The 2011 NCAA football season is upon us, and expectations for the Tribe couldn’t be higher. The College, which has been ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation in pre-season polls, opens up at Virginia Saturday in the team’s highest-profile matchup all year. We’re going in-depth and breaking down Coach Laycock’s squad.
Senior Mike Paulus, in his second season with the Tribe after transferring from North Carolina, steps into the full-time starting role this year. Paulus showed glimpses of brilliance last year in relief work, totaling 833 yards and four touchdowns as a junior. He made key appearances in games against Maine and UNC, and led the team to high-profile wins over Villanova and Delaware. While Paulus provides a formidable deep threat for the College, his accuracy was an issue at last season, and he’s been limited in the off-season because of a shoulder injury sustained at the end of 2010.
For the fourth season in a row, the Tribe’s backfield will be anchored by senior Jonathan Grimes. The Preseason CAA Player of the Year, Grimes is expected to finish his career at the College on a high note after a bit of a down year in 2010, in which he gained 887 yards and found paydirt eight times. The New Jersey-native broke out in his sophomore season, racking up 2,043 all-purpose yards. While not particularly speedy, Grimes is shifty and elusive and a threat in the passing game out of the backfield. When he needs a breather, the Tribe will turn to junior Meltoya Jones and Navy transfer Keith McBride.
The College’s best receiver probably isn’t a wideout, but rather All-American senior tight end Alex Gottlieb, who recorded 34 receptions for 350 yards and three touchdowns last fall. Gottlieb provides an athletic, 6’4” target for Paulus in the middle of the field. The College’s wide receiving corps, meanwhile, saw some of its most accomplished receivers graduate last year in Chase Hill and Cameron Dohse. Junior Ryan Moody was expected to be the top receiver after a great 2010, but he’ll miss a significant portion of the season due to a knee injury suffered last spring. Seniors D.J. Mangas, a converted quarterback, and Ryan Woolfolk, a converted tailback, are prepared to be the College’s starting receivers, while junior C.J. Thomas and senior Nick Downey are fighting for the number three spot.
The College enters 2011 with a great deal of experience and depth along the front line. All-CAA center James Pagliaro will anchor the unit, and sophomore Matt Crisafi, who started three games last season, will line up at left guard. Sophomore Trevor Springman is listed as the starting right guard, but expect fellow sophomore James Johnson to contribute as well. Junior Mike Salazar will move to left tackle, while junior Robert Gumbita will start at right tackle.
The Tribe will feature a number of fresh faces along the defensive line this season. All-CAA selection senior Marcus Hyde and senior defensive tackle Harold Robertson — the only returning starters on the line — will anchor the unit, looking to provide a veteran presence to a squad that has traditionally been a pillar of the defense. The senior duo will be joined by sophomores George Beerhalter and Brian Stinnie, who are slated to start at defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively. Both saw a respectable amount of action last season, but are relative newcomers. The Tribe will almost certainly have a strong linebacking corps and secondary, but the performance of the team will depend in large part on how quickly the front line can get up to par.
In all likelihood, the Tribe’s greatest strength will be at the linebacker position. Senior linebacker Jake Trantin, an All-CAA performer in 2009, returns to the squad after missing the entire 2010 season due to family reasons. During Trantin’s absence, Tribe fans witnessed the emergence of junior linebacker Dante Cook. He returns to the unit after an All-CAA season in 2010 in which he registered 111 tackles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns. Trantin and Cook will be joined by junior Jabrel Mines, a quality reserve who will step into a starting role. Together, these three should give the College an athletic and heady linebacking corps.
The Tribe will enter 2011 with a solid veteran group in the secondary. The unit will be piloted by junior All-CAA cornerback B.W. Webb, a speedy man-coverage specialist who has provided the College with big play ability ever since his debut two years ago. Opposite Webb will be senior corner Terrell Wells, a capable defender who will help the College pack a potent double threat at corner. Junior strong safety Brian Thompson returns after a solid 2010 and will be joined by new starter senior Jake O’Connor, a seasoned veteran who will start at free safety. Look for the College to have one of the most physical and stingy defensive backfields in the CAA.
Sophomore kicker Drake Kuhn will hope to improve after a subpar 2010 campaign, and enters the season as the definite starter. Redshirt freshman John Carpenter hopes to fill the void left by graduated All-CAA punter David Miller, and all indications point to him having a successful year. The College’s return game will feature a combination of Grimes and Webb. Webb will handle the punt return duties after receiving All-CAA honors the past two years, while Grimes will look to give the offense good starting field position as the kick returner.