New Hampshire Football Report

UNH lacks experience at receiver

NOTE: This is one in a series of stories on position groups within the UNH football team as spring football heads towards the annual Blue-White game in Wildcat Stadium on May 4 (noon).

DURHAM – Gone is Neil O’Connor, one of the most productive pass catchers in University of New Hampshire football history.

Open is the opportunity for a new crop of receivers to step up and fill the void left by O’Connor and Kieran Presley, who last year caught 104 passes for 1,251 yards between them before graduating.

“One thing I think we do have is a lot of talent,” said Michael Ferzoco, the assistant coach in charge of wide receivers. “The guys we have coming back are certainly talented, they’re just pretty green.”

Ferzoco and the Wildcats are working to identify which players will at least start out as the primary targets for whoever ends up playing quarterback for the team. There is also a competition under way for that job.

UNH has four practice sessions remaining in the spring, including the Blue-White game that wraps things up on May 4 in Wildcat Stadium at noon.

The Wildcats do have some players with experience catching the ball, particularly in a couple of players who will be seniors in the fall: receiver Malik Love and tight end Justin Malone-Woods.

Love, 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, had impressive seasons his first two years, but missed almost all of last season with a hamstring issue. Love’s 59 catches led the team his first year and his 70 for as a sophomore were second to O’Connor’s 99.

“He’s getting healthier,” Ferzoco said. “He can catch the football. If you throw it to him, he’ll come down with it. He’s getting back into the swing of things. He’s making improvements. Now we’ve got to continue to see him make improvement.”

For his career, Love has 131 catches for 1,268 yards and four touchdowns.

“He’s certainly produced in the past, so you know it’s in there,” Ferzoco said. “We want to continue to see him take control of the position group. If he’s the No. l playmaker, great. If not, that means we have some good guys around him as well.”

Malone-Woods, 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, has caught 27 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns in his career. Jordan D’Onofrio, the assistant coach who works with tight ends, likes what he’s seen from Malone-Woods since last season ended and is looking for him to be a more consistent weapon downfield in his final go-round in the fall.

“Justin’s No. 1 strength is his ability to run,” D’Onofrio said. “When he runs his corner routes or his line routes, it’s full speed all the time. It can put fear into some safeties. If you can get into their framework with some speed, it’s going to open up a lot of different things. His run blocking has really improved. His route running has really improved. We’re looking to see him take that next step.”

Tight ends, including Harold Spears and Jordan Powell, have been key pieces of UNH’s offense in recent years.

“When this offense is really dynamic, we’ve had a tight end with the ability Justin has to stretch the field and make big plays,” D’Onofrio said. “There are a lot of openings in this offense and hopefully Justin, who’s really improved, can take advantage of that and can be an X-play-a-game guy so we can improve this offense and get things back rolling.”

Sophomore Sean Coyne, Brian Espanet and Benyeal Hill, Jr., are among the receivers joining Love in vying for starting jobs and playing time.

Coyne, 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, had 21 catches for 148 yards and a couple of touchdowns last season.

“Sean’s practice habits are great,” Ferzoco said. “He plays hard, he blocks hard, he catches the ball when it’s thrown to him and he’s very explosive. He came here mostly as a kicker and he’s pretty fast and explosive and he can catch the ball so he’s found a home at receiver. The more he continues to progress, it’s going to allow us to be in multiple sets and do some things with him.”

Espanet, 6-foot-3 and 199 pounds, had three catches last season. Hill, 6-foot and 187 pounds, got banged up early in fall camp last year and played in a couple of games.

“They’ve both shown some great improvement, probably first and foremost in their practice habits,” Ferzoco said. “They know, ‘Hey, I can be a starter,’ and you’re starting to see them rise up to that level of competition that they’re facing.”

Senior Mike Vailas, 6-foot and 199 pounds, had three catches last season and has had a good spring.

Junior Nick Lorden, 6-foot-4, and 228 pounds has 14 career catches for 155 yards and six touchdowns, but has been slowed by an injury this spring.

Sophomore C.J. Turner, 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds, had four catches as a true freshman, but missed last year with injuries.

Others in the mix for playing time at wide receiver include sophomores R.J. Janeczek, 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds, and Charles Briscoe, III, 6-foot and 183 pounds.

Junior Jack Cavallaro, 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, and sophomore Kyle Lepkowski, 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds, both saw limited time at tight end last season.

Sophomore Alex Hiltz, 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, freshman Thomas Splagounias, 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, and sophomore Ryan Finney, 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, are the other tight ends on the roster.

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