2019 CAA Preview: New Hampshire Wildcats

Strange as it may sound, there’s no place University of New Hampshire safety Pop Lacey would rather have Thanksgiving dinner this year than the UNH dining hall. Lacey’s preference has less to do with the quality of the food served on campus than it does with the length of his team’s season.

When UNH qualifies for the FCS playoffs the team remains on campus through the Thanksgiving holiday to prepare for its upcoming game. The Wildcats reached the postseason for 14 years in a row until the streak ended last season, when they started 0-4 and finished 4-7 overall and 3-5 in the CAA.

“It was very disappointing,” Lacey said. “As a team you’re not used to sitting at home while everybody else is playing, and going home during Thanksgiving. I enjoy spending time with my family, but I’d rather be up here with my football family. It definitely gives us a chip on our shoulder this year because last year we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

UNH returns 11 starters from a year ago—six on offense—and was picked seventh in the CAA preseason poll. The Wildcats’ level of success this season will likely be decided by the production they get at three positions: quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker.

“When you’re vacationing in Colorado Springs visiting your son and there’s playoff games on TV, it’s not very tasty,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “But at the same time it’s a check on what we do and how we do it. The kids have talked about leaving a legacy of who they are and what they are, and they want to get back into the playoffs … I don’t think we’re as far away as some people think we are.”

Offense

Who will be the starting quarterback? That’s a question being asked a lot in and around Durham, N.H., these days. The most likely candidates appear to be true freshman Max Brosmer, a Georgia native who enrolled in college last January; and redshirt freshman Bret Edwards, who didn’t get any game action last season and was injured for much of spring practice. 

Sophomore Tommy Herion, who transferred to UNH after joining the University of Iowa program as a walk-on, is the only QB on the roster with college game experience. He completed 25 of 53 passes for 284 yards last season.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Wildcats use more than one quarterback, since that’s something they’ve done in past years—even in some of their most successful seasons.

“Brosmer and Edwards are doing what we thought they were going to do,” McDonnell said. “Nobody has separated themselves from each other. Tommy Herion’s done a good job when he’s got his reps. All I know is this: Whoever is under center is going to be the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”

Injuries ravaged the offensive line last season, when nine players made at least one start up front. Seven of those linemen are back this year to help pave the way for a talented group of running backs that includes sophomore Carlos Washington, senior Evan Gray and redshirt freshman Dylan Laube. Washington led UNH in carries (99), yards rushing (582) and rushing touchdowns (six) last year. He also caught 17 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown.

Neil O’Connor and Kieran Presley accounted for 104 of the team’s 183 receptions in 2018, and both have graduated. UNH will be looking for a big season from senior wide receiver Malik Love, who had a team-high 59 catches as a freshman and 70 receptions as a sophomore, but missed most of last season with a lingering hamstring injury. McDonnell said the team has to get tight end Justin Malone-Woods more involved in the offense this season. Malone-Woods had nine catches for 80 yards and a TD last year.

Defense

The secondary, which features senior cornerbacks Isiah Perkins and Prince Smith Jr., may be the team’s No. 1 strength. Smith has been a starter since the third game of his freshman season -- he was the CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year that season -- and Perkins has started in each of UNH’s 25 games the last two years. 

There’s also experience at safety with Lacey, a senior, junior Evan Horn and sophomore Pop Bush, who played in seven games as a freshman. Lacey, who tied for the team lead in tackles last season with 79 (50 solo), was named to the CAA Preseason All-Conference Team.

The Wildcats took an unexpected hit at linebacker when an off-season incident at a UNH fraternity resulted in inside linebacker Quinlen Dean being suspended by the school. Dean, who took part in spring practice, has transferred to Marshall for his final season of eligibility. Senior Michael Balsamo, who began his college career as a safety, has played in 24 games at linebacker (four starts) over the past two seasons and has the most experience at that position of any player on the roster.

The Wildcats allowed an average of 186 yards rushing per game during their 1-5 start last year, but whittled that number to 60 yards per game over the final five contests, when they went 3-2. UNH returns five players on the defensive line who have significant experience, including junior defensive end Brian Carter and junior defensive tackle Elijah Lewis. Carter played in eight games last season and finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks. Lewis started all 11 games last fall and was second among defensive linemen with 34 tackes, including five tackles for loss.

“The position right now that’s up in the air is linebacker,” UNH defensive coordinator John Lyons said. “The back end is where we have most of our experience. We haven’t been making a lot of mental mistakes there.”

Special Teams

This could be an area of strength for the Wildcats, who return both kickers and their top two punt returners from last season. 

Senior Drew Sanborn finished third in the CAA with an average of 40.2 yards per punt a year ago and had 27 punts that pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line. Jason Hughes, a junior, returns as the starting placekicker. Hughes was 22 of 22 on point-after kicks and made 5 of his 8 field goal attempts in 2018. He also handled kickoffs for the final four games of the season.

“(Sanborn) has remarkable accuracy,” McDonnell said. “He has an opportunity to be a huge weapon for us.”

Lacey and Horn have been the team’s primary punt returners for the past two seasons. Love, Laube and wide receiver C.J. Turner are in the mix to return kickoffs.

Noteworthy

  • Evan Horn was a guard on the UNH basketball team as a freshman.
  • Senior offensive tackle Noah Robison will not play this season. He was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a shoulder injury. Robison was the team’s starting right tackle for most of last season.
  • Lyons said cornerback Randall Harris, a transfer from Central Michigan, could get significant playing time this season. Harris also returns kicks.
  • McDonnell is in his 21st season as UNH’s head coach and his 28th season on the staff overall.
  • Former Brown head coach Phil Estes is a volunteer assistant on the UNH staff.
  • The Wildcats will open their season Sept. 7 at Holy Cross.

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