If you look at the previews and the musings of FCS pundits across the land, you'd think that the Patriot League title race was most likely going to come down to Lehigh or Colgate.
But there was another team last year which concluded the year winning three of their last four games - including one over the team who has the preseason superstar for the Patriot League, senior RB Nate Eachus.
Holy Cross doesn't have a lot of big names on the squad. They don't have the record-setting quarterback from last year, QB Dominic Randolph, that would make them a sexy pick for the title. But what they do have is a solid team without a lot of overt weaknesses that make them an especially dangerous team in 2011. (more)
Start at quarterback, where mobile senior QB Ryan Taggart (1,899 yards passing, 284 yards rushing, 19 TDs) returns for his final season at the helm of the Crusader offense. The 6'2, 214 lb Texan is hard to bring down and can make something happen on the run, and he's only gotten more dangerous as the season went along in 2010. In the Crusader offense, he's a solid triggerman for the three-wideout, spread offense that has persisted since the Randolph days.
“We had a great summer coming into camp with all the receivers, all the linemen and all the backs staying here and working out together,” Taggart told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, “so it's really been an easy transition.”
Taggart's productive season is made even more remarkable when you consider that he played most of last year with injury, too:
Taggart played most of the year with a grade one separation of his right (throwing) shoulder, a grade two separation of his left shoulder, a stress fracture in his back, and ligament issues in his ankle.
“It's just one of those things you go through and I'm not going to complain,” Taggart said. “I'm healthy now and it's a completely different year than it was last year. Offensively, I feel better, too. I feel a lot better connection with the receivers and things.”
“From the beginning of the season to the end, I gained a lot of confidence,” Taggart said. “Now I'm making throws I wasn't making last year. We're putting plays in that we probably wouldn't have put in until midway through last season. There are still things to work on, but I think the offense looks sharp. We're well ahead of where we were last year.”
Taggart's health could be poised as a huge X-factor in the 2011 season. If he's completely healthy, watch out.
Continue with the offensive line, where three starters return, including 310 lb senior OL Mike McCabe. With McCabe at one bookend tackle, junior OL Kyle Pedretty on the other side and senior C Sean Whited under center, this "O" line has experience at all the important positions - and when you add the best overall Holy Cross athlete to the mix, 6'7 senior TE Alex Schneider (217 yards, 1 TD) as an additional blocker, this line starts to look like an extremely solid unit.
While the running back position isn't the workhorse position at Holy Cross as it is at, say, Colgate, the Crusaders welcome back a host of different bodies they can plug in at any time. Junior RB Sam Auffant (451 yards, 2 TDs), the oft-injured senior RB Matt Bellomo, and the back who could be the best of the bunch, junior RB Eddie Houghton (146 yards, 1 TD) all provide different looks for the Crusader rushing attack. Houghton - when not injured, of course - is a big back that can work between the tackles, while Auffant is more of an overall athlete that provides a burst of speed.
The one area where Holy Cross is deeply hit by graduation is at wideout, where their top three receivers, including pains-in-the-neck like WR Freddie Santana and WR Bill Edger. But head coach Tom Gilmore seems to always attract a cavalcade of talented wideouts to Worcester at any time, and this season is no exception.
There's no reason to think that junior WR Gerald Mistretta (374 yards, 3 TDs) can't step in and take over the No. 1 receiver duties, and there's a host of guys in the pipeline, including interesting underclassmen in sophomore WR Jon Smith and sophomore WR Nate Stanley that could be ready right now to step in. Add the 6'7 Schneider in the mix, and you have a unit that boasts only one receiver under 6 feet tall.
The good news about the Crusader offense is you know what you're going to get. The bad news is that this is a team that has a lot of experience returning and could be a finely-tuned machine by the time they come to South Mountain.
There's an awful lot of experience returning on the defensive side of the ball, too, though the Crusaders will need improve a defense that let up more than 21 points on seven different occasions last year.
Helpfully for Holy Cross, their 3-4 defense sees their two biggest tackle machines, senior LB Ricky Otis (108 tackles) and senior LB C.J. Martin (95 tackles), return in the interior slots, where they're expected to anchor the defense by keeping the flow of the game in front of them.
"It is nice to have two guys like Ricky Otis and C.J. Martin around," Gilmore said in Holy Cross' season preview. "They are experienced, smart players, and we are expecting a lot out of both of them."
There's also two defensive linemen, 6'4 294 lb junior DT Jack Maliska (13 tackles in limited action) and senior DE Ryan McGinn (36 tackles, 1 sack), that look to create a solid nucleus underneath. If Maliska, McGinn, Otis and Martin stay healthy, and Gilmore finds answers at outside linebacker and defensive end, this could be a formidable front seven to handle.
The secondary, too, should have some key players returning, including both starting corners last year in senior CB Cav Koch (40 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery) and senior CB Chandler Fenner (58 tackles, 4 passes defended).
Some questions remain on defense, but clearly the nucleus is there for a run at the title.
Finally, it's hard to emphasize enough how the presence of head coach Tom Gilmore takes this Holy Cross team from being "maybe good enough" to "championship contender".
After taking over a moribund program in 2004, it's worth reflecting that Gilmore's record of 45-33, with a Patriot League championship and yearly runs at the championship, are light years ahead of the Dan Allen-coached teams in the early 2000s.
Part of Gilmore's secret is keeping them working hard, and working for championships, not winning records.
“All of that stuff sounds good [six straight winning records],” said Gilmore, who is beginning his eighth season at Holy Cross, “but if you're a real competitor, you measure yourself by championships, and we only have one of them in those years (2009). The other stuff is something to be proud of, to a certain degree, but we want to win championships.”
“We weren't satisfied with last year, and it's been motivation for us to improve,” said senior CB Chandler Fenner. “We're just really pushing as hard as we can every day. That's what we talk about all the time — working your hardest every play.”
The Crusaders' challenge starts with their first game on Spetember 1st - hosting FBS-bound UMass on Thursday, September 1st at home, under the lights, at Fitton Field.
“We don't have an easy game this year,” Gilmore said, “but when you challenge yourself like that, it brings out the best in you.”