Last year, QB Dominic Randolph, currently in camp with the NFL's New York Giants, was at the helm of the Crusader offense, well on his way towards shattering every significant passing record in the Patriot League. His choice to return for his final year of eligibility sent shockwaves through the rest of the league, as it should have. His decision making ability and skill to find the weak spot on the opposing defense was unbelievable.
It might be understandable to believe that the loss of Randolph to the NFL would cause a dropoff. But a dropoff to being picked 4th in the preseason rankings, behind Lehigh and Lafayette? 4th, with two of Randolph's biggest receiving targets returning? 4th, with the preseason player of the year returning on defense?
"I guess we'll have to prove it on the field again this year," head coach Tom Gilmore told me after Patriot League Media day this year. (more)
"Sure, the most important piece of the offensive puzzle has left, but there are about 100 other pieces that have something to prove," the new Holy Cross blog Chu Chu Rah Rah mentions in regards to the challenges ahead for the incumbent Patriot League champs. They're right, too. Randolph won't be replaced easily, but it's not like Randolph was the be-all and end-all to the program.
Start with the dynamic duo at wideout - who, along with their very strong tight end, could very well be the best receiving trio in the league. Senior WR Bill Edger (818 yards, 5 TDs) and senior WR Freddie Santana (601 yards, 8 TDs) pair up with the one who could be the best of the bunch, 6'7 junior TE Alex Schneider (275 yards, 6 TDs) to form a daunting receiving corps. It's worth noting that these three were No. 1, 2, and 3 in receiving touchdowns last year.
But the question that everyone wants to ask Gimore and third year offensive coordinator Mike Pedone is: who's going to get them the ball?
The answer, according to the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, appears to be Texas senior QB Ryan Taggart, Randolph's backup last year. Also a holder on extra points an field goals, he hasn't had a lot of significant action for the last two years - competing a couple of passes and getting three rushing attempts in some blowout wins.
"Looking more like a defensive back or slot receiver, Ryan Taggart's biggest weapon may be his legs, not his arm," Chu Chu Rah Rah helpfully tells us. "He does have an absolute cannon of an arm, and can throw the ball a mile, but he welcomes broken plays as he can torch a defense by catching them off guard and picking up big gains on the ground."
So a talented, raw imrpoviser seems to be the new Crusader QB. Last year, though, Randolph was even more willing to take off with the ball on the ground, making him the leading rusher on the team as well as the leading everything else. Taggart seems well poised to be a similar type of guy for the 2010 version of Holy Cross.
Last year running the ball was done by committee; it would appear that it will be the case again this year, with either local favorite junior RB Matt Bellomo (442 yards rushing, 4 TDs) sophomore RB Eddie Houghton (389 yards rushing, 5 TDs) or a new face on the depth chart: sophomore RB Sam Auffant. The Crusader offense in the past has relied on all sorts of tricks to get rushing yards, like receiver end-arounds, and designed quarterback scrambles. Will they keep the Bellomo as the outside the 20s back, and migrate to Houghton, playing Leroy Hoard to Bellomo's Robert Smith?
Up front on the "O" line there remain two holdovers from what will now be called the "Randolph Era": gigantic tackle 316 lb senior OL Mike McCabe and guard senior OL Mike Bernazzani. Senior OL Scott Wise will join an experienced trench to protect Taggart and the rest of the offense: which demonstrates that despite losing Randolph, there is plenty of experience all around this offense.
The more you look at Holy Cross, you scratch your head as to why they were picked below Lehigh and Lafayette. You also begin to worry how big the chip on the shoulder on this Holy Cross team will be when Lehigh makes to trip up to Worcester this fall.
"One thing that I did take from it was how close the voting was," Gilmore told me. "It indicates that most people think this will be a very competitive season in the Patriot League and the champion will have to be able to win some closely contested contests. Each team has some big shoes to fill from last season, so the new starters around the league will have a major role to play."
After getting Taggart's feet wet in a likely home win vs. Howard of the MEAC, Holy Cross will once again have a tough schedule to test them this year, with road games against UMass and perennial Ivy League title favorites Harvard and a home tilt with Brown. But the real season for the Crusaders will start at Halloween - assuming they beat Georgetown - when they line up against Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell to determine who will win the Patriot League in 2010.
With all the emphasis on offense, folks outside of central Massachusetts tend to forget about Holy Cross' defense. Who do they have returning, you ask? Try the preseason Patriot League defensive player of the year.
Senior DE Mude Ohimor, who led Holy Cross with seven sacks last year, seems like he's going to once again be a force to be reckoned with on the "D" line. “Mude (pronounced “mood”) is one of those rare guys who improves every year,” Gilmore told the Stoughton (MA) Journal. “He’s very confident in his abilities. He’s the best pass rusher in the league and we expect him to be a dominant force this season.”
Ohimor, along with highly regarded 290 lb sophomore DT Jack Maliska anchoring the middle of fifth year defensive coordinator Richard Rogers' 3-4 defense, the Crusaders' defense, rather than being the afterthought to the powerful offense, looks like a definite strength. Add to that senior LB Sean Lamkin, a two-time captain who missed most of 2009 with an injury, and senior SS Anthony DiMichele (82 tackles, 2 interceptions), and you wonder once again: 4th?
Thoughts on Holy Cross have been that the Crusaders are a one-trick pony, and when Pony Randolph graduates Holy Cross will go back to the 1-10 teams we'd grown so accustomed to before Gimore came along. Folks who believe that had better think again - unless they like losing football games.