Football: Coach Mills' Lord Jeffs strive for perfection in 2005

Amherst came away from the 2004 campaign with a Little Three Championship, six players on the All-NESCAC team and ranked fourth in the final New England Div. III poll. But a 6-2 record isn’t satisfactory for a storied and proud football program that aims for perfection every fall. Those two losses have left the Jeffs hungry and restless for their season opener at Hamilton College on Sept. 24.

Last year’s Jeff offense scored an impressive 24 points per game by virtue of its 355.9 yards of total offense-a lofty number for a squad that had so little returning offensive line experience. One year later, a possible liability has become a strength, and despite the loss of the College’s all-time rushing leader, Fletcher Ladd ’05, the Jeffs should be running downhill all season.

Returning to the offensive line are tri-captain Gavin Weeks ’06, Ryan Smith ’07, Matt Mascioli ’07, Dan Guariglia ’08 and Nate Riccardi ’07, who together played a major part in the mauling Amherst rushing attack in 2004. “Obviously we lost many four-year starters [to graduation], so there are a lot of holes to fill offensively,” said Mills. “But there are kids coming up in the ranks who are capable.”

Now that Ladd’s four-year tenure has come to an end, a long list of running backs look to step out of his shadow: Ngai Otieno ’06, William Beeson ’07, Chris Gillyard ’08 and Dom Cama ’06. Paving the way for these four will be Chris Hofmann ’07 at fullback. A powerful, hard-nosed running attack has long been the mark of the Amherst offense, and with one of the NESCAC’s best corps of backs, the tradition should continue.

Executing the acrobatic feats of diving for, juggling and catching will be a talented group of wideout speedsters headed by juniors Justin Macione, Mark Hannon, Idris McClain and sophomore Mike Myers. These players must create an effective counterbalance to the Jeffs’ ground assault by opening up several fronts on which the Jeffs can attack their opponents. Parnell Adam ’07 and Blake Murphey ’08 are players with experience at the tight end position-one which is essential in the Jeffs’ option offense.

Finally, the on-field responsibility of orchestrating all this complexity and replacing four-year starter Marsh Moseley ’05 falls on the able shoulders of Nick Kehoe ’07 and John Polignone ’07. Both have experience wielding the Jeffs’ offense, and as quarterbacks they will be looked to as the leaders of this Amherst offensive.

On the opposite side of the ball, the Jeffs were equally impressive: Last year the team was 16th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense (87.3 percent) and 25th in the nation in points allowed per game (15.6). The 3-4 scheme has served the Jeffs and Coach Mills well as it is a front that relies heavily on linebacker mobility and on the staunch immovability of the defensive line. With First-Team All-NESCAC selection tri-captain L.J. Spinnato ’06 anchoring the defensive line at nose guard, getting pushed around shouldn’t be a problem for the D-line.

Joining Spinnato on the inside will be junior Brendan McKee and senior Dan Kovolisky. Spinnato and Kovolisky complemented each other nicely last year, combining for a total of seven sacks. The tenacity of the defensive line made the Jeffs a run-stuffing force in 2004. Filling out the middle at inside linebacker is a bevy of returning talent including Greg Muecke ’07, Jake Spadafora ’08 and Kipp Weiskopf ’07. In theory, these heavy-hitters will fly around the ball as opposing offensive blockers up front become entangled with the front three and can’t release to pick off a linebacker. This is a defense that requires a coordinated team effort but asks a good deal of the individual players, and in the past the Jeffs have contributed brilliantly.

Operating on the fringes of the field will be Mills’ secondary and outside linebackers. “For inside linebackers and secondary we have a lot of question marks this season,” said Mills. Though the secondary has lost some key players, including First-Team All-NESCAC defensive back Rob Walsh ’05, it will be led by senior tri-captain Nick Zeiler who registered 39 tackles in 2004, Mike Salerno ’07, Pat Sandor ’07, Marcus Meikle ’07, Rob Grammer ’08 and Chris Mottau ’08. In a conference where teams are known to rely equally on the run and pass, the Jeffs’ secondary will be a key component in stopping the onslaught from the air.

The quickness of the defense is impressive, evidenced by a highly productive outside linebacking core that returns Justin Roemer ’06, Kelvin Coker ’06, Dakota Jones ’07 and Joe Bickerstaffe ’06. “We are looking really good defensively,” said Mills. “The defensive line and the linebackers are looking good with many starters returning.” The turnover potential of the Jeffs’ defense is well known throughout the NESCAC, as many opponents have seen what seemed to be certain victories give way to defeat as a result of tumbles, interceptions and broken-up passes. With such big play potential and a wave of returning talent, the Jeffs may very well have one of the best defenses in the NESCAC.

Special teams were a strength in 2004 with the Jeffs finishing 14th in the nation in punt returns (12.71 yards per attempt) while placekicker David Bodner ’05 was second in extra point conversion percentage in the NESCAC with a 91.7 percent success rate. However, Bodner and punt returner Jay Wagstaff ’05 were both lost to graduation. Myers will try to replace Bodner’s foot and 4.2 points per game, and Mills will look to fill Wagstaff’s role as an integral weapon in the field position battle. Mark Hannon ’07 and Keith Erzinger ’08, with a punting unit average of 31.3 yards per punt, look to resume their roles as the team’s punters.

The schedule this year is a predictably rigorous one, with games against the two 2004 Jeff defeators, Tufts University and Trinity College, preceding the annual season-ending tilt with archrival Williams College. Hopefully, the Jeffs can rewrite history on Nov. 12 with a win at Williams, breaking a 10-year drought for the team at Weston Field. One area where improvement is expected from the Jeffs is penalty yards; the Jeffs lost 12 yards per game to their opponents in 2004 in this costly category. Twelve yards can be the difference between winning and losing games in a very tight conference.

This early in the preseason the Jeffs cannot predict what feats they will accomplish this year, but their tradition of setting the bar high continues. “Our goal starts out pretty much the same every year, and that is to win the Little Three Championship,” said Mills. “We’ve been preparing for a long time, but we still have 23 practices before the first game. If we just get better each and every day, our goals will be in reach.”

The 2005 season looks to be an exciting one for the Lord Jeffs, and the enthusiasm and focus of the players is evident in the team’s hard work and long hours in the weight room. The high expectations of the coaching staff is palpable in the tone of Coach Mills’s voice when he first enjoins his players to “Crank it!” during the dog days of preseason camp.