LEWISTON, Maine — Coming off of their best season since 2002 at 3-5, the Bates football team certainly has the potential to maintain its upward trajectory in 2012. Saturday at Trinity College begins what may prove to be one of the most entertaining seasons of Bates College football in years. Here's a look at why.
Familiarity and stability on a coaching staff can do a lot for a football team. Now in his 15th season as Bates' head coach, Mark Harriman is in his third year as Bates' quarterbacks coach as well. It's also the third year of Bates' triple option offense, and Daryle Weiss's third year as offensive coordinator, in addition to his offensive line coaching responsibilities. Seventh-year assistant coach Chris Kempton is also in his third year as Bates' defensive coordinator, and 16th-year defensive line coach Skip Capone is in his third season as Bates' special teams coordinator. Duncan Averill is in his third year as Bates' defensive backs and strength and conditioning coach. Mark Clements enters his second season on Bates' staff, and has moved from coaching receivers to slotbacks. Newcomers to Bates' staff are Brett McAllister '12 (outside linebackers), a standout at outside linebacker for the past four seasons at Bates, and Mark Dupuis (wide receivers).
The ingredients are there for what could be Bates' all-around best offense since Sean Atkins scored seven touchdowns against Bowdoin in 2002:
Quarterback Trevor Smith enters his senior season after taking a leap forward in his junior year — his first full eight-game season, though he had played in 11 games combined as a freshman and sophomore. Obstacles in the path of Smith's career thus far have included an appendix removal, time-sharing with former teammate Ryan Katon '12 in his first two seasons, and the installment of Bates' triple-option offense, which began in 2010 and altered Smith's responsibilities from being mostly a dropback QB to being a quick decision-maker on virtually every snap — not just the passing plays.
Smith ranked third in the NESCAC in total offense, with a Bates record 1,688 yards (1,501 passing, 187 rushing). Though in Bates' offense he'll probably never throw as much as other QBs in the conference, he still ranked fifth in pass efficiency in the league (115.8), completing 140 of 253 passes (55.3%) for 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 1,501 yards. Strong-armed sophomore Matt Cannone is Smith's backup.
Senior running back Patrick George, the team's lone captain, has rushed for 845 yards and 11 touchdowns in three years, including 465 and six with a 3.9 yards-per-carry average in 2011, all career bests. The tackle-busting inside runner has a nice backup in senior Teddy Downs, who rushed 34 times in 2011 for 178 yards, a 5.2 average.
Junior Ryan Curit leads an intriguing and athletic group of slotbacks on the offense. Curit emerged as one of the NESCAC's premier running and receiving threats, finishing the year ninth in all-purpose yards with 773 (432 rushing, 350 receiving) while making 5.5 receptions per game, fifth highest in the league. Curit will start in the slot along with sophomore Mac Jackson, an All-NESCAC faceoff specialist in lacrosse. The slotback group also includes more of the fastest and most athletic players on the team, including sophomore Lani Eversage, promising rookie Shaun Carroll and junior Shawn Doherty, who resumes his career in garnet after missing the past year and a half. Doherty averaged 117.5 all-purpose yards per game in his first four games as a rookie in 2010, on 20 rushing attempts, nine receptions and 16 kick returns.
And, maybe best of all, the offensive line looks talented, deep and experienced. Bates returns all of the offensive linemen who started a game in 2011 save for center Andrew Scichilone '12. Most intriguingly, two standout linemen return to the lineup after missing all of last season with injuries. Senior left tackle Ryan Weston, an All-NESCAC selection in 2010, and two-year starter Mark Sylvester are back to form the left side of the line. Sophomore Larry Guinee, who had an outstanding rookie season, starting all eight games at guard, will move to center, and the right side of the line will see juniors Michael Bernstein and Liam O'Neil return to right guard and right tackle, respectively. Harriman also hopes to have senior Matt Antonellis, who started four games at offensive tackle last year, healthy and ready to provide even greater depth on the line. The surplus of returning offensive linemen, along with the relative dearth of experience on the other side of the ball, prompted Harriman to switch athletic sophomore Owen Mahan, who made six starts in 2011, to play on the defensive line.
Wide receiver is Bates' only offensive position group that may have a lack of experience, however relative. Kevin Davis (9 receptions, 87 yards, 1 TD in 2011) will start in place of graduated All-NESCAC wideout John Squires '12, while senior Ryan MacDonald (9 receptions, 61 yards, 1 TD in 2011) moves from slotback to wide receiver, in part to take advantage of his strength as a blocker.
The return of Weston and Sylvester, and Doherty as well, "really shores up the offense," said Harriman, and the veteran presence of Smith and George should further stabilize what may be a potent and balanced attack. The Bobcats scored 22.4 points per game in 2011, fifth best in the conference. They ran for 158.2 yards per game, ranking third, and passed for 187.6 yards, ranking fifth in that category. Bates hopes to not only maintain the flexibility not only to run and pass with equal effectiveness, but also to control time of possession, behind the strength of its offensive line strength and Smith's decision-making.
"The offense needs to set the pace for us a little bit this year," said Harriman. "Defensively we've got some really good athletes, but their experience is going to be a factory early.
Indeed, in contrast to nine returning starters on offense, the Bobcats will have the luxury of starting experience at only three positions on defense: senior defensive end Matt Gaither, senior cornerback Kyle Starr and junior safety Andrew Kukesh. The front eight in Bates' 3-5-3 defense did a good job of playing the run in its preseason scrimmage at Colby last Friday, according to Harriman, and with ball-hawking defensive backs in Kukesh and Starr, both All-NESCAC selections (in 2010 and 2011, respectively), the Bobcats will seek to keep that up in the regular season, beginning Saturday against Trinity's league-leading rushing attack, led by junior Ethan Bunker, who tied his brother Evan of Amherst with a conference-best 106.6-yards per game average in 2011.
Gaither, with 20 games under his belt, leads the defensive line. The 6-foot-5 end made 21 tackles last year, included 5.5 for a loss and three sacks. He also batted away four passes. Gaither and Owen Mahan ("Athletically Owen has the ability to play over there and be a very good player for us," said Harriman) will flank junior defensive tackle Matt Comstock (15 tackles in 2011). Sophomore Sam Hundley is one of what will likely be in a mix of five or six defensive linemen to see playing time right away.
Two of Bates' three inside linebacker spots will be filled with experienced seniors stepping into the starting role for the first time, although both senior Josh Chronopoulos (23 tackles in 2011) and Joe Dell'Erario (16 tackles) have started before and been effective run stoppers when called upon. Joining them at ILB is a promixing mix of younger players, headed by likely Week 1 starter Josh Freedland, one of Bates' top special-teams contributors as a freshman last year. Also likely to see playing time are sophomores Steven Hild, Adam Cuomo and John Durkin.
The outside linebacker position, which demands players who can rush the passer and defend the pass, will be occupied on opening day by sophomore Gilbert Brown, who made a splash late in his rookie season, and senior Evan Dowd, who has grown from an athletic 6-1, 175-pound cornerback and punter into a 6-2, 200-pound OLB. The Bobcats hope Dowd's transition from DB to OLB mirrors the successful one Cam Evans '12 made last season. As for Brown, if he continues the pace he set in the last two games of 2011 (a combined 13 tackles, four for a loss with two sacks and an interception), he may be a rising defensive star.
The defensive backfield is again anchored by junior free safety Kukesh, Bates' leading returning tackler with 56 last year, in addition to two interceptions and four pass breakups. Kukesh's smarts, character and outstanding athleticism are all welcome commodities to have on a young defense. Starting opposite Starr at the other cornerback position at Trinity will be sophomore Mike Kelleher, who didn't play due to injury last year but had an outstanding offseason, according to Harriman. Sophomore Ryan Newson, another special teams standout last year, will also be called upon to play in Bates' backfield.
Junior kicker Charlie Donahue made 14 of 18 extra-point attempts and 1 of 2 field goal attempts in 2011. Sophomore David Kurey returns to punt, after a rookie season in which he averaged 35.8 yards per kick, sixth best in the NESCAC. Junior linebacker A.J. DeBenedictis will serve as Bates' long snapper.
While a young and inexperienced defense may have to endure some growing pains, Bates should be able to put points on the scoreboard as well as anyone. If the offense can be the defense's best friend by wearing down opposing defenses and keeping the Bates D fresh, that's a proven winning formula. Barring major injury issues, the Bobcats have what it takes to go 3-5, 4-4 or beyond in 2012.
Trinity, however, would be a tough opening opponent for any Division III team. The Bantams return two All-NESCAC running backs and three All-NESCAC offensive linemen from last year's league-leading ground attack, along with five starters and two all-conference returnees from last fall's defense that led the nation in three statistical categories. The game starts at 1pm at Jessee/Miller Field, where Trinity has won 43 straight games, on Saturday in Hartford.