By James Baker (@ITHuddLLe)
Our New England D3 Football preseason team previews continue with a look at the 2017 WPI Engineers, who certainly will be a team to watch in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) this fall.
Name: Worcester Polytechnic Institute Engineers (WPI)
Ranking: The Engineers were one of eight teams we highlighted in our ‘Teams on the Rise’ post from Monday, July 31st on Twitter.
2016 Recap: The Engineers notched their second consecutive winning season, but WPI lost a number of close games – e.g. 28-23 to Springfield, 45-44 to Merchant Marine, 35-31 to Hobart and 28-21 to Saint Lawrence – and that kept them from having a championship caliber season. The Engineers did prevail over MIT in a 37-34 nail-biter in their season-opener before taking care of cross-town rival Worcester State and then Norwich with relative ease in week two and three. A promising 4-1 start took a turn after the Merchant Marine loss and WPI would go 2-3 down the stretch. Backup quarterback Blake Rice would lead the team to an exciting 37-34 comeback against Rochester toward the end of the season, but he was unable to solve an All-American and All-Region stacked Saint Lawrence defense in Week 11, which earned a hard-fought seven-point victory.
Key Losses: Dan Eckler (Quarterback), Brandon Eccher (Wide Receiver), Alex Dumond (Wide Receiver), Brian Murtagh (Linebacker), Ryan Buss (Defensiveback), Blaine Bursey (Specialist), Vinny Tavernelli (Specialist)
Players to Watch: Blake Rice (Quarterback), Sean McAllen (Running Back), Sam Malafronte (Linebacker), Erik Fyrer (Receiver / Specialist), Dereck Pacheco (D-Line), Nabeel Tokatli (D-Line), Nick Ostrowski (Linebacker), Blayne Merchant (Linebacker), Brendan Harty (O-Line) and Marcus Pritchard (Fullback)
2017 Schedule: The Engineers will open against a new foe, but a familiar face in that of Anna Maria College’s new head coach (and former WPI defensive coordinator) Dan Mulrooney. The annual Transit Trophy game against RPI follows directly thereafter, so we’ll have a good idea how these Engineers will fare early on this year. Cross-town rival Worcester State drops off the schedule and is replaced by Becker, a “Friday Night Lights” finale to the initial three-game home stand to start the season. WPI then opens NEWMAC play on the road at Springfield before welcoming Maine Maritime to Alumni Stadium. The Engineers will then travel down to Washington, D.C. to face-off against Catholic, then host former Liberty League rival Merchant Marine. Road trips to MIT and Norwich “sandwich” a home game in Week 10 against the Coast Guard.
Season Outlook: WPI will need a better defensive performance from last season if they wish to improve upon a 6-4 campaign. While it will be next to impossible to re-create the production of Murtagh, the good news for the Engineers is that 10 starters return. Pacheco and Totakli provide size and strength up the middle, while Malafronte, who played weak side linebacker in 2016, will be moved to the strong side. Malafronte finished second on the team with 65 tackles. Senior linebacker Blaine Merchant will move inside to an outside linebacker role to assist Malafronte, as well as sophomore linebacker Nick Ostrowski, who is expected to contribute more after recording 14 tackles during his initial season with the Engineers. While the WPI offense will need to retool somewhat, Rice did get good experience late last season. Should Rice struggle, Eric Cosmopulos (a.k.a “Cosmo”) knows the playbook. Wide receiver is a big need for the unit, so you may see Hamilton College transfer Erik Fyrer get some looks given his size and length. Senior Mitjon Celaj caught 10 passes and a touchdown last season – he could be one of Rice’s go-to targets this fall. McAllen is back after winning the Liberty League (LL) Rookie of the Year award – he led the Engineers with 701 rushing yards and five touchdowns as a first-year back. The Engineers line will be anchored by senior co-captain and center Brendan Harty. Also returning on the line is senior Paul DeMarco, who should add depth and experience. The Engineers fullback role will be determined during the remaining days of camp, but an early favorite to win the job is junior Marcus Pritchard. He has the size and ability to make way for McAllen. WPI will need someone to step up on special teams due to graduation losses of Blaine Bursey and Vinny Tavernelli in the placekicking and punting game, as well as Dumond in the return unit. WPI has the student-athletes in place to contend for the NEWMAC crown if they can tighten up on defense and turn close games they lost in 2016 into wins this fall.