. Junior Rick Morgan has always been a talented player but has been too small to play on the o-line, which is not the case this year. Morgan, who has bumped his weight to 260 pounds, will line up at center this season. Senior Wyatt Moss returns as a starting guard but will switch to the left side, while junior Marcus Richtel has crossed over from the defensive line and should excel at right guard.  

The tackle positions create the biggest question mark for the o-line. Sophomore Ian Mahoney is a very skilled player who has improved greatly from just a year ago and should fill the hole at left tackle. Competing for a starting role will be junior Pat Sugrue and sophomores Rob Moran and Alex Stone, each of whom Coach Mills feels is ready to step in. Amherst also welcomes four promising first-years to the offensive line in John Ceccio, Jack Reynolds, Matt Reilly and Joe Moffitt. Returning as tight ends are senior Dan Savage and junior Charlie Pratt, with first-year Tom Holahan joining the squad. Mills is confident in the talent level of his o-line but notes that it will be important for the players to gel together as a unit as last year’s did.

Eric Pender '10 will serve as a team captain after earning All-NESCAC First Team honors as a junior.

Defensive Line
Amherst will feature one of the best one-two punches on the defensive line in seniors Eric Pender and Edwin Urey. Pender—one of the team’s captains—and Urey were each named to the All-NESCAC First Team as juniors, with Pender also earning a NESCAC and ECAC Defensive Player of the Week nod for his performance against Colby. Pender’s 48 total tackles last year were the second most on the team, with he and Urey each recording 7.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks.

Taking over for Smith at nose guard will be junior Tom Grossi—a 300-pound monster with whom opposing teams will struggle—with junior Chris Eaton serving as a solid backup. Also expected to contribute on the d-line are junior Isaac Rowner, sophomore Kevin Ferber and junior Brady Benelli. Mills is particularly excited about Ferber, who has the speed of a defensive back. Amherst also welcomes first-years Sam Perlow and Matt Sponheimer.

Senior Mike Taylor leads a young group of linebackers this season. After totaling 33 tackles as a sophomore, Taylor intercepted three passes last season while leading the Jeffs in total tackles (59) and pass breakups (6). He and junior Brandon Quinn, who had 28 total tackles last season, return to the starting lineup as a solid duo. Promising backups on the inside are sophomore Greg Kutzin and first-years Lou Jacoubs, Rob Kuehne and Travis Dickenson.  

Amherst welcomes to the team this year Jeff Katz, a transfer student from Division I Lafayette College. Katz played in 16 games in his two seasons with the Leopards and is expected to provide valuable experience to an outside linebacker core that consists of no seniors. Coach Mills also expects big things from sophomore Trevor Rappa, who had a terrific offseason and will be asked to step into a leading role. Also seeing time on the outside will be sophomores Jordan Phillips, Mark Petros and Read Servis, with first-year Sam Clark also factoring into the mix.

Defensive Backs
Forming an outstanding trio of returning starters are senior defensive backs Chris Govey, Fran Florio and Fred Argir, who each had at least 30 tackles a year ago while combining for eight interceptions. Argir led the group in total tackles (38) and breakups (6) as a junior, with Florio and Govey each picking off three passes. Backing up Govey will be senior Vincent DiForte, with sophomore Doug Gebhardt playing behind Argir.

Competing for a starting role are sophomore Gordie Lockbaum and junior Nick Edwards, each of whom saw significant playing time last year. Sophomore Evan Rosenstein joins this impressive group of backs, with first-year Landrus Lewis showing promise as a dynamic athlete. Rounding out the group are first-years Robbie Heflin and Jordan Leites.

Senior Matt Eberhart has taken 26 of Amherst’s past 29 field goal attempts as a regular in the Lord Jeffs’ kicking game since 2006. He is a combined 11-for-15 in his past two seasons and has connected on seven of 10 attempts from 30 to 39 yards in his career. Eberhart also handled 39 of the team’s 41 punts last year and will likely return to that role. Despite Eberhart’s experience, there is open competition this preseason between him and sophomore Matt Rawson, who last year handled 22 of Amherst’s 38 kickoffs.

Matt Eberhart '10 handled 39 of the team's 41 punts in 2008.

Return Specialists
Handling the majority of kickoff returns last year were Femi Oyalowo, Brandon Bullock and Gordie Lockbaum, each of whom averaged more than 20 yards per return. Oyalowo led the way by returning 10 kicks for 279 yards, with his most impressive coming when it mattered most. After Williams tied the game at 17-17 late in the third quarter last year, Oyalowo returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards to the Ephs’ 15-yard line, which resulted in a go-ahead touchdown.

Brian Murphy was Amherst’s go-to guy on punt returns last year, but Coach Mills would like another player to step into that role and take the load off Murphy’s shoulders. Landrus Lewis is a strong candidate who has shown interest in filling that hole.

Season Outlook
The two biggest holes left from last year’s seniors are at the offensive line and linebacker positions, but Coach Mills is confident in this year’s group’s ability to step up and fill the void. If the o-line can get into a rhythm early on, the Jeffs have the firepower to boast one of the best offensive games in the NESCAC. A proven quarterback, endless supply of talented receivers and outstanding one-two running back punch could lead to big points for Amherst this year. The defense will be just as impressive with a pair of All-NESCAC First Team linemen and an incredible group of defensive backs leading the way.

The Jeffs outscored opponents 30-7 in the first quarter in 2008, but they will need to work on closing out games after letting too many slip away late last year. Amherst will also need to decrease its turnover rate from a year ago, as the Jeffs turned the ball over 21 times compared to only 13 by their opponents. If they stay healthy, the Jeffs could make a legitimate run at their first NESCAC title since they shared the crown in 2000. The 2009 season opens Saturday, Sept. 26 at Hamilton.