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New Hampshire Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell is shown before a playoff game last December. (Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports FILE)

UNH football preview: Wildcats thinking big, thanks to returning stars


DURHAM -- Expectations may be at an all-time high for the University of New Hampshire football team, and seemingly for good reason. The Wildcats return 16 starters — eight on offense and eight more on defense — from a team that had the most productive season in school history.

The Wildcats posted a 10-5 record last year, when they extended the program’s streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 10 seasons, advanced to the FCS semifinals for the first time and ended the season with a No. 5 national ranking.

Outsiders are predicting more of the same from UNH this season. The Wildcats were picked first in the Colonial Athletic Association’s preseason poll, and are ranked fourth nationally in the FCS coaches’ poll.

UNH will open the 2014 season Saturday with a non-league game at Toledo (7 p.m./ESPN3). Here’s how the Wildcats look on offense, defense and special teams:

Offense

There’s plenty of talent and experience on this side of the ball.

Wide receiver R.J. Harris and running back Nico Steriti were both selected to the CAA Preseason All-Conference Team. Steriti, a senior, became the first UNH player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season when he ran for 1,028 yards and eight TDs last year. Despite missing three games last season, Harris, also a senior, led the team in receptions (76) and receiving yards per game (83.7).

Junior Sean Goldrich and senior Andy Vailas each spent time as the starting quarterback last season. Goldrich, who will start Saturday, played in 14 of UNH’s 15 games (nine starts). Vailas, a Bedford resident, played in nine games and made six starts.

Four players with significant starting experience return on the offensive line: senior tackle Rob Bowman, senior center Mike Coccia, sophomore guard Tad McNeely and sophomore guard Alexander Morrill. Before landing at UNH, Morrill played at Lebanon High School.

“It starts with Goldrich and Vailas at the quarterback position,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “Both of those guys have proven they can play and proven they can win at this level. Those two guys are the key ingredient to the offense that makes us go.”

Defense

The top two tacklers — and eight of the top 10 tacklers — from last year’s team are still on the roster.

Junior linebacker Akil Anderson made a team-high 124 tackles last season (8.3 per game). His sidekick, senior linebacker Shane McNeely, finished second on the team with 120 tackles.

The Wildcats received some good news when defensive end Cody Muller was granted a medical-hardship waiver and a sixth year of eligibility. Muller tied for the team lead in sacks (6.5) and was second among defensive linemen in tackles (54) last season. Defensive tackle Matt Kaplan, a senior from Franklin, is the other returning starter on the defensive line.

Four of the team’s five starting defensive backs returned this season. That group includes cornerback Casey DeAndrade, who started in 13 games last year as a redshirt freshman. Senior cornerback Steven Thames, junior safety Hayden Knudson and senior safety Nick Cefalo are the other returning starters. Knudson will miss Saturday’s game with a broken jaw.

“We have a lot of guys who have played football,” McDonnell said when he was asked about the defense. “Now it’s on some of those guys’ shoulders to carry the load around this place — and to be the leaders, be the guys to go to.”

Special teams

Senior Brad Prasky returns as the team’s punter, but the Wildcats will have to fill the void left by placekicker Mike MacArthur’s graduation. MacArthur, a North Hampton resident, handled the field goal, PAT and kickoff duties for the last four seasons.

Junior Christian Breda is the only placekicker on the roster with game-day experience. He made two of three point-after kicks last season, and also averaged 53 yards on four kickoffs.

“Breda has been very, very good in camp and in the spring,” McDonnell said. “Again, he’s like the tea bag. Put him in hot water and see what happens on Saturday afternoon kicking off, kicking field goals and kicking extra points.”

Running back Dalton Crossan led the team in kickoff returns (18), kickoff return yardage (427) and kickoff return average (23.7) a year ago, but is still recovering from a pulled hamstring and an achilles injury.

rbrown@unionleader.com

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