Cloudy
34°
Cloudy
Hi 37° | Lo 32°

No escaping Kaplan’s presence on UNH football team

  • Franklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

    Franklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

  • Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

    Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

  • Franklin's Matt Kaplan, defensive tackle for UNH

    Franklin's Matt Kaplan, defensive tackle for UNH

  • Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

    Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

  • Franklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.
  • Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.
  • Franklin's Matt Kaplan, defensive tackle for UNH
  • Fanklin's Matt Kaplan (60) makes his presence felt on the defensive line for UNH.

DURHAM – He has become a cornerstone in the defensive foundation and one of the leaders for the University of New Hampshire, the fourth-ranked team in the FCS. But the first time Franklin’s Matt Kaplan tried to play football, things didn’t go so well.

“I was too fat to play Pop Warner,” Kaplan said. “My parents finally let me and my brother go sign up and when I stepped on the scale, they were like, ‘You’re way too heavy.’ ”

Kaplan jealously watched that season as his brother Nate played. Matt got his chance with the middle school team the next year, and he immediately knew it had been worth the wait.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I absolutely loved it right away, and I wouldn’t stop talking to my dad about it,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan, a 6-foot-1, 302-pound senior defensive tackle, became a full-time starter at UNH as a sophomore in 2012 and last year he tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks. Despite his accomplishments and status, he still approaches the game with the enthusiasm of a sixth-grader putting on the pads for the

first time.

“Matt plays with great energy, I love playing with him,” junior linebacker Akil Anderson said. “We keep each other motivated and hyped up during the game. He’s New Hampshire’s finest.”

It’s not unusual to see Kaplan celebrating after a big play, but he also knows how to focus his ample supply of energy. He was a three-sport standout at Franklin High, winning two Division II wrestling titles, throwing the shot put well enough to earn a partial scholarship offer to the University of Rhode Island, and starring as a two-way lineman on the football team.

With just one sport to focus on in college, Kaplan has spent his extra time and energy fine tuning his craft and body. He puts in extra work mastering the hand techniques and footwork critical to defensive linemen. In the summer of 2011, he radically changed his diet with former UNH kicker Mike MacArthur, who monitored their food intake, fat loss and muscle gain as part of an academic study. This summer, Kaplan wanted to improve his hip flexibility, so he made a point to stretch three times a day, combining techniques he learned in yoga and from the UNH training staff.

His teammates see, and appreciate, all that effort.

“He’s a great football player and he’s a hard worker. There’s never going to be a day where he’s a kid you’ve got to worry about slacking on the field,” said Cody Muller, a senior co-captain and defensive end. “When he goes out there he gives 100 percent, no matter what it is – in the weight room, out on the field, doing sprints.”

His coaches like to use that effort as an example to others.

“The way he plays, how hard he plays, it’s easy for us as coaches to stop the film and show somebody how you want them to do something,” New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell said.

McDonnell didn’t expect to use Kaplan as a role model after the coach saw the kid from Franklin at one of UNH’s summer camps for high school players. McDonnell still wasn’t sure what Kaplan would bring to the team when he walked on as a true freshman in the summer of 2010, but the coach soon found out.

“It was overwhelming when I first got here, but what made it a little more fun was we were low that year on numbers for defensive tackles, so a couple of times Coach Mac talked to me and told me I was a couple of (injuries) away from playing,” Kaplan said. “I never thought I would possibly hear that as a true freshman walk-on, but I was happy I did.”

He didn’t play that season, but he saw action in 11 games as a redshirt freshman, including two starts, and finished the season with 15 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss. He started all 12 games the following season, led all defensive linemen with 47 tackles and tied for the team lead with two fumble recoveries.

The tackle total dropped to 36 last year, but Kaplan was still doing his job occupying opposing linemen so linebackers Anderson (team-high 124 tackles) and Shane McNeely (120 tackles) could make plays.

“Matt makes my job a lot easier because he holds up a lot of those big guys who are coming to get me,” Anderson said. “If there was anyone else in front of me, who knows what would happen. He is one of the best guys I could have playing there.”

Kaplan did have those 6.5 sacks last year, two of which came in a season-turning win against Villanova. The Wildcats were 2-3 at the time and another loss would have probably ended their string of playoff appearances. Instead, with Kaplan leading the defensive effort, UNH pulled out a 29-28 victory that sparked a season-closing run of five wins in six games and pushed the ’Cats into the playoffs for the 10th straight year, the best streak in the country.

Thanks in large part to its improving defense, UNH continued its hot run in the playoffs, winning three postseason games and reaching the FCS semifinals for the first time in school history. It was a great season for the Wildcats, but Kaplan made sure his teammates remembered how it ended – a 52-14 semifinal loss at three-time defending champion North Dakota State – to help motivate them this summer.

“Everyone is happy because we had such a good year and made it to the semis, but one of the things I told the D-line when I talked to them before the summer was, we made it far, but at the end of the day we still got our butts whipped by a better team,” Kaplan said. “So we have to get better. We have to get bigger and stronger. They were able to impose their will on us and that’s what we have to be able to do against those type of teams.”

And that’s the kind of leadership McDonnell wants from Kaplan this year.

“I expect big things out of him this year,” the coach said. “He’s got an opportunity to be a very good football player in this league and his leadership, not only for the defensive line but for the whole defense, is really important for us.”

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

Related

Matt Kaplan’s career highs at UNH

Monday, August 11, 2014

Solo tackles 6, vs. Delaware, 2012 Assisted tackles 4, at Towson, 2013 Total tackles 7, at Old Dominion, 2012 Sacks 2, at Villanova, 2013 Fumbles forced 1, at Lehigh, 2011 Fumbles recovered 2, vs CCSU, 2012 …

Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.