Reluctantly, Wesley moves on without Drass

“I have big shoes to fill,” said Wesley’s new head coach Chip Knapp, the highly-regarded offensive coordinator who also started coaching at Wesley in 1989. “Coach (Mike) Drass is Wesley football. He’s been a great friend.” Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Mike Drass and Chip Knapp built this thing together.

It took three decades.

But, over the last 13 years, the two coaches and friends weren’t afraid to put their Wesley College football program up against any small-college team in the country.

Now, though, Knapp and his coaching staff will have to carry on without Drass, who died suddenly in May.

There will no doubt be plenty of heavy hearts when the No. 9 Wolverines open the season on Friday by hosting No. 17 Delaware Valley. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Mike Drass Field at Miller Stadium.

It will be the first Wesley game since 1989 without Drass on the sideline and the first since ‘93 without Drass as the Wolverines’ head coach.

But Wesley’s goals will remain the same with Knapp now head coach: To try to earn its 14th straight trip to

Mike Drass

the NCAA Division III tournament, to try to capture its fourth New Jersey Athletic Conference title in a row and to, perhaps, challenge for a national crown.

“I have big shoes to fill,” said Knapp, the highly-regarded offensive coordinator who also started coaching at Wesley in 1989. “Coach Drass is Wesley football. He’s been a great friend.

“We have great people in our program,” he said. “We have great players, great coaches. … I’m really excited about how it’s going to play out. I’m really excited about the wealth of talent we have, how they learn the system and get ready to play their first game.”

Wolverines quarterback Khaaliq Burroughs (No. 15) and running back E.J. Lee (No. 23) are key players on offense. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

In the Wolverines’ current 13-year playoff streak, they’ve lost as many as three games in a season just twice. They’re 144-25 in that span.

Those are some lofty standards to try to uphold. With veteran talent in a lot of places on the field, Wesley has again been picked to win the NJAC as well as being ranked in the Top 10 by D3football.com.

The Wolverines will aim to make this season a special one in Drass’ memory.

“Of course, that’s what we plan to do,” said senior center Devin Miller, a Cape Henlopen High grad. “The biggest thing is the impact that he’s had. The younger guys, the freshman coming in, they don’t quite know what it was like to have him. Us older guys, we can try to carry on his traditions but we would never be able to do his impact justice.

“We want to do all we can to make him proud and play for him just as if he was still here.”

Offensively, the Wolverines have some marquee players to build around. Junior E.J. Lee was seventh nationally in rushing yards last fall (277 carries-1,582 yards, 22 TDs), receiver Alex Kemp (59 catches-934 yards, 6 TDs) is always a big-play threat and senior Khaaliq Burroughs (178-of-290, 2,483 yards, 13 INTs, 20 TDs) is back for his second year as the starting quarterback.

“Over the years, we’ve had great quarterbacks,” said Knapp. “And we’ve seen the biggest jump from their first year as a starter to their second year as a starter. I’m seeing the same thing with Khaaliq Burroughs. That’s going to be a real key to our season.”

Led by senior tackle Nick Glover, shown above in action last year, head coach Chip Knapp thinks the Wolverines’ defensive front is as deep and talented as anybody’s. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Up front, Wesley has to replace as talented an offensive lineman as the program has ever seen in Matt Gono, who’s now with the Atlanta Falcons. They also lost offensive line coach Jeff Braxton to Delaware State.

On the other hand, seniors Mo Manuel and Miller — who moves from tackle to center — are both veterans.

Drass’ loss will be especially felt on defense, where he ran things for so long. Knapp did bring in a 47-year veteran coach in Joe Bottiglieri as defensive coordinator.

Led by senior tackle Nick Glover, Knapp thinks the Wolverines’ defensive front is as deep and talented as anybody’s. Wesley graduated some talented linebackers but may have found an impact player in Nazir Williams, a transfer from Connecticut.

In the secondary, safety Cappadonna Miller has been an all-conference player while Coray Williams gives the Wolverines a 6-3, 220-pound presence.

Clearly, though, moving on without Drass will continue to be an adjustment for the Wolverines. Some things will be easier than others.

“It’s actually kind of weird not hearing his voice — hearing him yelling and stuff like that,” said Lee. “You’ll turn around and you’ll think Coach Drass is there.

“All of our goals are still here,” said Lee. “You can say, ‘Well maybe Coach Drass wouldn’t have done that’ but you’ve got to trust the coaches and what they’re doing and what they’re saying that it’s going to work.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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