After a spring like no other, Sean McDonnell’s UNH football team looks ahead to fall. Today we focus on the defense in the opener of a two-part series. Next Sunday: offense.
DURHAM — Safety Evan Horn and his teammates on the University of New Hampshire football team got the Wildcats back on track last fall.
They knocked off bitter rival Maine, 28-10, in the season finale in Wildcat Stadium to regain possession of the coveted Brice-Cowell Musket that resides each year in the locker room of the winning team in the series.
The victory also nailed down a winning season, providing a 6-5 bounce-back record from a disappointing 2018 season.
The Wildcats are scheduled to begin the 2020 season with their FBS game at Kansas, on Saturday, Sept. 5. They face Colonial Athletic Association foe Richmond in their home opener on Sept. 12. A first-time meeting against Merrimack College, up from Division II to play at the Division I level, is slated to be the homecoming game on Oct. 3.
Last fall’s efforts made it 15 winning seasons in the last 16 for UNH and the final triumph pushed the Wildcats into consideration for the FCS tournament, an event they competed in each year from 2004 to 2017.
Horn and UNH played their way back in the playoff picture and that was more like it. Another win and they likely would have been in the tournament.
Now they want more.
“Last year we were much closer to the playoffs than the year before,” Horn said. “We were probably one or two plays away from beating Delaware. One or two plays away from beating Albany and Holy Cross. You can’t look back and harp on those things, but you’ve got to learn from them. This year our goal is not to just get to the playoffs. We want to take a step forward and look to win a CAA championship and go deep in the tournament.”
Horn pointed out that he and his fellow seniors — there are only eight of them in total — have been through some diverse times as Wildcats.
Their first year, as they redshirted and sat out, the team made the playoffs for the 13th straight season and followed that up the next year with another tournament appearance, highlighted by a huge win at No. 4 Central Arkansas to advance to the quarterfinals.
They missed the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 — “something that hadn’t happened in 15 years,” Horn noted.
Then, with enthusiasm and excitement high among the players and coaches, especially coach Sean McDonnell, back as head coach after taking the season off for medical reasons, normal preparation for the fall came to a crashing halt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spring football this year turned into a series of Zoom meetings and exercises and working out on your own.
Horn has been back in Durham recently and is finishing up classes, but heads back home to Pennsylvania later this month.
When he and his teammates will be able to return to campus to begin their final push to the season remains uncertain.
When the season gets underway, Horn and the defense will be out to get back to their stingy ways.
The Wildcats have been in the top half of the league in scoring defense the last several years. Last season, they allowed 20.1 points game, behind only James Madison in the CAA and UNH’s lowest total since allowing 16.5 points a contest in 2010.
Horn is a big-play maker and leader of the defense from one of the three safety spots. He’s been a starter since midway through his redshirt freshman season and is one of two returners on defense who was named to an all-CAA team after last season. He pulled down second-team honors. Niko Kvietkus, who will be a junior in the fall and is an anchor of the defensive line at tackle, made the third team.
“Evan is very smart, he’s athletic, he’s got good size and he just understands the game,” said defensive coordinator John Lyons. “He can figure things out quickly. Stuff happens and there’s not many times he doesn’t make the right decision. He’s made an awful lot of big plays for us. He understands how things fit together back there and he’s one of those kids that doesn’t get rattled.”
Horn picked off three passes his first season and had four picks each of the last two. He’s returned four interceptions for touchdowns in his career.
Granite Staters in the mix
Last year, Horn led the team with 70 tackles and fellow safety Pop Bush, who also started all 11 games and is now a junior, was right behind with 69. Sophomore Max Oxendine, who had 43 tackles after stepping in for the injured Pop Lacey, started the last six games as the other safety. Sophomores Joe Eichman (Merrimack), Tim Bouchard (Barrington) and Christian Peete (Portsmouth), and redshirt freshman Aaron Oroh (Dover) are among those in the mix for playing time.
The defensive line has senior Elijah Lewis lined up next to Kvietkus at tackle and returns veterans across the front with senior Brian Carter and junior Gunner Gibson at end. Senior Jacob Bradshaw backs up inside.
Kvietkus had 45 tackles, a team-leading 5.5 sacks and tied Horn for the team lead in recovered fumbles with a pair. Lewis, a three-year starter, had 43 tackles, seven for loss. Gibson paced the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and had four sacks. Carter had 23 tackles and three sacks.
Sophomores Chris Donnelly and Sean McCormack-Kuhman and redshirt freshman Jack O’Donnell and Nathan Kapongo will look for playing time on the line as well.
Oleh Manzyk, who started from the second game on as a true freshman linebacker last year, leads that group now.
“Oleh played very well last year,” Lyons said. “He put on some good weight and he’s had a chance to go back and go over a lot of stuff and he picks things up well. He’ll be a lot further along.”
Candidates to play alongside Manzyk include redshirt freshmen Zedane Williams and Ryan Toscano (Bedford), both of whom played in four games which allowed them to retain four more years of eligibility, along with sophomore Zach Banks.
Cornerback has question marks
The area on defense with the most questions is cornerback with multi-year starters Prince Smith Jr., who signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Isiah Perkins graduated.
Sophomores Derek Thompson (11 games) and Randall Harris (seven games) played last year and are leading contenders joined by redshirt freshmen Jonathan Collins Jr., Tyrell Wiggins and Caleb Mead. Redshirt freshmen Noah Stansbury and Jackson McCarthy, over from wide receiver, are also in the mix.
“I was looking forward to spring to see what these guys could do and really get a chance to evaluate them,” said Lyons, who handles the cornerbacks. “They would have gotten an opportunity with a lot of reps. With that not happening, whenever we do get back, it’s going to be a very condensed window of practice and we’re going to have to make decisions quickly on who seem to be the guys.”
When the Wildcats get back, there will be a focus, as usual, on creating turnovers and on tackling up and down the lineup.
“We put a big emphasis on those things,” McDonnell said. “You better be able to tackle people in open space. If you’re not a great tackling team, those shorter plays can turn into 20-yard plays. That’s a big part of our defensive mindset, but there’s not a statistic for that. We believe in great effort, relentless pursuit and violent strain. We want the kids to have great effort during those six to eight seconds. Missed tackles are more evident now than ever with these spread offenses.”