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Football Preview: Can talented Cats continue climb?

John Durkin leads a foursome of juniors at inside linebacker in Bates' 3-5-3 defense. Photo by Mike Bradley/Bates College.

The sixth in a series of fall sport team previews. Earlier previews include Field HockeyVolleyball, Women's Soccer, Men's Soccer and Men's Cross Country. For news and updates on Bates Athletics, follow @BatesSports on Twitter and like Bates College Athletics on Facebook.

LEWISTON, Maine -- Matching the emotion or catharsis of Bates' football season last fall might be an unrealistic prospect. But continuing the program's remarkable upward trend is something 16th-year head coach Mark Harriman can certainly visualize.

"Coming off a good season certainly helps with the enthusiasm for the offseason, how the strength training and conditioning goes," said Harriman, who shared NESCAC Coach of the Year honors in 2012 with Trinity's Jeff Devanney. "I think we've had arguably our best offseason, and the work ethic of the guys in the program has been excellent."

The 2013 Bobcats will likely be stronger in some areas and weaker in others to the 2012 club that posted Bates' first winning season in 31 years, going 5-3, winning the CBB Championship and tying for fourth place in the New England Small College Athletic Conference with wins over Tufts, Williams, Colby, Bowdoin and Hamilton. The tragic death of one of its players, Troy Pappas, rocked the Bates community after the Bobcats' Week 2 win over Tufts, but the team managed to go 4-2 the rest of the way in its historic season.

The 2012 team did feature a strong senior class, but many underclassmen played vital roles too, boding well for a continuation of success. It also bears mentioning that the team's upward trend dates back as far as 2010: the Bobcats are 9-8 over their past 17 games. And over the past three years, in the close games decided by seven points or less, Bates is 1-6.

OFFENSE

While the Bobcats return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, their biggest question mark is at quarterback -- decidedly not a good place to find uncertainty. No one on the roster has yet thrown a varsity pass, and only one, junior Matt Cannone (Windham, N.H.), has ever taken a snap. "The guys in the program, and the guys we've recruited, are coming in with the understanding that the position is as wide open as we've had it here in a long time," said Harriman. Others vying to replace All-NESCAC and three-plus-year starter Trevor Smith, who grew to master running Bates' triple-option offense, include sophomore Mike Decina (Hopkington, Mass.), sophomore Patrick Dugan (Westford, Mass.), first-year Nick LaSpada (Billerica, Mass.) and first-year Trevor Lyons (South Hamilton, Mass.).

Bates' offensive line should again be a strength, even if it doesn't prove to be quite as stellar as last season's group, which Harriman calls "the best we've had." Gone are former All-NESCAC left tackle Ryan Weston, who is now an assistant coach with the unit, and left guard Mark Sylvester. But three of last year's starters return in junior center Larry Guinee (Peabody, Mass.), senior right guard Michael Bernstein (New York, N.Y.) and All-NESCAC senior right tackle Liam O'Neil (Hingham, Mass.), while junior Owen Mahan (Camden, Maine), who started six games at left tackle as a freshman before moving to the defensive line last season, will return to left tackle, essentially giving the O-line four returning starters. "We've just got to find a [left] guard," Harriman said.

The Bobcats' starting and backup running backs from last season, Patrick George and Teddy Downs, both graduated, leaving the spot open for senior Ryan Curit (South Portland, Maine) to step into. Curit played the position as a freshman, notably running seven times for 47 yards against Bowdoin. He followed that with an explosive sophomore season at slotback, rushing for 423 yards on 68 attempts (6.2 per carry) and catching 44 balls for 350 more yards, before seeing a somewhat reduced role as a junior -- though he played in seven games in 2012, Curit rushed for 133 yards on 30 carries and caught only 11 passes for 60 yards. Depth behind Curit may be something of a question mark.

Both starting slotbacks from 2012, senior captain Shawn Doherty (Mansfield, Mass.) and junior Mac Jackson (Hood River, Ore.), are back, which is great news. The ultra-fast Doherty led the Bobcats with 783 all-purpose yards and scored seven touchdowns over the final five games of last season. Jackson made the most of his touches, rushing for 230 yards on 39 carries (5.9 average) and catching 12 passes for 70 yards. Sophomore Shaun Carroll (Clinton, Maine) brings additional talent to what figures to be a loaded position for Bates.

Bates' quarterback will also have some big targets to throw to in the projected starting wide receivers: 6-3, 195-pound senior Kevin Davis (North Andover, Mass.) and 6-5, 205-pound sophomore Harrison Murphy (Whitinsville, Mass.). Davis, an All-NESCAC selection in baseball, emerged last season with team highs in receptions (30) and receiving yards (366), to go with three touchdowns. Murphy averaged 14.6 yards over his seven catches. And 6-2, 185-pound junior Mike Tomaino (Gloucester, Mass.) is also not to be overlooked.

DEFENSE

Perhaps the biggest key to Bates' success last season was its national-best average turnover differential, largely the result of the Bobcat defense's team-record 32 takeaways, including 19 interceptions (another team record). Ball-hawking athletes at linebacker and defensive back will look for similar results in 2013.

Senior Matt Comstock (Amherst, N.H.) will anchor the defensive line at tackle, where Harriman says he has all-conference potential. "He's always been a very good player, and now he has the size and strength to get there." Comstock is 6-2 and 265 pounds, up 30 pounds from last season's listed weight of 235. He'll be flanked by junior end Sam Hundley (Cheshire, Conn.) and sophomore end Tucker Oniskey (Reading, Mass.), who "athletically are just what we're looking for" at that position. Versatile junior Joe DiPalma (Salem, N.H.) bolsters a unit that will look to develop its depth in the preseason.

The three interior linebackers in Bates' 3-5-3 defense are "as good a group as we've had here," Harriman said, with four returning players, all juniors, who already have extensive playing experience. John Durkin (Rye Beach, N.H.) emerged as a true standout in 2012, racking up 57 tackles (43 solo) with a team-high 12.0 tackles for a loss and 2.0 sacks. Josh Freedland (Marblehead, Mass.), Steven Hild (West Hartford, Conn.) and Adam Cuomo (Plymouth, Mass.) fill out another plus unit for Bates.

At outside linebacker, junior Gilbert Brown (Gloucester, Mass.) is a proven playmaker, evidenced by his three interceptions, a team-record 153 interception return yards, two forced fumbles and 50 tackles (37 solo). The other OLB spot is the defense's biggest question mark at the season's outset, but there are candidates with talent, including junior Pat Gilligan (Acton, Mass.), junior Ryan Newson (Stanhope, N.J.) and sophomore Alex Opiela (Medfield, Mass.); the latter two served as backup defensive backs last season.

Bates' defensive backfield appears to be another team strength, and not only due to the presence of senior captain and four-year starting safety Andrew Kukesh (Exeter, N.H.). The starting tandem at cornerback figures to be sophomore Michael Lee (Bealeton, Va.) and junior Mike Kelleher (Swampscott, Mass.), both of whom were revelations a year ago. Lee showed outstanding athleticism and leadership potential before his season ended prematurely in Week 4, while Kelleher started all eight games and racked up 38 tackles (29 solo) with two interceptions. Kukesh, meanwhile, has earned national recognition as a preseason All-America selection by both Lindy's and D3football.com. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound, two-time All-NESCAC selection tied for the NESCAC lead in interceptions in 2012, with six, and recorded a career-high 55 tackles (43 solo).

SPECIAL TEAMS

The kicking game figures to again be a strength for the Bobcats this fall, beginning with All-NESCAC placekicker Charlie Donahue (Plymouth, N.H.), who has connected on 10 straight field goal attempts, dating to his sophomore season. His 9-for-9 effort in three-pointers last season ties as the best in New England Division III football history with Andy Benicewicz's 2001 season at Western Connecticut State.

Junior David Kurey (West Chester, Pa.) enters his third season as Bates' punter. Harriman lauds Kurey for his reliability and his knack for coffin-corner punts. He averaged 33.3 yards per kick in 2012 and tied for fifth in the NESCAC in punts landing inside the opponents' 20 yardline.

COACHES

Harriman, who coaches quarterbacks in addition to overseeing the entire football program (and serving as assistant athletic director), has most of his staff from the past several years still intact. Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Chris Kempton (8th year), offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Daryle Weiss (6th year), defensive backs and strength and conditioning coach Duncan Averill (4th year) and defensive line and special teams coach Skip Capone (17th year) afford great stability to the program. Newcomers to the coaching staff this season include a pair of recent alumni in Weston and Ryan MacDonald, in addition to Mike Davis and Geoff Rhatican.

SCHEDULE/OUTLOOK

The Bobcats convened for their testing day on Tuesday, Aug. 27, and held their first full practices on Wednesday, Aug. 28. They'll open their 2013 schedule officially on Sept. 21 against defending NESCAC champion Trinity at 1pm, followed a week later by a home game against Tufts on Sept. 28, during Parents & Family Weekend. The team then hits the road for two weeks to face Williams on Oct. 5 and Wesleyan Oct. 12, then returns home to host Middlebury on Oct. 19. The CBB schedule begins Oct. 26 at Colby, followed by a Nov. 2 Homecoming Weekend showdown against Bowdoin. The season wraps up with a road game at Hamilton on Nov. 9.

While the five wins Bates put together last year may give the Bobcats a slight boost in confidence, that's of little consequence moving forward, said Harriman. "I'm really happy for last year's seniors especially, but we've put it to bed pretty fast. The rest of us have been pretty quick in moving on to the next year. It's always a new team."