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UNH football team meets media as camp gets under way

DURHAM – The joy ran thick yesterday at Cowell Stadium as the University of New Hampshire football team gathered for its annual media day. The players were all smiles and swagger, mugging in the sun for cameras and chatting with reporters.

“Always excited at the beginning of the season,” said junior linebacker Akil Anderson, who led the team last year with 124 tackles. “We’ve been working really hard for a long time, so it’s good to come back out and play ball, play the game we love. I’m just excited to cut it loose and play with my family again.”

The Wildcats opened camp on Monday and will have a total of 20 practices (including six two-a-day sessions) before the annual end-of-camp Blue-White scrimmage on Aug. 21. After that, they’ll have a little more than a week to prepare for their season opener at FBS Toledo on Aug. 30.

The Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll had UNH picked to finish first in the league, and the ’Cats were ranked No. 4 in the FCS Coaches Poll that was released on Monday. Coach Sean McDonnell doesn’t put much stock in those rankings, but he wasn’t surprised by them, either.

“I knew in May that we would be highly ranked, that we had a good team coming back and everybody knew it,” McDonnell said. “So we sent a message out saying we’ve got to come back in the best shape of our lives and everybody knew it and they came in ready to go.”

That offseason effort is already evident on the field.

“I’ll be honest, when we were practicing all I could think about was how fast everyone looked,” said Franklin’s Matt Kaplan, a senior defensive tackle preparing for his third year as a starter. “I think since I’ve been here we’ve gotten faster every year and this is the fastest I’ve ever seen the team, from people pursuing the ball to our receivers running. We look good right now. We’re the heaviest we’ve ever been on the o-line and d-line in a while and everyone is moving well.”

The players weren’t the only ones working hard in the offseason. McDonnell spent time at Boston College talking to the staff and he also attended the organized team activities with the Philadelphia Eagles and old friend Chip Kelly.

“It’s been a good summer with us trying to improve what we do, not just me, but everybody in the program,” McDonnell said.

That’s good news for New Hampshire fans, because the Wildcats were pretty good last year. They finished 10-5, reached the FCS semifinals for the first time in school history and finished ranked No. 5 in the country.

The ’Cats return nine offensive starters from that team, and 30 letterwinners, including their quarterback (Sean Goldrich), leading rusher (Nico Steriti) and top receiving threat (R.J. Harris).

“My expectations every year are to be the best team in the league, if not the country. We strive to do that,” Goldrich said. “Offensively, we know we always have some great athletes and with the scheme and the veterans that we have now, and with guys stepping up, I feel like we’re playing in sync more than we’ve ever done. … I’m more excited than I’ve ever been.”

The biggest question mark on the offensive side is on the line, where the Wildcats lost both tackles. Concord’s Andrew Lauderdale, a 6-foot-6, 254-pound sophomore who went to Trinity High, is competing for one of those spots along with senior Alex Blane (6-4, 290) and junior Austin Heter (6-4, 277).

While UNH did have an historically successful season last year, it ended with a 52-14 semifinal loss in the semifinals to three-time national champion North Dakota State. It was disappointing at the time, but now the ’Cats can use it to motivate and as a learning tool.

“It did add fuel to the fire. We got to get out to North Dakota and see what a national championship team is like,” Harris said. “Just being able to experience that for the first time in UNH history gave us an idea of what we had to work on in the offseason, how we had to improve, and the areas we had to improve on, so when we get back there, hopefully, we can be more successful.”

But the Wildcats haven’t spent too much time dwelling on that night in the Fargo Dome.

“It was great experience for us, but it was last year,” said Steriti, who finished 2013 with 1,062 rushing yards to become UNH’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002. “If we keep worrying about last year and what we did last year and how everything worked out last year, I feel like you lose track of this year and what you’ve got to do today.”

The UNH defense returns about as much talent as the New Hampshire offense. Eight starters, and 28 letterwinners, are back on the defensive side, including the top two tacklers (linebackers Anderson and Shane McNeeley), the top two cornerbacks (Casey DeAndrade and Steven Thames) and the two sack leaders (Kaplan and Cody Muller).

“I think we can be really good,” Kaplan said. “We’ve got to go out and have a good camp and get better at certain things, but with the amount of experience we have returning and because some of our guys were out in the spring and some of the young guys were able to practice, I think they sky’s the limit for our defense.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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