Tim Scott’s All-New England College Football Top-20 Preview Poll begins with the bottom five teams, all representing Division II and III conferences. All three squads from the D-III New England Football Conference in the ranking are represented in this group, while Merrimack opens a strong Northeast-10 representation.
The #20 Norwich Cadets, who had their breakout season in 2011, made their first NCAA Division III playoff appearance in school history. With Mark Murnyack at the helm, Norwich finished 7-4, with an unbeaten record in league play, to win the Eastern Collegiate Football League title for the second time in three years.
The Cadets have several returning players for the 2012 squad. Quarterback Kris Sadbourin returns for his senior year, and currently has a 23-7 record in his career with Norwich. Just 390 yards short of setting the school record, Sadbourin is a dual-threat quarterback who can pass consistently and also play the ground game well (he had 1,102 yards and 9 TD on the ground last season).
Even though Sadbourin could carry the ball consistently, the running back core – senior Danny Triplett, sophomore Derrick Pitts and sophomore Al Georgio – needs to pick up the pace in order to not over-rely on Sadbourin’s running abilities.
All-ECFC second teamers on the offensive line, Sean Southworth and Matt Gallagher, will help provide stability on the offensive line, and provide Sadbourin protection.
Matt Simonelli captains a young but still productive defense that might lead the charge in the ECFC. Leading tackler Jimmy Labell leads the spark, and the remainder of the defense looks to follow suit.
The #19 Merrimack Warriors, who maintained a competitive balance last season within the Northeast 10 standings, return for the 2012 season with hopes to challenge the likes of New Haven and Southern Connecticut State for the Northeast 10 championship. The Warriors finished fourth in the conference last season, behind New Haven, Southern Connecticut State, and American International.
On offense, the Warriors look to be strong with some key returning players leading the charge. At quarterback is senior Joe Clancy, who was the backup to Northeast 10 Player of the Year, James Suozzo. The running game is led by Jimon Hill, who led the team with 898 yards on the ground last season. Wide receiver Isaiah Voegeli hopes to build off a strong junior season that got him All-Region honors.
On defense, Michael Wiggins had 66 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Wiggins is looking to build off of those impressive numbers going into his senior season. Artis Holt helps strengthen an already strong secondary that intercepted 13 passes last season.
After making the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament last season, the #18 Western New England Golden Bears have 66 players returning from that squad. Led by coach Keith Emery (who has a 19-4 mark since 2010), the Golden Bears are the favorites to win the Boyd Division title and a spot in the NEFC Football Championship.
Three Golden Bears recently earned spots on the USA Football News Division III Preseason All-Star team. Kick-returner Michael Graham, who returned four touchdowns on kick returns last year, will be a driving force in the special teams department in 2012. An All-American according to D3Football.com and Beyond Sports Network, Graham looks to build off of his breakout 2011 season, and help fuel the fire on special teams.
Another preseason All-Star was Phil Tsopanides, who is making the transition from defensive back to linebacker this season. Last season, Tsopanides had 52 tackles and 3 interceptions. Making the transition to linebacker isn’t easy, but the 5-9, 175 pounder has the strength and passivity to make big plays on the line.
Defensive lineman James Georges helps Tsopanides strengthen an already strong defense with some strength and size. Coming in at 6-2 and 225 lbs, had 17.5 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 2011. He was first team All-Boyd division in 2010 and 2011, and his strong defensive play should get him a third first team bid in 2012.
On the offensive side, junior quarterback John Krafcik will get the reigns of the offense after dual-threat QB Bryce Brown graduated. In 12 games last season, Krafcik went 27 for 45, with a touchdown pass and 2 interceptions. Sophomore Kevin Cook, who had 765 rushing yards in his freshman year, looks to be the breakout star on this offense, as he is projected to go over 1,000 yards this season.
Despite not making the postseason last year, the #17 Bridgewater State Bears are poised and determined to make a move up the standings in 2012. Picked as a co-favorite (along with Framingham State), the Bears hope that they could leave the NEFC on a high note. Next year, the Bears and several other schools are leaving the conference to form a football league for the MASCAC.
The main highlight of Bridgewater State this season is their returning starters. They are returning 10 offensive and 8 defensive starters this season. Seven returning players have had recognition from the NEFC, as they won All-Bogan Division Honors.
The defense is looking to be a strong focal point in the Bears gameplan this season. Defensive tackle Paul Melicharek, linebackers Alex Monteiro and Justin Cruz, defensive end Tate Doehler, and cornerback Eddie Jewel all were honored with All-Bogan Division honors in 2011, and look to revive an already strong defense.
On offense, the signal caller this season will be junior Mike McCarthy. McCarthy is known to be a strong dual threat QB, strong in both the run and passing games. Throwing for 1,827 yards and running for 1,118 more, McCarthy will rack up yards consistently, and give defenses trouble.
Blaise Branch, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season, looks to be a strong back this season. Backed with a strong offensive line (who assisted in gaining 3,517 total yards), Branch should run for 1,000 yards this season.
Despite falling short in the NEFC Conference Championship to Western New England (in overtime, 20-13) last season, the #16 Framingham State Rams look to avenge their late season demise, and take the NEFC by storm. Predicted as the preseason favorite in the Bogan polls by the coaches, Framingham looks to blossom in the polls, and be a challenger to the Golden Bears.
This will be the last year that Framingham State will be in the NEFC. In 2013-14, the Rams and seven other schools will begin a new football league based in Massachusetts, the MASCAC. As a result, the Rams want to go out in style, and take their last possible NEFC title.
Led by sixth-year head coach Tom Kelley, the Rams have a talented squad that can contend in the NEFC. Three Rams players were named to the Division III All-American squad (according to Beyond Sports Network). On offense, running back Melikke Van Alstyne will charge up a strong backfield. After running for 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns, expect Van Alstyne to lead the charge again in his senior season.
On defense, the Rams look to build the momentum. Defensive lineman James Muirhead and defensive back Tyrone Notice have the skill sets needed to take charge of a strong Rams defense. Muirhead had 70 tackles last season, and Notice had 6 interceptions in 2011. Look for them to do bigger things down the road.