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Football Season Preview: Experienced, balanced Bobcats set to open at Trinity

Running back Tyler Janssen (24) and defensive back Trevor Lyons (15) hope to finish their Bates football careers with a bang in 2016. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College) 

Bates Bobcast Episode 38: 2016 Football Preview

LEWISTON, Maine -- The Bates College football team has veteran experience returning to every position group as the Bobcats enter the 2016 season, with one notable exception. How Bates fares at the quarterback position, and how well the team takes advantage of the silver lining presented by the 2-6, 2015 CBB champion team's spate of injuries, may go a long way to determining Bates' fortunes in 2016.

The Bobcats officially open the season this Saturday at 1pm at Trinity College, in the New England Small College Athletic Conference rivals' first meeting since 2013. The perennial league power Bantams finished 7-1 in 2015, second in the NESCAC.

Nineteenth-year head coach Mark Harriman foresees the Bobcats' biggest strength to be on defense, while the Bobcats' triple-option offense attempts to be more balanced by passing the ball more than in 2015. 

Here's a look at the 2016 Bobcats, position by position:

OFFENSE

Slotback and the offensive line look like they'll be Bates strengths on the offensive side of the ball, with receiver, running back and quarterback more in the promising category.

Quarterback: The $64,000 question for Bates is at QB. The Bobcats have three QBs on the roster in sophomore Sandy Plashkes (Del Mar, Calif.) and freshmen Kody Greenhalgh (Warwick, R.I.) and Matt Golden (New Bedford, Mass.). The question isn't about ability, Harriman says. But there's no getting around the fact that Plashkes, who took a handful of snaps as a rookie without attempting a pass, is the team's only signal-caller with any college experience.

"I have all the faith in the world in Sandy. I think he's a good athlete, he has a quick release, a relatively strong arm and he's athletic enough to make plays," said Harriman. 

"Kody is a lot like Sandy, very athletic, and he's got relatively good arm strength. Going from high school to college will be a transition for him, like it would be for any other guy. Matt Golden, like Kody is athletic enough to be capable of playing other positions. I think they're both very good quarterback prospects."

Plashkes will get the starting nod for the season opener. Whomever plays quarterback going forward will be the one who demonstrates the best command of the offense -- that is, the one who consistently makes the right call on whether to pass, hand off, pitch out or run with the ball. Both Greenhalgh and Golden ran in option offenses in high school.

"What they have to do is make their reads, and that's all about repetition. So we'll have to see who can grasp that."

Running Back: At running back, or the "dive back" in triple-option parlance, senior Tyler Janssen moves over from slotback, after missing his junior season with an injury. As a sophomore, Janssen rushed for 127 yards with two touchdowns. Senior Ryan Spillane (Medfield, Mass.) has similarly shown playmaking abilities, with 116 yards on 34 rushes over the past two years. But the Week 1 starter at the position will be sophomore Peter Boyer (Dover-Foxcroft, Maine), who has been impressive in practices. Boyer saw spot duty late in 2015, rushing for 43 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Receiver: Bates' receiving corps has an almost entirely new look in the wake of two-time All-NESCAC wideout Mark Riley's graduation. But Harriman believes the unit -- led by sophomore Marcus Ross (Mansfield, Texas) and juniors Brian Daly (Marblehead, Mass.) and Noah Stebbins (Biddeford, Maine) -- will prove to be better than last year's, and perhaps the key to his goal of passing the ball more.

"I'm not sure we'll have that kind of deep threat that we had with Mark Riley for the past couple years, but I think overall we'll be a better receiving corps," said Harriman. "We'll be back to what we've been. He became a little bit of a crutch for the QB and that's not what we're trying to do. I think Marcus Ross is going to be a very good receiver, and Brian Daly had a great offseason. Noah Stebbins is coming over from the defense and gives us a little bigger body type receiver."

Slotback: The slotback position includes Bates' two most proven playmakers in junior starters Frank Williams (Brookline, Mass.) and Mickoy Nichol (Dennis Port, Mass.). Williams rushed for 287 yards on 55 carries in 2015 (5.2 yards per carry) and scored three touchdowns. He's also Bates' leading returning receiver, with seven receptions in 2015. Nichols missed the last two games of the year but finished with 152 yards on the ground and 111 through the air on 32 total touches. Junior Sean Peterson (Maynard, Mass.) and sophomore Kyle Flaherty (Litchfield, Maine) also showed flashes in limited action last year.

"Our slotbacks are a really talented group," said Harriman. "That's one of the reasons we had Tyler make a move. They're all capable of making plays, and they all want to be in that position. We need to keep them on the field and for them to keep the ball off the ground."

Offensive Line: Center James Fagan (Lynnfield, Mass.) and offensive tackle Mitch Hildreth (Needham, Mass.) are the only two seniors starting on offense in Week 1, and they lead a unit that will be crucial to Bates' fortunes when the Bobcats have the ball. Physical junior Sean Lovett (Groveland, Mass.) became a starting tackle midway through the 2015 season, gaining invaluable experience. Starting at guard in Week 1 will be sophomore Martin Guinee (Malden, Mass.) and junior Dylan Rasch (Cumberland, Maine). Sure to be mixed in along the line are sophomore Dan Marino (Marblehead, Mass.) and junior Mike Cronin (Quincy, Mass.).

"For some guys [on the offensive line], I think it's time for them to make their move," said Harriman. "I think we have to take the next step as a group and get back to being more of a dominant offensive line, rather than just solid."

DEFENSE

On paper, it's hard to find many holes on Bates' 3-5-3 defense, if any. The team's linebackers and defensive backfield are clearly strengths, while the defensive line is also as solid a unit as Harriman could wish for.

Defensive Backs: 2015 All-NESCAC cornerback Brandon Williams (Gardner, Mass.) and captain Trevor Lyons (Hamilton, Mass.) head one of Bates' strongest position groups. Lyons (four interceptions, 44 tackles), one of Bates' most reliable and athletic defenders throughout his career, plays an excellent cornerback, but he'll start the season as Bates' free safety. Sophomores Arthur Churchwell (Newton, Mass.) will start opposite Williams (five interceptions, 59 tackles) at corner, with sophomore Coy Candelario (Haverhill, Mass.) and Kevin Claflin (Ashland, Mass.), who missed the 2015 season with injury, also likely to play right away.

At outside linebacker -- also termed "down safety" in the 3-5-3 -- two athletic players on the tall side will start in Week 1, in junior Andrew Jenkelunas (Rocky Hill, Conn.; 38 tackles) and sophomore Joe Frake (Windham, N.H.; 42 tackles), with Jenkelunas on the weak side and Frake on the strong side. Frake's emergence last year allowed him to start at free safety and move Lyons to cornerback. Churchwell, Candelario and/or Claflin could see time here as well.

Linebackers: Senior captain Mark Upton (Winthrop, Mass.), a two-time All-NESCAC selection and was a Division II/III All-New England pick a year ago, is one of the best players Harriman has coached at Bates. He's flanked by a pair of very solid fellow inside linebackers in senior Sam Francis (Newburyport, Mass.) and junior Max Breschi (Carlisle, Pa.), who were both very productive as starters last season. Also in the ILB mix are sophomores Chase Fulton (Benecia, Calif.) and Bobby Dee (Plymouth, Mass.) and senior former running back Ivan Reese (Savannah, Ga.).

Defensive Line: Harriman sees the D-line as a "very strong position" for Bates, starting with the massive nose tackle tandem of junior Collin Richardson (Kensington, N.H.) and Connor DeSantis (Georgetown, Mass.). Defensive end is among Bates' deepest groups. Harriman will look for an increased pass rush from his Week 1 starting ends, junior Jack Maritz (St. Louis, Mo.) and senior Sean Antonuccio (Boxford, Mass.), as well as the deeper group including senior Kentavius Dumas (Atlanta, Ga.), senior Andrew Segal (Glencoe, Ill.), sophomore Tyler Harrington (Haverhill, Mass.) and sophomore Walter Washington (Rockland, N.Y.).

"That's a pretty good group," said Harriman. "We may have two starters, but we'll have guys rolling in and out. It helps your pass rush tremendously when guys are fresh."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Grant DeWald (Duxbury, Mass.) returns as the starting placekicker following a second solid season. Harriman is hoping Bates will see an improvement in the usually accurate kicker's range. First-year Benjamin Skeist (Longmeadow, Mass.) is the backup. At punter, sophomore Justin Foley (Lynnfield, Mass.) returns from a very effective rookie season (37.2 yards per punt, 23 of 57 inside the 20) that Harriman termed a pleasant surprise. "Quote" 

The secret weapon here is junior Luke MacDonald (Norwell, Mass.), whom Harriman calls "one of the best long snappers I've ever seen."

COACHING STAFF

This will be the second straight year that Harriman has needed to fill a coordinator void. Last year Harriman himself took over as offensive coordinator after the departure of Daryle Weiss; this year it was defensive coordinator Chris Kempton moving on to another opportunity. Seventh-year defensive and special teams assistant Duncan Averill was the natural choice to move into the position. 

"Duncan has been with us a long time, he knows the scheme, and he will do a very good job," said Harriman. "He did a great job with special teams last year; I was really impressed with his organization."

Brett McAllister '12 enters his fifth year of coaching as Bates' new defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, while newcomer Spencer Emerson coaches cornerbacks. 

After coaching quarterbacks and running backs for six years and coordinating the offense in 2015, Harriman is moving back to the defense with to coach linebackers. 

Harriman is filling the offensive coordinator vacancy with a well-known quantity, as 20th-year assistant coach Skip Capone becomes Bates' offensive coordinator for the first time, while continuing as offensive line coach. Capone will be supported on offense by three newcomers to the staff: Bob Chaisson will coach slotbacks and Ryan Bentley will coach wide receivers, while former Amherst and Springfield assistant Tino Lopes fills Harriman's shoes as quarterbacks and running backs coach. 

"I've always tried to bounce around, depending on where the most experience on our staff is," Harriman said. "Skip and I have worked together for a long time, we're really on the same page, he's done a great job on offensive side, and I have a lot of confidence in him doing that. It evens out where we are."

SCHEDULE

Following the Trinity game, Bates travels to Tufts to face the resurgent Jumbos, who finished third in the conference with a 6-2 mark. The Bobcats play their home opener during Back to Bates Weekend, Oct. 8 against Williams. Wesleyan (Oct. 15), Colby (Oct. 29) and Hamilton (Nov. 12) will complete the 2016 home slate.