Feb 14, 2013, 1:28 PM EDT
Editor’s Note: With National Signing Day officially in the books, over the next three weeks we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we talk with Allen Lessels of the New Hampshire Union Leader about the UNH Wildcats.
What are your general impressions on this year’s Wildcat signing class?
It’s always hard to tell since we as reporters don’t always see what the coaches see, but it seems like a good solid class and addresses some needs on both sides of the ball. It’s not an overly large class, but I know they think that they have some quality players in it.
What impresses you most about this year’s class?
There’s not huge size, but there are a few good-sized guys on the line. There are also a couple defensive backs that have decent size. They really seemed to do a good job of addressing some specific needs.
While head coach McDonnell was pleased with the group’s athleticism and the flexibility it will afford them in terms of needs, the program’s 11 signees represent one of the league’s smaller classes. What factors played into the smaller size of the class?
While it is small, I think he’s happy with the versatility that will fill different needs. It was a relatively small class that they graduated, and I believe there were also a number of kids who were walk-ons or didn’t have full scholarships that the staff has taken care of now. This process filled some of their scholarship room.
Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
I think they’re essentially done as far as scholarship guys signing. I think they’re still looking at walk-ons and preferred walk-ons though. Often times, they’ve come up with these walk-ons who will play down the road. UNH is a kind of school that thrives on giving kids a chance and having some walk-ons, so there may be some more of those but probably not guys who are signing National Letters of Intent.
What particular holes was the coaching staff looking to fill with this year’s signing class and how successful were they in accomplishing this?
They filled a few holes on offensive line with several good-sized guys. On the other side of the ball, they lost a couple of tremendously productive linebackers in Matt Evans and Alan Buzbee. Evans was the Buck Buchanan Award Winner as a junior and both made a lot of tackles and filled an awful lot of holes these last three or four years. But the coaching staff came up with a couple of defensive ends and linebackers who I think may be key down the road.
With New Hampshire being a smaller state, how focused has the coaching staff traditionally been on recruiting local talent versus players from out of state?
I believe their philosophy is that they always want to keep the good New Hampshire guys here in state. As you said, it’s a smaller state and there usually aren’t a ton of guys coming out of high school to play at the Division I level.
They lose recruits to schools like Boston College and UConn every now and then, but their goal is to keep all of the other kids. This year they signed three kids from in state; all linemen as it turns out. Three out of 11 is a pretty good number, and I think they’re probably pretty happy about that.
UNH’s class is unique among many of the others across the league in that it does not include any transfers. Is this typical of the program’s recruiting classes?
That’s actually very typical. They’ve never been a school that thrives on transfers. They consider transfers and have occasionally had them, but I’d be hard-pressed to name more than two or three.
They don’t seem to bring in kids from bigger schools who are looking to transfer like other programs do. I don’t think they actively look for them, and I’d suspect that a kid looking to transfer probably doesn’t think about UNH given that they don’t have a history of bringing transfers in.
How do you think this class stacks up to others of years past?
Again, it’s difficult to tell. I know the staff has some guys that they’re excited about internally. Most have good numbers, solid production and have size and strength.
But I have yet to meet a coach who’s said, “This year’s class is a downer.” They’re usually excited about the guys they’re bringing in and are optimistic about how they’ll turn out.
Who in this year’s signing class stands out to you?
As with most people up here, I’m a little parochial and like to see New Hampshire guys stay here and do well. And I think the in-state guys have a lot of potential. Two are offensive lineman – Jake Kennedy and Will McInerny – and both are from smaller high schools. Kennedy is a guy that’s been on their radar for a while. He had interest from UMass and some other higher profile schools, but chose UNH. McInerny is an interesting guy. He’s a 6’7”, 290-pound offensive lineman who didn’t play as a senior because he’s had some knee issues, but they think he’s clear and it won’t be an issue. He could be a real diamond in the rough. The other lineman is Rich Holt from Portsmouth. He’s another good-sized kid.
In terms of out-of-state guys, they brought in a guy named Odaine Franklyn who is a linebacker and did a post-grad year up here in New Hampshire. He’s a big kid and could be one of those productive guys that steps in early. They’ve got a couple others like that, too.
The program has certainly sustained a tradition of success, as evidenced by the Wildcats owning the nation’s longest active streak of playoff appearances at nine straight. What factors have played into keeping such quality talent coming to campus?
Sean McDonnell has been here as head coach for 14 years and was an assistant and player at the school before that. He preaches and lives the whole family atmosphere dynamic.
They don’t necessarily have the nicest facilities and it’s northern New England so the weather is much colder. We just had a two-foot snowstorm, but that was after Signing Day so that was probably a good thing. Sometimes this works to your advantage, though, because one of the incoming guys has a very strong interest in hockey and we’ve got a great program up here.
But Coach McDonnell is an intense guy who brings in hard-working guys. He’s very committed to the program and what they do here. I’m sure every team says this, but there’s a real family atmosphere here.
And the team’s success is another big reason that kids choose to come here. That tradition of success is very appealing. Nine straight playoff appearances is really amazing when you think about it. When this streak began, I don’t think anyone in the CAA had been to the playoffs more than a few years straight, so for UNH to be the team that has kept this streak alive is impressive.
Has this success changed people’s expectations for the program over the years?
Yes, the expectations are high. It’s kind of like the hockey team up here. You create a bit of a monster when you go to the playoffs multiple years in a row. That’s certainly the case inside the team as well. They expect to maintain what they’ve been doing, which clearly is not an easy thing to do in the CAA
The Wildcats have never advanced past the quarterfinals of the FCS Championship. How much pressure is there for the program to get over the hump?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of fan pressure like there would be at some places. Fans would like it and the state would like it. So there’s pressure in that way
Internally, I’m sure there’s some pressure. They’re well aware that they’ve made the playoffs but haven’t been able to take that next step past the quarterfinals. At the end of each season, I think they take an honest look at the season and how they do get to that next step. A lot of what they do between winter workouts, recruiting and in general in the offseason is thinking about that.
Do you have a sense of expectations for the program in 2013?
I think they’re high again. They have a lot of weapons back on offense. As has been the case, they need to improve the defense. Their defense has done some good things, but they’ve given up a lot of yards and a lot of points this past year and in other years.
This time last year, the big question coming out of the season was that they had a lot of weapons but didn’t know what they were going to do about quarterback. And of course last fall they had two quarterbacks in Sean Goldrich and Andy Vailas. Because of injuries both had a chance to play.
I’m sure Sean McDonnell doesn’t plan to have two quarterbacks playing this year. I think he likes both guys and what they’ve done, but it’s taken away from the continuity that you’re able to establish by going with one guy. Ideally, they hope to have a number one, which will create some good competition between now and the beginning of the season.
So quarterback isn’t so much a question these days. They still have a pretty good corps of running backs and wide receivers. Again, the defense needs some work, but it’s also played pretty well down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs.
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