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Football Preview: Deep senior class a cause for optimism

LEWISTON, Maine -- The Bates College football team went 2-1 over the final three weeks of the 2008 season. With 19 starters returning from that team, the Bobcats have high hopes for carrying their momentum into this, the program's 115th season.

OFFENSE


The Bobcat offense's fortunes may hinge on the play of sophomore Ryan Katon (Durham, Conn.) at quarterback. Katon notched a solid and at times productive year of experience last season, starting all eight games under center and finishing with 104 completions on 203 attempts, with 969 yards, 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Not coincidentally, his best two games occurred in Bates' two victories: against Colby, he went 13-23 passing with three touchdowns and one interception. Two weeks later in the season finale against Hamilton, the talented and poised Katon was 26-46 for 230 yards with two TDs and a pickoff. Bates has four freshman quarterbacks joining the team this season who will compete for a role as Katon's backup.

Triple-threat Tom Beaton will continue to keep rival defenses on their toes.

"Ryan Katon did a great job for us last year -- he really emerged," said head coach Mark Harriman. "We expect big things out of him, obviously."


Katon will have the Bobcats' deepest and perhaps most talented unit at his disposal to throw to. Senior wide receivers Tom Beaton (West Newbury, Mass.)  and Matt Gregg (Milton, Mass.) return hoping to augment already solid careers with exceptional senior seasons, as does tight end Sean Wirth (Barrington, R.I.), who hauled in 28 passes for 240 yards in 2008. Beaton caught 28 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns in 2008, while also rushing for 114 yards and passing for 86, and Gregg (22 rec., 254 yds, 3 TD) was his usual dangerous self. In his three-year career, Gregg has amassed 71 receptions for 1,086 yards and five touchdowns. Beaton, Bates' jack of all trades has grabbed 57 passes over his career for 659 yards and 6 touchdowns.

At 6-foot-7, Wirth has company in the Bobcats' stable of big targets. Basketball teammates John Squires (6-6), a wide receiver from Swampscott, Mass., and Ryan Weston (6-4), the potential starting H-back from Bangor, Maine, who missed all of his freshman year of football and basketball with a leg injury suffered during preseason football practices, are promising prospects, as is 6-1 junior Evan Tierney (Carlisle, Mass.; 6 catches, 72 yards). Six-foot-four senior MacEgan Starrett (Chagrin Falls, Ohio) has had virtually his whole college career derailed by injury, but he too will look to make a statement in his final season. Six-foot-four junior tight end Chris Murtagh (Rowley, Mass.) will also look to come back from injury, though he is likely to miss early-season games.

Harriman is quick to point out that the Bobcats will need to establish a consistent running game, the offense's biggest weakness last year. But with a tight end and an H-back likely to be on the field for most snaps, along with an offensive line that returns four of five starters, there is reason to believe it can happen. The offensive line is anchored by third-year starter David Myerson (Dover, Mass.), a standout at left tackle; senior Justin Medeiros (South Yarmouth, Mass.) at left guard, junior Brendan Murphy (Sandwich, Mass.) at center and sophomore Matt Conetta at right guard are also returning starters, while the right tackle figures to be either senior Alex Gentilli (Westwood, Mass.) or sophomore Andrew Scichilone (Sandwich, Mass.). With Wirth the starting tight end, Weston will likely start at H-back, and often be the lead blocker for the running back tandem of senior Judd Smith (Milton, Mass.) and sophomore Dylan Taylor (Madison, Conn.). A tough inside runner, Smith rushed 48 times in 2008 for 146 yards and a score, while Taylor rushed 14 times for 47 yards over the first two weeks of the season before an injury derailed him. Harriman says having two healthy backs with experience should be another big asset to the running game.

DEFENSE

All-NESCAC safety Kyle McAllister has been a ball-hawking magnet for turnovers over the past two seasons.

While the offense aims to run the ball better, the Bates defense aims to stop the run better in 2009. The Bobcats were third in the NESCAC in pass defense last year, but Harriman believes they wouldn't have been so high in that category if opposing teams didn't feel as free to run the ball as they did. Bates allowed 182.1 rushing yards per game, ninth in the NESCAC. Stopping the run will always start with the defensive line, where Bates returns three out of four starters from a unit that played very well at times in 2008, but not on a consistent enough basis for Harriman's tastes. Seniors Rich McNeil (Lawrence, Mass.), who led the team with 2.5 sacks, and Mark Liu (Lexington, Mass.), who had a sack, an interception and a forced fumble to his name in 2008, return along the D-line, as does impressive junior defensive tackle Devin Horvath (Parsippany, N.J.), who started the final five games and finished with 39 tackles. Replacing Chris Hertz in the starting lineup will likely be a promising sophomore, Tyler Kuehl (Plymouth, N.H.), who led the team with 6.0 tackles for loss in 2008. Also in the DL mix will be sophomore Pat Quinn (Milford, Mass.), junior Joel Israel (Andover, Mass.) and junior converted quarterback Ryan Larsen (Hull, Mass.).


"Realistically, considering the youth of both our offensive and defensive lines last year, having almost everybody back up front should make a huge difference on both sides of the ball," said Harriman.

The defensive backfield looks to be among the best Bates has had in Harriman's tenure. A pair of excellent athletes are at cornerback: senior Bill Jennings (Marshfield, Mass.), an All-NESCAC selection as a kick returner last year who also led the team with 5 interceptions, and sophomore Cam Evans (Norwell, Mass.), who had a team-high six passes deflected while seeming to improve in each game of his freshman season. They're backed by All-NESCAC safety Kyle McAllister (Exeter, N.H.), who has clearly established himself as one of the top defensive playmakers in the conference. In 16 games at safety, McAllister has picked off nine passes and converted them into 220 return yards and a touchdown, forced three fumbles, recovered four fumbles and returned one for a touchdown, all while collecting 104 tackles.

The linebacking corps will miss the team's lone captain in 2008, Coleman Peeke, as well as former starter Greg Gumbs. Much is left behind, though, particularly in junior Ted Durkin (Rye Beach, N.H.), an "all-conference-type performer," in the words of Harriman, a former all-conference middle linebacker himself, and junior Myles Walker (Needham, Mass.) who assumed an outside starting job in 2008 and led the team with 65 tackles, including 44 solo. Kyle McAllister's sophomore brother, Brett McAllister (Exeter, N.H.), appears to have the inside track on replacing Gumbs at outside linebacker, while sophomore Tyler McDade (Bangor, Maine) and sophomore Santo Dettore (North Reading, Mass.) will likely compete for time on the inside.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Gavin Segall-Abrams (Greensboro, N.C.) enters his third season as the Bobcats' punter, sporting a career average of 33.8 yards per punt. Segall-Abrams also ably handles kickoffs, and he took over placekicking duties last season, connecting for 12 PATs and two field goals, with a long of 38. Bill Jennings, who earned Second Team All-NESCAC honors last season with a NESCAC-leading 22.9-yard average over 28 kickoff returns, will field most kickoffs. Tom Beaton averaged 4.5 yards per punt return in 2008 and will continue in that role.

Tight end Matt Sherburne is a scratch from the starting lineup due to injury, but will continue to assist the team valuably as a tri-captain.

OUTLOOK


Led by a talented and deep senior class, the Bates football team is hoping to make a move up in the NESCAC standings in 2009. Harriman is enthused about the senior class's playing abilities, but says he is equally excited about the attitude they're ready to impose on the team. A whopping 16 seniors dot the roster, led by tri-captains Tom Beaton, Kyle McAllister and tight end Matt Sherburne (Windham, Maine), who aggravated a previous injury during the offseason and is unlikely to return to the field.

"Talent's one thing, and we're certainly talented for what we've had in last couple of years," said Harriman. "But the thing I'm really excited about is this group's approach, the leadership they're showing. That to me for us is going to be as beneficial as a guy running a tenth of a second faster [in the 40-yard dash]."

How the team fares ultimately will hinge on how consistently the team performs, in Harriman's view. Bates won two of its last three, but the loss in that group was a beating at Bowdoin, perhaps the team's worst performance of the season.

"The bottom line is on both sides of the ball, we need to be better on early downs," said Harriman. "Offensively, obviously we want to continue to make big plays, but also to be more consistent in avoiding third-and-long situations on offense -- and creating more of them on defense, which in both cases goes back to running the football."

Bates will scrimmage at Colby on Friday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., and will open the season by playing host to defending conference champion Trinity on Homecoming Saturday, Sept. 26 at 1 p.m.