SALISBURY, Md. – Coming off a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011, the Salisbury University football team and Head Coach Sherman Wood know they have a target on their back.
Salisbury (2011: 11-2, 7-0 Empire 8) had arguably its best season since an appearance in the 1986 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl last year, before falling to eventual national champion, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Now, with 16 starters returning to a team picked to repeat as Empire 8 Athletic Conference champion in its second season in the league, the task for Wood and the Sea Gulls is to stay consistent while not dwelling on the success of last season.
"It was definitely a great year last year, but that process is over," Wood said. "The position that we're in right now, ranked seventh in the [D3football.com] preseason poll, that's based on what we did last year so some of the things that we emphasize to our guys are to continue to work hard, do the best we can to eliminate mistakes and execute to the best of our abilities."
With the graduation of both guards in American Football Coaches Association All-American Alex Smith and D3football.com all-region selection Christian Emezie, Salisbury's offensive line may have lost the most off any unit on the team. That said, two key pieces on the line that helped SU rush for a program-record 4,596 yards in 2011 do return for their senior seasons.
All-Empire 8 first team center Brian Mansfield, who started 12 games last season, will anchor the line.
"Brian Mansfield had a tremendous year last year and he's one of those people who leads by example more so than being vocal," he said. "He's had a great camp thus far so he's the anchor of that offensive line, no doubt about it."
Beyond Mansfield, Salisbury boasts great depth. Senior Gaven Parker and junior captain R.J. Murray, who earned three starts at left tackle in 2011, are back to start at right and left tackle, respectively. Senior Jeremy Harrissmith and junior Mark Bohanan will be the guards.
"[Depth] is crucial," said Wood. "I think the fortunate thing is that we were in positions where we could play a lot of people [last year] because the guys who are starting now, they played and several of them started.
"We have guys who have game experience and they understand the offense just as well as anyone else."
The Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year in 2011, Dan Griffin returns for his senior year after a stellar all-around season at quarterback. Griffin had one of the best seasons of any player in Salisbury offensive history, running for 907 yards and a single-season school record of 20 touchdowns to go along with 1,208 yards and 19 scores through the air.
Wood is expecting Griffin, who enters the season 10th all-time in career passing yards (1,659) and tied for seventh in total points (198), to have another fantastic campaign.
"To be honest with you, I think he's probably in better shape this year than he was last year," said Wood. "He really committed himself in the weight room and conditioning-wise during the offseason. He's definitely excited."
Griffin enters his second year of being a team captain, a role in which he excelled last year.
"I think he is a great leader for our program so he's the person that people look towards and they are definitely going to follow his lead," Wood said. "He's going to be positive both on and off the field, so I expect the same from Daniel."
Freshman John Dunbar won the battle to be the backup quarterback.
Benedetti rushed for 319 yards and three touchdowns, gaining 7.8 yards per carry, while Flanigan ran for 791 yards and 13 touchdowns and made nine receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
Smedley, who is in charge of coaching the superbacks this season, finished his career as the sixth-leading rusher in school history with 2,793 yards – including 1,028 last year – and 29 total touchdowns. Briscoe finished with 484 yards and four touchdowns on the ground as a senior.
"Tough shoes to fill, no doubt about it. Obviously, we're going to miss Randal," said Wood. "It's fortunate that he's going to be with us working with some of the young guys, working with Joey Benedetti.
"Joey, I think, is going to have a pretty good year. I'm definitely looking towards Joey. I think he's in pretty good shape. He understands the offense just about as good as anyone else so he's going to be someone that can pick up slack – now whether he can fill [Smedley's] shoes, that's going to be a different story, but Flanigan is probably going to be the big deal. He's a multitalented kid, he's a person who can run, can catch and he does a great job on special teams, as well, so we're looking for Flanigan to have a really good season this year."
Senior slot Nick Aloi will also push for time. After gaining 200 yards on 23 carries a year ago, Aloi has impressed Wood in camp.
"I wouldn't say Nick Aloi is a surprise, but his work ethic is tremendous. I'm looking forward to seeing some good things from him," he said.
Junior Michael Copenhaver should see an increased role this season after gaining 341 yards, 308 of which came on as a kickoff and punt returner in 2011.
Lonnie Liggins, a transfer from the United States Military Academy, has picked up an injury in camp but may make in impact when healthy. Liggins scored a touchdown in six games with the Black Knights in 2009.
Wood is high on the junior slot.
"I can't wait until he gets going. He's a special kid, so he's sort of like the darkhorse guy, the secret weapon, if you want to say it, but he's a kid we're definitely looking forward to seeing."
Senior Juma Richards is Salisbury's top returning wide receiver, catching 14 balls for 332 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. He will be counted on to help fill the void left by the graduated Doug Ticse. Ticse finished with a team-leading 19 receptions, 572 yards and seven scores last year.
Richards' speed helped to make the Salisbury offense become truly multifaceted a year ago, forcing teams to pay more attention to the passing game in SU's spread-option attack. Wood believes Richards will play a big role this season.
"His range is definitely going to help the offense," he said. "He gets vertical, so if people want to key on the run, we've got the play-action package that can take care of people."
A transfer from Division II Fairmont State University, sophomore Isaiah Taylor will provide the Sea Gulls with another viable option on the outside. Taylor caught six passes for the Falcons as a freshman.
"[He] is going to be pretty special this year," Wood said of Taylor. "He's pound-for-pound the quickest, fastest receiver we have out there. He's athletic; he can make things happen – you will have to pay attention to him. If not, he could have a special, special year and enhance our offense even more. "
Sophomore Brandon Beisser will also see his first game action as a Sea Gull this season as a receiver. He's another player Wood has pointed to as having a strong preseason.
The defensive line is under the direction of four-year standout at linebacker Jamey McClendon, who will impart knowledge of the defensive game on a front three which returns two of three starters from a year ago. Sophomores Tommy Hawks at nose guard and Nick Ochoa at left defensive end have a combined 13 starts between them and look to control the line of scrimmage.
Hawks earned All-Empire 8 second-team honors as a freshman with 24 tackles, including one for loss, half a sack and forced a fumble. Ochoa was in on 35 stops, three of which came behind the line. He also intercepted a pass, and recovered a fumble.
"He's had a super spring and great summer," Wood said of Hawks. "Tommy was here all summer and did a great job for us."
Sophomore Josh Danko earned the right defensive end spot, taking over for departed Matt Leon, who finished his career at Salisbury with 13 sacks, good for eighth all-time. Danko appeared in two games in 2011, but Wood thinks he's ready to make the jump into a starting position.
"When you think about some of those surprises, he's one of those as a person that I'm just paying attention to to see how he develops," Wood said. "He's had an outstanding camp. He was one of those kids as a freshman he traveled a little bit last year and he was in that position to move up after graduation. On paper, he's a No. 1 but you just haven't seen enough, but so far, he's backed up that claim."
Senior captains Matt McMurdo and Kevin Costello are back to lead the linebackers. McMurdo, who has gained preseason All-America accolades from three different organizations, has made 154 tackles, including 18.5 for loss in his three seasons. He has also broken up six passes, forced one fumble and recovered two others in his career. He was third on the team in solo tackles (27), assisted tackles (46) and total tackles (73) with six for a loss and 2.5 sacks last year on his way to being named to the All-Empire 8 first team.
Costello appeared in 12 games, making five starts as a junior. He had 28 tackles, two for loss and one interception.
"[Costello's] a diehard Salisbury football player, he would do anything and everything for Salisbury football," said Wood. "He's the smartest kid on that defense, he makes all the calls and makes sure everyone is in the right place. He is a vocal leader, and that's both defensively and on special teams. So, we definitely feel good about his leadership and what expectations I have for Kevin."
Senior Rodney Hill and sophomore Steven Gamble have claimed the outside linebacker positions. Hill played eight games in 2011 with 24 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass broken up. Gamble saw action in 10 games as a freshman with 19 tackles, one for loss, and a forced fumble.
Everett, a captain at strong safety, led Salisbury in tackles last year with 104, including an NCAA-tournament-leading 41. He also picked off two passes, made one sack, forced a fumble and recovered one. Everett was selected to the all-conference first team.
"He's really smart," Wood said. "That's what puts him position all the time. … He's in the right place at the right time, all the time, and that's what he brings – he's a savvy kid. He has a little street sense in him and he's not the nicest guy because he has a little mean streak in him, he will knock heads with you a little bit."
Carter led the team with seven interceptions, returning one for a score last season. He comes into 2012 in a tie for seventh all-time in the SU annals with 10 picks in two seasons. He was a third-team all-region selection and first-team all-conference at cornerback and has picked up preseason All-America recognition from the Beyond Sports Network and USA Football News.
Wood has nothing but praise for Carter.
"He's more than a Division III football player. He has the size and range and there's some [former Salisbury and Washington Redskins player Byron] Westbrook in him that I see during practice, there are some things during practice that he's just bored, he's just kind of, 'come on guys, give me some work here.'"
Stanton started all 13 games last season at free safety, making 67 tackles, two interceptions and recovered three fumbles while leading the team with 10 passes defended as a sophomore.
While not earning any starts as freshman, Schecter saw significant time at corner last year, earning Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Week on Oct. 18. He made 29 tackles, two for loss, picked off two passes, scored a touchdown, recovered a fumble and blocked a kick.
Wood pointed to kickoff and punt coverage when it comes to special teams.
"I think we've done an outstanding job with our kickoff team and it's definitely showing again," he said. "And when you have a bunch of guys who are looking to play and get on the field, we emphasize that more than anything, if we are going to have a successful season, it's going to have to be on special teams."
Flanigan will see a bulk of the time on the return units. He received 22 kickoffs for 528 yards and one touchdown last year.
A key this season will be an NCAA rule change that has moved the kickoff up from the 30-yard line to the 35. Wood said sophomore place-kicker Eric Hart has been booting them out of the end zone in practice regularly. But Division I transfer from the University at Buffalo, Jack Molloy, has earned the placekicking duties.
Back is punter Kyle Hamby, who had an exceptional freshman campaign. Hamby averaged 37.2 yards per kick, landing 13-of-38 punts inside the 20-yard line. He also tied a Salisbury record with a 69-yard boot against St. John Fisher College on Nov. 5 and was named Empire 8 Special Teams Player of the Week.
Salisbury has traditionally played a tough schedule and 2012 is no different as the Sea Gulls face two of the three teams on their schedule that advanced to the NCAA tournament a year ago in the season's first two weeks.
"We tend to get the tough schedules all the time, that's a Salisbury thing," said Wood. "I think being in a [strong] conference has helped our schedule tremendously."
SU opens the season at Christopher Newport University on Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. The Captains fell at Kean University in the first round of the tournament but have won at least a share of the USA South Athletic Conference title eight times in the 11-year history of the program.
Salisbury begins its home slate on Sept. 8 with a 6 p.m., kickoff against Route 13 rival No. 3 Wesley College at Sea Gull Stadium. The Wolverines have been NCAA semifinalists three straight seasons and have qualified for NCAA postseason seven straight years.
North Carolina Wesleyan College comes to town on Sept. 15 at 1 p.m.
"Those are three great non-conference football games," said Wood. "The greatest thing about it is, if you win all those games, you put yourself in a position to be a top-three football team. If you come out with a loss then you have to make up for it down the road. It's a good thing, in a way, but from a competitive standpoint, you're not going to get any better than that."
The Sea Gulls start their Empire 8 title defense at league-newcomer Buffalo State College on Sept. 29 at 12 p.m., before traveling to face preseason No. 10 St. John Fisher. Salisbury defeated the Cardinals, 41-21, in the de facto conference championship game at home last season. Fisher, though, gained an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and advanced to the quarterfinals along with the Gulls.