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September 04. 2013 9:48PM

UNH opener

UNH Wildcats football defense has something to prove


UNH Quarterback Andy Vailas and reciever Justin Mello joke around during Media Day on Aug. 11. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER)

DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire has qualified for the Football Championship Subdivision tournament nine straight years. On Saturday in Mount Pleasant, Mich., the Wildcats begin a quest to run that best-in-the-nation mark to a nice, round 10.

There are a few other digits that have the Wildcats riled up and ready to go this season, too: 64, 64 and 0.

All are ugly numbers.

The first two were the points put up in a couple of last season's losses. UNH fell 64-61 at Old Dominion in September and 64-35 to Towson in its final regular-season game, at home, on Nov. 17.

The third is the number of points the offense put up in a 23-7 loss at Wofford — defensive end Cody Muller scored the lone touchdown with a returned fumble — that quickly ended UNH's stay in the 2012 playoffs last December."We didn't score a single point," said senior running back and co-captain Chris Setian. "That's not what this offense has been about my whole career here and what our tradition is."

The guys on defense certainly didn't feel any better about the twin-64s.

"ODU was an absolutely awful feeling," said junior Matt Kaplan of Franklin, a starting defensive tackle. "And Towson — what they did to us on our field was just not acceptable."

The ugly numbers have fueled both sides of the ball, the offense and the defense, through the offseason and into a campaign that features a tough schedule, which opens against Central Michigan, a Football Bowl Subdivision team coming off a 59-9 loss at Michigan on Saturday.

The Wildcats return an offense that has most of its weapons back from a year ago, led by quarterback Andy Vailas, the junior out of Bedford, Bishop Guertin High School of Nashua and Phillips Exeter Academy.

Vailas edged out sophomore backup Sean Goldrich for the starting job — they began last season in opposite roles, and each started six games at the position — in part because of his explosiveness as a runner and passer.

Seamus O'Neil, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 280-pound Manchester High School Central product, is back to anchor a veteran offensive line at left tackle. Senior guard Sean Ryan of Londonderry (6-foot-2, 293 pounds) will start for the first time beside him at left guard if he's OK after hurting his knee in practice earlier this week.

Wide receiver R.J. Harris caught 84 passes for 1,059 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore last season, and classmate Nico Steriti rushed for 921 yards with a 6.6-yards per carry average and nine scores. Senior wide receiver Justin Mello, who totaled 44 catches with five TDs over the past two seasons, also should play a prominent role in the 'Cat attack.

The defense has more holes to fill, starting at linebacker, where Matt Evans, the leading tackler in school history, and Alan Buzbee have graduated.

Junior Shane McNeely and sophomore Akil Anderson are the starters at linebacker, and redshirt freshman DeVaughn Chollette is in the mix.

Former defensive tackle Jared Smith has moved on to the NFL, where he's on the practice squad of the Seattle Seahawks as an offensive lineman.

Kaplan and senior Sean McCann start at defensive tackle, and sophomores Julian Turner and Rashid Armand back them up.

Big things are expected from redshirt freshman cornerback Casey DeAndrade and sophomore defensive back Hayden Knudson, among others.

The Wildcats have adopted a motto of "Prove It Today."

They want to prove they belong in the discussion of the nation's FCS elite teams, and part of the mission is not only to make the playoffs, but to advance deep into them and make a run at a national championship. In this nine-year stretch of playoff appearances, they have not made it past the quarterfinals.

There have been changes to the defense in terms of how assignments are called in order to speed things up, and the unit wants to prove that the 64-point games were an aberration.

"Everyone's sick of hearing, 'If the defense was better, we'd have this many more wins,'" Kaplan said.

And he said that before The Sports Network, which covers FCS football better than anyone else, predicted last week that UNH's defense would keep it from making the national tournament for a 10th straight season.

"Everyone's entitled to their opinion," said senior safety and co-captain Manny Asam. "We don't listen to all that stuff."

His view clearly differs from that of The Sports Network.

"We have big, big, big, big goals for this year," Asam said. "And I think we have something to prove, like our motto says. We can't wait to start playing."

The wait finally ends on Saturday.

alessels@unionleader.comTwitter: @AllenLessels


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