Frank Sheptock admits that when his current senior class arrived at Wilkes, there was buzz around the group.
That year, potential was shown as the Colonels were in contention for the MAC championship, going 5-2 in the conference. Since then though, there’s been a regression in league play, with the Colonels finishing the 2011 season 4-4 in the conference before a 4-5 record last season.
Entering this season, Wilkes is looking to get back into championship contention as more than a dozen players on the roster have seen significant playing time last season as juniors.
“Hopefully that creates some atmosphere and expectation for them,” Sheptock said. “I’m very proud of the group and we thought it was a very gifted class when we recruited it. I’ve been challenging them to have a very strong finish.”
While the seniors create a strong nucleus to the team, there are underclassmen that complement the leaders which brings more optimism to the group.
Over the last few years, Sheptock has been content playing quarterback carousel with Tyler Bernsten and Alex George. Heck, there were even times when one of the players was doing superb and then is replaced in the middle of the game.
That won’t be the case anymore. The reigns have officially been handed over to Bernsten as George has been shifted to tight end. Both seniors looking for the most of their playing time, Sheptock said this has been beneficial to both parties.
“We feel that with his (Bernsten) added reps and not splitting the reps during practice that we should see a lot of improvement from his standpoint,” the coach said.
George was approached about the move to tight end during the offseason and started working there during spring practice. Although there are three tight ends who have seen a large amount of playing time in the past — senior Daniel Curry, junior Drew Devitt and sophomore Ryan Casey — George has fit in well.
“He’s progressing extremely fast and we’re thinking he’s going to be an every down player there, but he’s still fighting for a position,” Sheptock said. “He’s been running with multiple units in camp, getting time with the one’s and two’s.”
In addition to Bernsten, George and Curry, five other seniors return on offense after seeing plenty of time in linemen Anthony Swain and Jake Jardel, receiver Tim Bousson, running backs Calvin Garvin and Auxence Wogou.
That’s not mentioning the team’s leading rusher from a year ago, Pat Inguilli – who gained a team-leading 619 yards on the ground as a freshman– or Wilkes’ three top receivers from a year ago, Payton Bachman (sophomore), Jon Conklin (junior) and Devitt.
It was a struggle last season for Wilkes’ pass defense, as it allowed 235.6 yards per game — the most in the MAC — as the secondary was young and inexperienced. The benefits of the growing pains, though, are that they gained experience and now have a more thorough knowledge of the system.
“To say that was an Achilles’ heel for us would be an understatement,” Sheptock added. “It’s an area that we’re struggling in right now. We’re giving that a great amount of attention right now in camp and trying to improve and help our players as best we can there and trying to do it by not just focusing on one area but very much a comprehensive approach to it.”
With senior linebackers Tate Moore-Jacobs and D.J. Shuttleworth, and senior defensive linemen Rob Houseknecht and Tom Calabrese back in the mix, pressure on the quarterback will be big to help the secondary succeed; the Colonels only combined for 13 sacks in 2012.
Jason Ugwu should help enormously in the sacks department as well. Last year, after not playing organized football at all, he piled up a team-high six sacks and 16 tackles for a loss.
It’s a fact that the preseason conference rankings don’t mean much. In this case, with the Colonels picked to finish sixth in the MAC, that’s beneficial. Wilkes has plenty of depth and the potential to be a much better team than it was the last few years.
If some things get ironed out, the Colonels could be set to rise to the top of the conference once again.