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Middlebury 2013 Football Preview Part I: Offense

2012 Recap

Behind the NESCAC’s best offensive line and on the arm of the most prolific passer in conference history, Middlebury ended a run of consecutive 4-4 seasons with a 7-1, NESCAC-runner up finish in 2012. Mac Foote and Zach Driscoll shattered the program record books and set four NESCAC single-season records together between the pair, narrowly missing on numerous more. Billy Chapman, meanwhile, had likely the greatest season for a tight end in NESCAC history, earning second-team All-American honors for his play. Ryan Moores anchored an offensive line that was second to none in pass protection, allowing just five sacks over the team’s 423 dropbacks. And Middlebury came a blowout loss at Trinity away from claiming their first NESCAC title since 2007. That was last year though, and the 2013 Panthers have a new set of objectives—and obstacles—on offense to consider. We begin with the offense and will wrap things up in a second post on the defense and the keys to the 2013 season.

Key Offensive Players

Mac Foote: The reigning NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year and USA Football Network Preseason All-American returns for his senior season. A year after setting virtually every single-season NESCAC passing record, Foote will be relied upon to do even more in his senior season. While number 10 remains the conference’s best quarterback — and by a more than a couple of chain lengths — 2013 will be an even better barometer of his ability. An astounding 79 percent of Foote’s completions from a year ago went to players who are not on the roster for the 2013 season. A repeat of last season’s raw numbers seems unlikely, given the after-the-catch production of his receivers last year, but Foote has room to improve as a passer and could be more accurate in 2013 than he was in 2012. 30-plus touchdowns and 3,000 passing yards seem unlikely this season, but completing close to 70 percent of his passes should be a realistic goal for Foote. But as neither Zach Driscoll nor Billy Chapman will be running back through that tunnel, Foote will have to develop a quick rapport with his returning receivers.

Brendan Rankowitz: After an impressive sophomore campaign, Rankowitz will need to be more reliable this year as a junior. He’ll play the same role in the offense from a season ago, when he hauled in 27 receptions for 343 yards in just six games. As dynamic as Rankowitz was with the ball in his hands, he struggled to run precise routes, causing incompletions and drawing the ire of the coaching staff on more than one occasion. Without Driscoll playing across from him, Rankowitz needs to be a far more precise player in 2013. His talent is undeniable, but his potential will only be reached if Foote has total trust in him. Having said that, Rankowtiz’s floor this season are the numbers he produced in 2012. If he emerges this season, however, there’s no reason he shouldn’t lead the NESCAC in receiving yards and touchdown catches. A 60-catch, 800-plus yards receiving, seven-touchdown season should be well within reach for Rankowitz. The bigger question is whether he can put himself in the right position to turn a possibility into a reality.

Matt Minno: Minno, meanwhile, has the impossible task of stepping into the role of the departed Driscoll. While the sophomore certainly won’t be asked to do everything the team asked of number 11, Minno will need to provide Foote with a steady presence on the outside—something he demonstrated he could do in limited action last year. At 6’3 and 199 pounds, Minno provides Foote with a Driscoll-like target. While it’s unlikely that Foote will target Minno at the rate he did Driscoll, Minno will likely be asked to immediately assume a major role in the offense. Not a burner like Rankowitz, Minno offers a natural complement to 83 as a good route runner with a chance of developing into a go-to possession receiver this season for Foote. In two starts last year Minno’s results were somewhat mixed: a dominant eight-catch, 106-yard, three-touchdown performance against Hamilton and a two-catch 27-yard day in the season finale against Tufts. Which is more likely indicative of Minno’s 2013 averages? Given the number of targets he’s going to see, probably the former rather than the latter; projecting Minno for 50 catches, 500 yards and 5 touchdowns doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Jack Allard: Allard and Green are the only two returning starters from last year’s offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the NESCAC while attempting disproportionately more passes than the other nine NESCAC teams. Having carryover on the offensive line at center and left tackle will help orient the newcomers to the unit, as will Blake Shapskinsky who has filled in well as the sixth offensive lineman when injuries have arisen over the last two seasons. It will be interesting to see if Allard stays at left tackle this year or if he moves over to the right side of the line. While the left tackle has been made famous for its positional importance in the NFL, Middlebury used Ryan Moores—its most talented blocker—on the right side of the line. The reasoning for this is likely a combination of two or three factors. Either Foote’s propensity to get the ball out of his hands quickly and, more importantly, his effectiveness throwing while rolling to his right, meant he would take far fewer blindsight hits and would rely more heavily on the protection of his right tackle convinced the coaching staff moving Moores to the right side. Or, just as likely, the team felt Moores was better suited to the right side of the line and Allard to the left side. For Middlebury junkies, noting where Allard lines up today will be of interest.

Other Key Contributors

Matt Rea leads off this group. Rea, like Remi Ashkar and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Plumley before him, is an undersized back whose primary responsibility in the offense will be to provide a last line of protection for Foote in the backfield and as a receiver out of the backfield. Rea will also carry the ball, but his rushes will likely be limited to counters and inside draws in the shotgun or pistol formation. At 5’8’’ and 191 pounds, Rea will not shoulder a heavy workload and his 3.2 yards per carry on 85 career carries suggests it wouldn’t be an effective role for him to play. Even as a backup last season he caught 15 passes out of the backfield—something he will be asked to do even more this season. Daniel Finta, meanwhile, is another player to watch on the offensive line. Finta, listed last year as a 6’5’’, 233-pound tight end, has been converted into an offensive tackle, and is likely a leading candidate to start on the line or, at the very least, play the sixth offensive lineman role, and play when Middlebury goes to its jumbo package. Who else? There will be another receiver or two, and perhaps a tight end, who plays a big role in this offense. Regardless of the production of Rankowitz and Minno the two of them will not be able to replace the raw number of catches and yards the team lost with the graduation of Driscoll and Chapman. Consider, also, that third and fourth receivers from a season ago, Josh Amster and Harrison Goodkind, also will not be a part of the 2013 squad. The leading candidates for those opportunities are seniors Andrew Duval and Trevor Wheeler — a next-level athlete who has struggled to stay healthy. Making the transition to tight end, meanwhile, is William Sadik-Kahn who may not be asked to do as much in the passing game as Chapman and David Reed have over the last four years. How big a role tight end will play in the Bob Ritter’s offense is one of the major questions entering the 2013 season.

Predictions and Analysis

Despite the losses of of Driscoll, Chapman, Moores and Ashkar the offense should again vie for the league-best scoring mark. Foote will have to be a more accurate passer and likely deliver the ball faster than he did last season, but with his talent playing in Bob Ritter’s system, Middlebury will not struggle very often to score points. The Panthers also have one of the best offensive line coaches in the country in Joe Early, who should have an untested unit ready to protect Foote. However, one even greater concern than usual for the Middlebury offense this year will be balance. The Panthers ran the ball just 35 percent of the time in 2012 and that number could drop precipitously this season. Rea is not a proven runner, nor is he built to carry a substantial workload. Behind him, Ryan Hislop raises the same questions to an even greater degree. If Middlebury fails to run the ball effectively, it will put even more pressure on the offensive line to protect their quarterback against pass rushers that know Middlebury will have little choice but to air it out. Again, Ritter has proven his chops as a play-caller and the run-pass balance has never been pretty, but always effective. It will be something to monitor more closely this season, but with Foote in the backfield the importance of who lines up next to him is diminished.

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