New Hampshire Football Report

UNH seeking more from O’Connor

DURHAM – Wide receiver Neil O’Connor had a breakout season for the University of New Hampshire football team in 2017. He led the Colonial Athletic Association in catches per game and receiving yards per game and ranked third in the NCAA at the FCS level in receptions and receiving yards with his 97 catches for 1,396 yards.

The numbers stacked up nicely in a UNH historical context as well. Only one former Wildcat (R.J. Harris) ever caught more passes in a single season with his 100 in 2014. Only two (Harris and David Ball, who did it twice) had more receiving yards in a season.

O’Connor returns for his senior year in the fall aiming for another impressive season and ready, along with junior Malik Love and senior Kieran Presley, to lead a talented and productive crew of pass catchers at wide receiver and tight end.

“Obviously we’re excited to get Neil back and look to put another great group of skilled guys around him to spread the wealth around,” said UNH assistant Michael Ferzoco, who works with wide receivers and is the pass-game coordinator. “If he can be as productive as he was last year, or build on that, hopefully we’ll be putting up some points.”

The Wildcats are down to their last couple of sessions before wrapping up spring football. They play their annual Blue-White spring game Saturday at 11 a.m. in Wildcat Stadium.

O’Connor, 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is rehabilitating from surgery and has seen limited action during the spring.

“We’re hoping that we even get a better senior year out of him,” Ferzoco said. “Having him come back 100 percent healthy will certainly benefit him. He played with a lot of nagging injuries and he played a ton of snaps. He’s a tough kid, a smart kid. I don’t worry too much about him not being able to pick up what we’re doing offensively just because of the type of savvy athlete he is.”

O’Connor’s having a limited role this spring could help, Ferzoco said.

“I’d love to see him continue to create more explosive plays and do things in the open field,” the coach said. “He is a slippery ball carrier and he does some great things. . . . The fact that he’s been able to take this spring off for the most part, he’ll be able to keep his legs fresh and hopefully continue to work on his speed and his explosiveness to give us some of that big-play element.”

O’Connor scored three touchdowns against Bryant and had two each against Georgia Southern and Holy Cross. He had 11 catches for 232 yards and a score against Rhode Island and 13 catches for 182 yards against Stony Brook.

He’s had 164 catches for 2,303 yards and 16 TDs in his career. The yardage puts him at No. 8 on the UNH career list, just behind Mike Boyle, who had 2,317 yards from 2005-08.

Love, 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, led the Wildcats in catches with 59 for 520 yards in 2016 and upped his numbers to 70 for 733 yards and three scores last year.

“Malik’s explosive,” Ferzoco said. “He and Neil have been a really good combination as an inside receiver and an outside receiver. He plays hard. He’s competitive and he wants to win. He’s got a knack for finding windows and finding spots and making plays. When he’s full speed, he’s a fun player to watch and he certainly gives us another big-play element.”

Love has been slowed by injuries this spring and was banged up last year as well.

“Obviously he’s been a great complement to Neil over the past few years and we’ve got to continue to build on that,” Ferzoco said. “He’s also one who played a lot of snaps last year. Building our depth and give him a little bit of a blow, starting from week one, where he doesn’t have to play 90 plays a game, that should help us keep them fresh so that we can make a better run at the end of the season.”

Presley, 6-foot and 193 pounds, missed the first five games last year with an injury and started the final nine contests and had 43 catches for 459 yards and three scores.

“Kieran’s got a world of talent,” Ferzoco said. “He’s having a tremendous spring right now. He’s probably been, he and Joey Carroll, our two most consistent guys. Kieran’s very versatile. He can play inside. He can play outside. He’s probably our fastest receiver so he’s got the ability to stretch the field. He’s also athletic enough to play inside and be a mismatch on linebackers and safeties. He’s someone we have a lot of high hopes for.”

Junior Justin Malone-Woods, 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds, has played in 24 games over the last two years and started 11 last year at tight end. He has 18 catches for 275 yards and a couple of touchdowns the last two seasons.

“Justin has great acceleration off the ball,” said assistant coach Jordan D’Onofrio, who works with the tight ends. “Whatever the route is, we’re always trying to sell it down the field and he explodes off the line of scrimmage in any route he runs. Once he gets running, that’s where he’s at his best. . . . The best thing he’s been doing this spring – he’s got a lot better at it – is going up and using his frame to get that ball.”

Senior John DiCaro, 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, and sophomore Jack Cavallaro, 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, are the others in the tight end group.

“John’s made his name in the run game stuff, whether it be zone blocking or anything like that,” D’Onofrio said. “He’s a tough kid who works his tail off down there and he’s been doing some things in the pass game this spring. . . . Cav’s been a pleasant surprise this spring. He’s been making some big plays in the pass game. The other day he had two touchdown catches on corner routes in the end zone in the red zone period.”

Sophomore Nick Lorden, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds is one of a bunch of receivers vying for playing time. He had a knack for making key catches last year: he caught 12 passes, six of them for touchdowns.

Sophomore C.J. Turner, 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, played as a true freshman last season. Carroll, a 5-foot-11 and 179-pound sophomore, and redshirt freshman Benyeal Hill, Jr., 6-foot and 183 pounds, have drawn praise from coaches during the spring. Redshirt freshman Sean Coyne, 5-10 and 178 pounds, and sophomore Jason Hughes, 5-foot-9 and 187 pounds, have both worked out in the spring as kickers and at wide receiver. Hughes played at Timberlane.

Junior Ivan Niyomugabo, 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, was moved from quarterback to wide receiver this spring. Others in the mix include junior Nick Lubischer, 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, redshirt freshman Brian Espanet, 6-foot-3 and 186 pounds, and junior Mike Vailas, 6-foot and 199 pounds.


Allen Lessels is the UNH Insider. Follow him on Twitter: @UNHInsider.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login