Wolverines look to build off last season

Wesley’s Samer Manna and the rest of the Wolverines want to make it further than the NJAC championship like they did last year. Wesley fell 2017 in double-overtime against John Carroll in last year’s NCAA Divsion III football playoffs. (File photo)

DOVER — All Samer Manna could do was watch helplessly from behind the play.

John Carroll’s Anthony Leonetti simply had too much open space in front of him as he sprinted 14 yards before breaking a tackle at the goal line.

The touchdown, on a short screen pass, gave the Blue Streaks a crushing 20-17, double-overtime victory over Wesley College in the second round of last year’s NCAA Division III football playoffs.

“I mean, it was a great game, don’t get me wrong,” said Manna, the Wolverines’ senior linebacker. “John Carroll’s a great team. It was neck-and-neck until the end. Just one simple play made it.

“It’s been in the back of my mind since then,” he said. “It’s really what’s fueling my fire going into this season. You never want to lose like that in the playoffs. But it happens. You’ve just got to move on and get better from it.”

And that’s basically Wesley’s plan for this season.

The Wolverines, who open the season at Delaware Valley on Thursday evening, hope that the lessons they learned in 2016 put them in position to get back in the national championship picture this fall.

For a lot of programs, going 9-3, earning the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s automatic playoff bid and reaching the second round of the NCAAs would be a fairly memorable season.

For Wesley, though, it was only the program’s second two-loss regular season since 2004 and marked the first time since 2008 that the Wolverines failed to reach at least the national quarterfinals.

Manna would like to think of last season as something of a starting point for this particular group of players. After all, the Wolverines shook off a 1-2 start to win eight straight games and earn their 12th straight NCAA Division III playoff appearance.

Wesley football coach Mike Drass will start his 25th season with the Wolverines on Thursday at Delaware Valley.

Coach Mike Drass, who starts his 25th season as Wesley’s head coach with a record of 219-59-1, does hope the Wolverines learned some things last year that they still carry with them.

“I think our kids played well down the stretch,” said Drass. “We have to build off of that. I think that carried us through the winter and spring. Half the guys are new. But, the guys who were there, they have to start carrying this team a little bit.”

Manna said he sees a lot to like about this year’s squad.

“Honestly, when I came in my freshman year, we had a really solid team,” he said, referring to Wesley’s 12-2 team in 2014. “This team right now kind of reminds me of my freshman-year team.

“Everybody’s focused, we’ve got great freshmen coming in and learning the playbook. … The goal, honestly, is to win each game each week. But the ultimate goal, obviously, is a national championship.”

The Wolverines open the season ranked a relatively-modest No. 11 in the D3football.com preseason poll. But they’re picked to win the NJAC and return a league-high nine all-conference players.

Wesley has an All-American candidate in senior offensive tackle Matt Gono, a proven starter in quarterback Nick Falkenberg and nine returning starters on defense. And they got back senior receiver James Okike, who had a big season two years ago.

Quarterback Nick Falkenberg has 14 touchdowns after winning the starting job for the final five games. (File photo)

Last season’s turnaround left the Wolverines with a healthy sense of confidence in themselves.

“I don’t think our guys ever lost faith in what we were saying,” said Drass. “We told those guys when were 1-2 that everything that we wanted to accomplish is sitting right in front of us. One of the coolest things about that season is that our kids responded to that so well.

“I don’t know if we have great depth everywhere,” he said about this year’s team. “But I think we have experience offensively, defensively and special-team wise. We’re going to have to lean on that.”

 

2017 Wolverines

Here’s a position-by-position look at the Wesley College football team for this season:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: A year ago at this time, the Wolverines were having a tough time deciding on a starting QB.

But Nick Falkenberg (Sr., 6-2, 220) emerged after winning the starting job back in the final five games of the season. He ended up earning second-team all-NJAC honors after completing 89-of-152 passes for 1,150 yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in those last five games.

Also pushing for playing time is Khaaliq Burroughs (Jr., 6-1, 195), who got on the field last year with Wesley after being out of football for a little while.

RUNNING BACK: Wesley will miss the graduated Jamar Baynard, who was a mainstay in the backfield throughout his career.

But E.J. Lee (So., 5-8, 185) was the NJAC Rookie of the Year last fall after running for 512 yards and five TDs as a freshman. Elijah Minter (Jr., 5-11, 210) gives the Wolverines another experienced back.

RECEIVER: The return of James Okike (Sr., 6-4, 225) gives Wesley a pair of big-play wideouts. With Okike sitting out last season, Alex Kemp (Jr., 5-11, 165) emerged as a top-notch receiver in his own right.

Junior Alex Kemp emerged as a top-notch receiver last season with 11 scoring touchdowns caught last season. (File photo)

Okike was a D3football.com All-American in 2015 after putting up 1,426 receiving yards and 19 TDs. Kemp is a two-time all-NJAC pick who caught 11 scoring passes a year ago.

Converted QB Dan Kesack (Sr., 6-2, 200) will start at the other receiver spot after switching to the position late last season.

At tight end, first-time starter Andrew Eagle (Jr., 6-3, 260) played in nine games last season while Ameer Watson (Sr., 6-2, 260) is also a veteran.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Wesley is pretty excited about tackle Matt Gono (Sr., 6-4, 305), an NFL prospect who made just about every Division III preseason All-American team this summer.

Blake Roberts (Sr., 5-11, 280), who moves from guard to center, is also a veteran who received honorable mention all-NJAC honors last year. But six of the other linemen on Wesley’s two-deep depth chart are either freshmen or sophomores.

Tackle Devin Miller (Jr., 6-4, 255) and guard Mujahid Manuel (Jr., 6-2, 295) are both experienced players who will have more expected from them this fall. Jamal Earls (So., 6-2, 290) steps into the other starting guard spot.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE: Coach Mike Drass thinks this year’s defensive line has a chance to be as good a front as Wesley has had.

It’s led by end Isaiah Ingram (Sr., 6-2, 240), who was an all-region honoree last year, and veteran tackle Nick Glover (Jr., 6-1, 300). Stephen Yorkman (Sr., 5-11, 285) is also an experienced tackle in a group that has six seniors or juniors among its top eight players.

The Wolverines also expect to get a contribution from former St. Georges All-Stater Stefon Woodruff (Fr., 6-4, 255), a transfer from Delaware, who only joined the squad laate in camp.

LINEBACKER: Senior Samer Manna (6-1, 228), a two-time first-team all-NJAC pick in the middle, gives Wesley a good place to start with its linebacker corps.

Outside linebacker Mike Sabino (Sr., 6-2, 225) has also played his share of football for Wesley over the last couple years. Najee Wilson (So., 6-2, 212) will start at the other outside spot with Derek Lauria (Sr., 5-9, 195) also in the picture.

SECONDARY: Drass thinks he has some talent to work with in the defensive backfield where cornerback DaJahn Lowery (Sr., 5-10, 180) was a second-team all-NJAC selection after defending or breaking up 22 passes last fall.

Versatile, two-way player Cappadonna Miller (Jr., 5-9, 165) is back at one of the safety spots, where he’ll be joined by Coray Williams (So., 6-3, 210) and Greg Taylor (Sr., 6-1, 190). Starter Daquay Harris-Winbush (Jr., 5-8, 165) and Shareef Jefferies (So., 5-9, 155) will both see time at cornerback where the Wolveriines also added former Middletown High All-Stater Isiah Mitchell (Fr., 5-11, 180), who transferred from Division I FCS Stony Brook last week.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Wesley will have a new full-time starter in Nick Bruhn (So., 6-2, 170), who is slated to handle both the place-kicking and punting duties. He hit 4-of-8 field goal attempts and punted six times last season.

Kickoff specialist Aaron Nelson (So., 6-1, 180) returns after recording 10 touchbacks last season.

 

2017 schedule
AUGUST
31-At Delaware Valley 7 p.m.
SEPTEMBER
16-At Coll. of New Jersey* noon
23-At William Patterson* 1 p.m.
30-SOUTHERN VIRGINIA* 1 p.m.
OCTOBER
7-At Frostburg State* 1 p.m.
14-KEAN* (HC) 1 p.m.
21-ROWAN* 1 p.m.
28-At Montclair State* 1 p.m.
NOVEMBER
4-SALISBURY* noon
11-CHRISTOPHER NEWPORT* noon
* NJAC game.

2016 results
8-1 NJAC, 9-3 overall
L-Delaware Valley 14-21
W-Frostburg State 43-7
L-Christopher Newport 28-42
W-Southern Virginia 63-9
W-Coll. of New Jersey 41-0
W-Kean 48-17
W-Rowan 24-17
W-Montclair State 37-14
W-Salisbury 44-27
W-William Patterson 59-14
NCAA Division III playoffs
W-Stevenson 38-17
L-John Carroll 17-20, 2 OTs

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