Holy Cross Crusaders
2016 Record: 4-7 Overall, 2-4 in Patriot League
Head Coach: Tom Gilmore 13th Season (70-76 Overall, 40-39 PL)
Last Patriot League Title: 2009
Last FCS Playoff Appearance: 2009
Key Returning Players
Offense: QB Peter Pujals (5th Sr.), RB Gabe Guild (5th Sr.), C James Murray (5th Sr.), LG Nick Piker (5th Sr.), WR Richie DeNicola (Jr.)
Defense LB Nick McBeath (Sr.), DT Jack Kutschke (Sr.), DT Teddy Capsis (Jr.), LB Andre Chevalier (Sr.), SS Chase Stratton (Sr.)
The 2016 season began with reasonably high expectations for Holy Cross given the return of star quarterback Peter Pujals and a talented set of skill players. The Crusaders were picked tied for 3rd (with eventual champion Lehigh) in the preseason Patriot League poll after posting a respectable 6-5 record in 2015. Much of the optimism revolved around Peter Pujals who entered his senior campaign as one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in FCS. The Illinois native was poised to own every record there was before his season was abruptly cut short by a serious leg injury he suffered against Dartmouth. While 2016 got off to a bumpy start prior to the Pujals injury, it basically hit a dead end once the star quarterback went down.
The biggest reason Holy Cross was unable to overcome the loss of a Pujals was a defense that gave up points in bunches (32.3 ppg, 6th in PL). Outside of LB Nick McBeath there was a lack of big time difference makers on the defensive side of the ball. The front 7 did a nice job at times with McBeath, Sr. Dewayne Cameron (13 TFL, 7 sacks) and Jr. LB Andre Chevalier leading the way. The secondary (6th in ypg and 7th in passing defense efficiency) was the main issue. Some of the struggles can be attributed to inexperience in the backend. By the time the season ended FS Luke Ford and CB Ron Millhouse were the only 2 seniors seeing significant time.
The 54-14 blowout loss to Fordham at Yankee Stadium was in some cruel way the perfect ending for a season that never got off the ground. There’s no doubt that did not sit well with the fiery Gilmore in the offseason. Motivation should not be an issue on Mount Saint James as the Crusaders finally turn the page to 2017.
Key Returning Player to Watch: RB Gabe Guild
Freshman to Watch: TE Jake Fletcher
The safest assumption in the Patriot League is the 2017 Holy Cross offense will go as far as 5th year senior Peter Pujals takes them. There’s a good chance that if he stays healthy he will own every significant passing record at Holy Cross. Assuming his leg is fully healed; Pujals is more than capable of beating teams with his legs. That’s why he sits 3rd all-time in total offensive yards at Holy Cross. The leadership aspect can’t be overlooked either. Having started since his freshman year, Pujals has experienced just about everything football has to offer, good and bad.
This year his biggest test will be trying to overcome the graduation of Brendan Flaherty (59 rec 621 yards 4 TD) and Jake Wieczorek (55 rec 705 yards 5 TDs). The two senior wide receivers put together very solid 2016 campaigns despite having to deal with shaky at best quarterback play much of the time. Junior Richie DeNicola (49 rec 513 yards 4 TD) seems the most likely candidate to emerge as Pujals top target. Fellow juniors Jordan Montgomery and Martin Dorsey should also see an increased roll. Senior Darrius Lacy (14 rec 248 yards 0 TD) is a shifty threat that has the potential to really excel in the slot position. To provide depth at receiver, Gilmore and offensive coordinator Brock Stone opted to switch Blaise Bell from QB and Tate Beachley from RB. Freshman WR Tenio Ayeni from national power Allen, TX could emerge as a key contributor as the season moves along.
Peter Pujals will have a familiar face in the backfield with the return of 5th year senior running back Gabe Guild. Guild went down with an injury against New Hampshire last year and, like Pujals, was granted a medical redshirt. His return is huge given the lack of depth and overall production at the running back position recently. Even with Guild’s return, the running attack must improve (103.8 ypg 5th in PL) if Holy Cross wants to compete for the league title. Guild’s best year was in 2014 when he rushed for 588 yards and 5 TD. His production dipped as a junior. Since Guild can’t do it alone fellow senior Diquan Walker needs to build off of his 2016 season (411 yards 4 TD). If both remain healthy there’s no reason the duo can’t combine for a 1,000 yard season. Junior Miles Alexander provides some much needed depth.
The offensive line will be relying on 5th year seniors James Murray (Center) and Nick Piker (guard) to provide stability to what will otherwise be a green group. Last year’s 2-deep was littered with freshman and sophomores that will now be pressed into action. 6’8 320 pound senior Charles Steele will likely see time at tackle. Jackson Dennis and Joe Mattingly seem like the leading candidates to nail down the other tackle position. Guard will likely come down to Brett Broddy or Rory Costello. Whatever the combination turns out to be the line play must improve. Despite starting 5 seniors at times last year the unit struggled to control the line of scrimmage far too often. If the offense wants to take off in Pujals swan song the ground game must be able to assert itself. In order for that to happen the five guys in the trenches need become one of the top units in the Patriot League.
The final question on offense is at tight end. Lucas Nikolaisen (32 rec 244 yards 2 TD) graduated and his backup Jayke Simsheuser had 1 catch for 5 yards in 2016. If there’s one position on offense where a freshman could have an immediate impact it’s at tight end. 6’6 230 pound Josh Fletcher will likely have an opportunity to get on the field early in the year. Don’t be surprised if the Florida native is Pujal’s favorite red zone target by the time mid-October rolls around.
Returning Player to Watch: Andre Chevalier
Freshman to Watch: Kendrick Knight
The strength of the Crusader defense figures to be at linebacker. Preseason Patriot League All-League linebacker Nick McBeath (91 solo tackles, 8 TFL) is the unquestioned leader of the defense. He’s been an impact player on defense since his freshman year. McBeath is joined by another potential game changer at LB in Andre Chevalier. The third LB spot should come down to a pair of juniors. Either Jack Haddon or Ryan Brady will assume a starting role in 2017. Junior Kevin Bucceroni and two prized LB recruits from Georgia, Keiston Lowery and Kendrick Knight, are names that could emerge rather quickly.
The defensive line has the potential to be quite formidable due to an abundance of size defensive coordinator Mike Kashurba has to work with. Senior Jack Kutschke (Sr. 6’5 280) and junior Teddy Capsis (6’3 263) will once anchor the tackle positions in the 4-3 scheme. Backing them up figures to be senior Phil Zobrest (6’5 273) and juniors Neil Vorster (6’3 294) and Jake McArdell (6’2 289). The defensive end position seems to be a little more unstable. The loss of Dewayne Cameron will not be easily overcome. Sophomore Mark Ebo could slide into one of the end positions. 6’6 249 pound sophomore Dillon Hart has the frame to cause havoc on edge if he’s been able to get stronger since last year. Freshmen Noah Johnson and Jordan Jackson have the credentials and the size to see the field in spot duty. Both have the potential to be big time players down the road.
The big issue for the Crusaders on defense seems to be the secondary. The passing numbers against the Holy Cross defense in 2016 weren’t pretty. Part of that can be attributed youth but the trend going back a couple of seasons indicates a consistent struggle along the backend of the defense. Senior Alim Muhammad is likely to start at the one CB position. The other CB position could go to either Damion Baker or Akeem Walcott. Both saw significant time last year. Free safety seems a bit more unsettled with the graduation of Luke Ford. At 6’3 195 Chris Riley has the frame to take over the stalwart Ford. Chase Stratton returns at strong safety with Ahmad Tyler backing him up. Sophomore Alex Johnson and freshman Josh Hicks are two players that could play a significant role as the season progresses.
Senior A.J. Wells is expected to take over the place kicking responsibilities from Zane Wasp. Will McGrail or sophomore Cody Wilkinson might see time at punter if Gilmore does not want Wells handling all of the duties. Darrius Lacy seems primed to be the return specialist. But don’t be surprised if Richie DeNicola, Jon Jon Roberts and/or Jordan Montgomery get an opportunity as well.
When Peter Pujals announced he was returning for a 5th year the Holy Cross faithful in Worcester and all around New England rejoiced. After an extremely disappointing 2016 season the prospects for ’17 seemed to improve immediately. And while having Pujals back for a 5th year is a huge boost it’s been proven over time he can’t do it alone. In order for the passing game to really reach its potential someone has to emerge at WR. The loss of Flaherty and Wieczorek will be extremely difficult to overcome. Getting Guild back is a boost but he’s far from a stat monster. He needs someone else to emerge at RB when needed. The offensive line seems to be trending upwards which will help the ground game.
Despite Tom Gilmore’s background in defense his units at Holy Cross have been below average far too often. Last year’s edition was one of his worst. However, with McBeath leading the way and a front 7 oozing with size and depth it’s hard to imagine there’s not a significant improvement in 2017. The flaw on defense will likely remain in the secondary. There’s been an influx in athleticism in the last two recruiting classes but it might be a year or two away from really paying off.
The schedule does Holy Cross no favors. The Crusaders must deal with having 3 (@ UConn, @ Bucknell and @ Dartmouth) out of the first 4 games on the road. The lone home game during that span is against perennial FCS playoff participant New Hampshire. The season doesn’t end any easier than it starts for Holy Cross. Trips to Lehigh and Fordham will either cap a forgettable season or perhaps afford the Crusaders an opportunity to win the league.
8/31 @ UConn 7:30 PM
9/9 @ Bucknell 12 PM
9/16 New Hampshire 1 PM
9/23 @ Dartmouth 7 PM
9/30 Lafayette 1 PM
10/7 Monmouth 1 PM
10/14 @ Yale 1 PM
10/21 Colgate 12 PM
10/28 Georgetown 1 PM
11/4 @ Fordham 1 PM
11/11 @ Lehigh 12:30 PM
2017 Projection: 5-6 Overall, 3-3 in Patriot League