NORTHFIELD, Vt. – When Mark Murnyack became Norwich University's 29th head football coach last winter, he knew he wouldn't have to make many changes.
"(Former coach Shawn) McIntyre has a good system in place," he said. "Norwich football is a strong tradition. Our staff just wants to continue to move forward with it … to resume the success."
Murnyack has a bonus of familiarity with the Cadets. He's served the program in various assistant roles off and on since 1997 with a return to his alma mater of Juniata College in Pennsylvania added in.
Due to that, his philosophy rings true with previous Norwich teams. "We'll be looking to run first on offense and stop the run and create turnovers on defense," Murnyack said. "If we can do those things and have some ball security, we'll be in a situation to win games."
Running the controls of an offense that was a leader in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference and among the top 10 in NCAA Division III a year ago is junior quarterback Kris Sabourin. A former ECFC co-Rookie and Offensive Player of the Year, Murnyack and his staff have expectations after he averaged 96.2 yards per game rushing and 102.5 yards per game passing in 2010.
"Kris is 16-4 as a starter," Murnyack noted. "He has been through this before and understands where the program wants to be. It'll be great having his experience and leadership on offense."
Behind him, in the Maroon and Gold backfield, is more depth. Senior Andrew Fulford and junior Danny Triplett each earned all-ECFC honors with Fulford gaining first team honors and Triplett selected to the second team. Fulford went for over 1,000 yards a year ago, while Triplett was just shy of 500.
"With those three in the backfield, we have many options in the running game," Murnyack said. "We will have to do some work up front, but I like what we have coming into camp."
The front crew is anchored by senior co-captain and returning second team all-ECFC honoree Rob Sturgis at center, senior Jay Brooks at one of the tackle slots and junior Shawn Southworth at a guard position. "We will have five sophomores vying for the remaining openings on the line," Murnyack said. "When you graduate seven senior offensive linemen, you know you will have some youth the following season. I think each of those sophomores and possibly some new faces are capable of stepping in."
In regards to Sabourin's possible targets in the passing game, Murnyack pointed to seniors Adrian Dantzler and Jason Hill, sophomores Brandon Rudd and Zach Kelleher and freshman Derek Pitts as early candidates at the wide outs. "Adrian has plenty of game experience, while Jason has been on the field off and on as well," he said. "Brendan has plenty of upside due to his speed which we will also use in the return game, while Zach could easily move in at a slot, and Derek looked very strong in spring ball when he came to campus late last year." At the tight end position, as similar to the offensive line, two new faces will be involved in junior Dennis Pritchard and sophomore Zach Maysonet, as the Cadets graduated six seniors at the spot last year.
Defensively, a large share of the unit that led the ECFC in rushing (105.55 yards per game) and scoring (18.36 points per game) for a second straight year in 2010 is back.
"We will have to address an opening at one of the inside linebacker spots, but otherwise, every other position has someone back," Murnyack said.
Up front, junior nose guard Matt Simonelli heads the list. He'll be joined by seniors Brandon Fowler and Joe Munno at the ends. "All three played a lot last year and during their careers," Murnyack mentioned. "Matt has a great motor and good size at 240, while Brandon and Joe complement him well. Joe really did a big service a year ago stepping in when (graduated senior) Chris Roberto got hurt."
Norwich's four linebacker slots fall to senior co-captain Joe Gumberwicz, a former ECFC defensive player of the year, senior Jason Springer, junior Lou Delgado and a new face. Gumberwicz led the "D" with 55.5 tackles, 13 tackles for losses and six sacks. Springer has a strong pedigree as well having been an Empire 8 Rookie of Year when Norwich played in that league during his freshman campaign. Delgado is a two-time letterman on special teams that is ready to step in.
"We've got a strong group here," Murnyack said. "I like our young guys, too. You could see sophomores Brandon Carroll, John Toronto and Kerry Gaspard included as well as Steven Gilmore, Jimmy LaBell and Andy Mangin with some possible freshmen coming in from time to time."
The defensive backfield is just as stout. Despite the loss to unit leader Charles Stiles due to graduation, Murnyack and his staff are looking to senior Sean Stone to lead the way as defensive signal caller. "Stoney had a huge junior year (46.5 tackles and four interceptions)," the head coach said. "He did a great job replacing former two-year team MVP and former ECFC and ECAC all-league honoree Donovan Brown, one of the best in the program, last year."
Stone is joined by senior Colby LeClerc at safety, while four options at cornerback include sophomore Nael Pierre-Louis, senior Jeremy Little, sophomore Darius Silas and sophomore Danny Gogan. "There is a lot of on-field experience and speed there," Murnyack said.
"Overall, I think the defense is in a good situation, but we do need to develop depth," he added. "Some of the young guys will be called upon to step in."
Along special teams' lines, Murnyack has the foot of senior returning ECFC Special Teams Player of the Year Long Ding to rely on. Ding will be the early leader in place-kicking and punting. "Special teams are shaping up, but we also need to find some depth there," Murnyack said.
NOTES – The Cadets' 118th year on the gridiron opens Saturday, Sept. 3, with a 1 p.m. kickoff at Western New England College. The following weekend, Sabine Field's slate begins with 2010 NCAA Division III playoff representative St. Lawrence visiting for another 1 p.m. start. … Norwich has reeled off back-to-back eight-win campaigns, going 8-3 in both 2009 and 2010.