New Hampshire Football Report

UNH has experienced defense

DURHAM – Last year, they led the country at their level – the FCS – in touchdowns scored by the defense.

Six defensive players scored seven touchdowns on defense for the University of New Hampshire football team last year and six of those players are back and in the lineup again for the Wildcats, helping to form the core of a still-young, yet experienced, defensive group.

The defense returns seven starters overall. Two of those starters – cornerback Prince Smith, Jr. and safety Pop Lacey – were in the unusual position of playing as true freshman last year.

Here’s the good news: the young guys keep getting better.

“Coming back they really have a good understanding of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what we’re trying to accomplish,” said defensive coordinator John Lyons after one practice this week. “By understanding it better, it gives them the confidence to go out and play and not think too much.”

The secondary, among other groups, has been coming on.

“I’m really pleased with that group,” Lyons said. “I think Prince has taken a huge step in understanding and concentrating. Alonzo Addae, Isiah Perkins are better. All those guys. Rick Ellison. Evan Horn. Pop Lacey. They’ve all played a lot now. It’s good. It’s good.”

The Wildcats unveil their 2017 defense, and the rest of the team, in a high-profile and all-important opening game – a “Thursday Night Throwdown” – against Maine on Aug. 31 in Wildcat Stadium at 7 p.m.

Much is on the line in the opener. Along with setting an overall tone for the season, the Wildcats will look to get their Colonial Athletic Association schedule off to a successful start and retain the historic Brice-Cowell Musket that goes to the winner of the UNH-Maine series.

Wildcat Stadium opened last September to rave reviews and the Wildcats attracted record crowds for a couple of contests – 13,242 for the opener against Holy Cross and 21,943 for a Homecoming win over William & Mary.

Athletic department officials are expecting large crowds again for the Maine game, which will feature a postgame fireworks display, a giveaway for UNH students, a bouncy house for kids and other family entertainment.

Smith led the Wildcats with five interceptions last year and returned two of those for scores.

Lacey, junior linebacker Jared Kuehl and Casey DeAndrade, who has graduated, each returned a pick for a score last year and senior safety D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie and junior defensive tackle Ryan Sosnak had fumble returns for TDs.

The entire defense is playing faster as players get more comfortable, various Wildcats said.

“We’ve got some kids who are flying around pretty hard,” said head coach Sean McDonnell. “I think we’re OK in the secondary covering people in open spaces. That’s a difference in our defense . . . These safeties are tackling in open spaces and giving us an opportunity to plug some gaps and make some plays.”

Drummond-Mayrie and defensive tackle Rick Holt are seniors on defense, but the bulk of the depth chart is made up of younger players.

Many of them got their first meaningful playing time last year.

“I didn’t play a meaningful game for like four years from my senior year of high school and the (opening) San Diego State game last year was like a whole new thing,” Holt said. “Me and Ryan, Jared, Quinlen, Prince, Pop it was all new for all of us at the start of last year. We had all of last year then we had spring ball and we have it again now. I think we have a better understanding of the defense all together. We know where to be. Fits, blitzes, stunts, everything like that. It’s just repetition, repetition, repetition.”

He subscribes to the comfort theory, too.

“Everyone’s more comfortable,” Holt said. “It’s really good to have a unit that’s played cohesive, together. I think it’s helped us a lot. I think we were better last year than a lot of people expected us to be, especially against the run, and hopefully we can duplicate that.”

One goal is to improve the pass rush.

The Wildcats had 24 quarterback sacks last year after getting 31, 39 and 43 in the previous three years.

“Hopefully we can get after it a little bit more with some of the stuff we’re putting in now,” Holt said. “It helps out a lot to think we have a bunch of guys coming back and we can do better than we did last year because we’re all a year older and we should be better. I think the best pass defense is a pass rush because the guy can’t sit back there and pick you apart. I think that’s the biggest thing. Make him nervous back there.”

The Wildcats have one more warmup run before the opener against Maine. They play their annual fall Blue-White game on Tuesday, Aug. 22 at noon in Wildcat Stadium.

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