DURHAM — The 2018 NCAA Division I FCS playoffs began this weekend.
For the first time in a decade and a half, head coach Sean McDonnell’s University of New Hampshire football team was not involved in the tournament.
UNH’s remarkable run of 14 straight appearances in the tournament — a streak that started with a 27-23 win at Georgia Southern University on Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 and was packed with marvelous memories forged in the finest FCS venues across the country — came to a close.
Instead of preparing his team for yet another quest for a national championship and talking about a high-profile game to come, McDonnell, standing on a Wildcat Stadium concourse one evening last week offered a few thoughts on a season that ended too soon.
In a banner year for the Colonial Athletic Association — six teams made the tournament, more than have ever made it from any conference — the Wildcats fell short with their 4-7 overall record and 3-5 mark in the league.
“It’s disappointing,” McDonnell said. “You sit back and look at the way everything fell in the conference this year with six teams going, all of whom deserved to go. Hats off to those guys. They won seven games and Elon won the six right games they had to win and you were sitting here with a team that’s been there perennially. You’re watching the selection show in a different way. It’s very disappointing. Happy, proud of the league for setting a record with six teams, but disappointed we’re not part of the deal.”
McDonnell had a breakup meeting with the team last Sunday and has met with a handful of players individually so far with more meetings to come.
“I was telling them we have some work to do,” he said. “It starts from the top with the head coach all the way down to the last guy on the team and every coach through the program. We’ve got to get back to playing to the standard of UNH football. There’s been a level of excellence that’s been set, legacy, performance or whatever you want to call it, over the last 20 years, not just the last 14. We met it at times this season, we didn’t meet it all the time and that’s why we’re not playing right now.”
The work begins now.
“We’ve got to take a good look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and we’ve got to get better and we’ve got to get better starting in November,” he said. “Not in December, not in January. We’ve got to start getting better right now.”
The coaching staff will dive deeper into recruiting quickly and will be able to have official recruiting weekends earlier than it has in the past.
This season did have its highlights. A rough start that included a season-opening loss at Maine and the loss of senior starting quarterback Trevor Knight for several games led to the Wildcats having an unfamiliar and very uncomfortable 1-6 record in late October.
McDonnell was proud of the way the team reacted from there with three straight wins – including a decisive 35-24 victory over No. 3 James Madison at home – leading into a loss at Rhode Island to close the season.
There are holes to fill before the Wildcats play again at Holy Cross on Sept. 7, 2019.
The home opener is Sept. 21 against Rhode Island for those planning ahead.
“On both sides of the ball, we lose some key kids,” McDonnell said. “You lose (Neil) O’Connor and (Kieran) Presley. Presley had a tremendous senior year. Then you lose Trevor Knight. We had a little taste of that with not having Trevor under center and we’ve got to be better than we were in the games that he wasn’t in there. Defensively, you lose (Ryan) Sosnak. You lose (Jae’Wuan) Horton. You lose (Kyle) Reisert. You lose (Jared) Kuehl. Those guys are really good football players. And not just good football players, but great leaders. There are some people we’ve got to replace in this program.”
Trevon Bryant, a two-time captain and running back, and Cam Smith, a grad student who helped the offensive line come together in the second half of the season, are gone as well.
Starters and playmakers return on both sides.
“I think we have two very good running backs in Carlos Washington, Jr. and Evan Gray,” McDonnell said. “The next guys are stepping through. Hopefully it’s Dylan Laube. He has an opportunity to get better and do what he has to do.”
Quarterback will be a spot to watch.
“It’s going to a wide-open race,” McDonnell said. “It will be very interesting to see. There are four kids. We have a freshman coming in, not that he will be in the mix right away. But ... in this day and age you’ve got to get ready. Bret Edwards might have had to play this year with a couple of injuries the way things were going.”
Sophomore Christian Lupoli filled in first for Knight, but he got hurt and redshirt freshman Tommy Herion took his turn. Edwards was a true freshman this year and redshirt freshman Stephen Hedberg, a St. Thomas Aquinas product, is the other quarterback on the current roster.
“From December until May we’re going to have to find out who the kid is who, one, is going to have the ability to do it and, two, have the leadership qualities that you need at the quarterback position,” McDonnell said. “Whoever’s there is going to go play. It’s going to be an open competition.”
Defensively, the four players who led the team in tackles all return in juniors Quinlen Dean and Pop Lacey (79 tackles each), Rick Ellison (61), and sophomore Evan Horn (57) along with several others at defensive back and on the defensive line.
Work is needed everywhere, the coach stressed.
“They’ve all got to get better,” McDonnell said. “There’s a lot of things that have to improve and it starts with attention to detail. The little things that make a program go. Everybody’s got to get better with that. This comes from the head coach all the way through. There’s a lot of — not soul-searching to be done, though that is part of the deal — but more importantly self-evaluation of where you truly are at and who you truly are. . . . That’s what the message has got to be. Wherever we were this year wasn’t good enough to get us where we want to go. It’s really important that we get better from this point on.”