mcdonnell

University of New Hampshire football coach Sean McDonnell speaks to the team after the annual Blue-White football game in Durham on May 4.

The University of New Hampshire football team finished ninth in the Colonial Athletic Association last season and its 14-year streak of FCS playoff appearances ended.

This year, voters anticipate the Wildcats finishing seventh in the CAA, which, by last season’s standards when six CAA teams were selected for FCS postseason play, would leave them right on the cusp of making their recent absence a blip on the radar. It’ll be up to UNH to perform, but the elongated offseason gave the Wildcats a chance to go back to the drawing board heading into 2019.

“The offseason started with a meeting with what I consider to be the team council,” head coach Sean McDonnell said at CAA Media Day on Tuesday. “We sat in a room and I asked them what they wanted to do. They had a lot of great ideas and I said, ‘OK. I’m going to put some of these things into effect, but it’s going to be a lend/lease program. You guys need to do what you need to do in the locker room, get these guys going, get them back to my standards — our standards — and then I’ll give a thing.’ It was great. You need to do things, I think, as a coach, as a program and as players to look inside yourself and figure out what you need to do better.”

According to senior running back Evan Gray, the collective attitude of the group has already improved. As losses piled up in 2018 — the Wildcats finished 4-7 overall and 3-5 in league play — frustration mounted and it affected the team’s work habits.

“Every time we’re sitting there doing workouts and mat drills, I try to tell people to act like they want to be here,” Gray said. “We got to a low point last year and we don’t want to go back to that. This month we’ve got people working out. We’re trying to motivate each other. We’ve just got to produce more and I feel like we’re really going to try to work on that this coming season.”

UNH suffered most on offense last season. Of the 12 teams in the CAA, the Wildcats ranked 11th in scoring offense and 10th in both passing and rushing offense. It was the defense that was their calling card, finishing second in total defense behind 2019 favorite James Madison.

Prior to last season, UNH typically ranked in the top half of the league on both sides of the ball, and senior safety Pop Lacey knows the Wildcats will have to get back to striking that balance.

“Honestly, (we) just need to play hard and do our job,” said Lacey, who was named to the CAA Football Preseason All-Conference team. “Our job is to get off the field, get the offense back the ball consistently. That’s the only thing that we can do is put the ball in the offense’s hands and let them do what they do best and that’s score and put points on the board. For us, that’s pretty much our motto.

“We’re going to do what we need to do and we’re going to give the ball back to the offense and hopefully they’re going to do what they need to do,” said Lacey. “We have a bunch of confidence in them and we’ve been instilling confidence in them all offseason.”

It’s unknown how quickly the offense will get off the ground when the year begins. UNH lost starting quarterback Trevor Knight of Amherst to graduation and will have to sort through, at the most, five different options to take over at the position this preseason. McDonell doesn’t appear worried.

“It’s been great, to be honest with you,” he said of the quarterback competition. “I think there’s three kids that have separated themselves in a lot of different ways. Tommy Herion, Max Brosmer and Bret Edwards. But I think the other two guys, Ivan (Niyomugabo) and Heddy (Stephen Hedberg), are good football players. It’s going to take us 20 practices to figure out who the next guy is. For me, that’s great. I’m so excited because the guy who’s going to separate himself and lead our team better have his A game when he’s coming to work because the expectations of him and the rest of the guys are going to be huge. It will all take care of itself.”

Other Wildcats to receive preseason recognition from the CAA are running back Carlos Washington and punter Drew Sanborn, of Amherst. Both received honorable mention. ...

UNH opens with two non-league road games, at Holy Cross (Saturday, Sept. 7) and at Florida International (Saturday, Sept. 14). UNH’s CAA opener is its home opener, on Saturday, Sept. 21, against Rhode Island. ...

The league’s preseason offensive player of the year is quarterback Tom Flacco of Towson, a younger brother of Denver Broncos QB Joe Flacco. Lineman Maurice Jackson of Richmond is the defensive player of the year.