DOVER, Del. – "The Winning Tradition" has been a tag line associated with the Wesley College football team for many years. With 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and two straight New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championships, expectations are high in Dover for a team that returns a strong core of veteran leadership on both sides of the ball.
"Our goal first and foremost is to win the NJAC," said head coach Mike Drass. "Once we take care of those games, then we can focus on postseason play."
Paving the way for the offense will be a strong offensive line, led by seniors Matt Gono and Blake Roberts. A tackle, Gono was named a Preseason All-American by every major football publication while Roberts, a guard, was a 2016 All-NJAC Honorable Mention and Academic All-District honoree. Gono and Roberts helped Wesley gain a NJAC-best 5,338 total yards and 456 points a season ago. Juniors Devin Miller and Mujahid Manuel also return to the offensive line.
"Best thing about Matt is that he doesn't care about the preseason recognition," Drass said. "He is focused on helping the football team win games and then maybe the postseason recognition would follow that. Blake and Mo Manuel are returners that we can lean on to provide solid presence on the line."
Taking the snaps this year will be senior Nick Falkenberg, who took over as the starter midway through the 2016 season. He threw for 1,544 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and went on to be named to the All-NJAC Second Team.
"The thing that people tend to forget is that Nick won the starting job last year," Drass said. "He didn't keep it but he won it back. The last games of the 2016 season, the spring, and the preseason under his belt has done nothing but promote his confidence in being our quarterback this season."
Falkenberg will have some big-time threats in the skill positions in 2017. James Okike, a 2015 D3football.com All-American, returns to the team after sitting out the 2016 season. He finished the 2015 season with the 1,426 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. Lining up opposite of Okike will be Alex Kemp, a two-time All-NJAC performer. Kemp recorded 1,194 all-purpose yards in 2016 and scored 11 total touchdowns. Dan Kesack, a converted quarterback, will also be a threat in the passing game.
Sophomore E.J. Lee, the 2016 NJAC Rookie of the Year, will be featured in the backfield following the graduation of Jamar Baynard. Lee ran for 512 yards and scored five touchdowns on the ground and added a receiving score last season. Junior Elijah Minter will also split time in the backfield after scoring two touchdowns in 2016.
"Alex is a threat with the ball in his hands," Drass said. "Alex can make people miss and can give defenders issues. James has proven before that he has the ability to dominate games. He showed that two years ago and we are excited to have him back on the team."
The front seven brings back a wealth of experience with each of the projected starters having seen significant playing time in 2016. The defensive front will be led by Ingram and Glover. Ingram, who was a D3football.com All-Region selection last season, tallied 40 tackles and tied for the second-most forced fumbles in the NJAC. Glover, along with senior defensive tackle Stephen Yorkman, swallowed blocks in the middle of the defensive line to allow the backers to make plays. Yorkman notched 42 tackles and the third-most sacks on the team (4) while Glover made 23 stops a season ago.
"Our defensive line has great depth this year," Drass said. "This line has the potential to be a really good defensive line, perhaps one of the best we've ever had at Wesley. We have eight guys that could start for a lot of teams in the country. We want to make sure that each of our defensive linemen are fresh and keep rotating them on the field."
The linebacker corp. returns two out of three starters from a season ago. Manna, a 2015 D3football.com All-Region and two-time First Team All-NJAC pick, will captain the group. Manna finished second in the NJAC last season with 96 tackles and recorded 7.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks. Fellow senior Mike Sabino will be alongside Manna in the outside linebacker position. Sabino picked up 38 tackles and four tackles for loss a year ago. Senior Derek Lauria and sophomore Najee Wilson will also see significant playing time at linebacker.
"Samer has been an all-conference player for the past couple years for us," Drass stated. "He is the senior leader that has a strong knowledge of the defense and is comfortable getting our team prepared for game day. Najee has had a tremendous camp and we are excited to have him back. (Mike) Sabino is a very solid player. The past two years Mike has done everything that we've asked for."
The secondary features Lowery, a 2016 All-NJAC Second Team member. Lowery led the team with 12 passes defended and 10 breakups last season. He also tallied 36 tackles and two interceptions. Also at cornerback will be sophomore Shareef Jefferies and junior Daquay Harris-Winbush. At the safety spots the Wolverines will line up grad student Greg Taylor, junior two-way position Cappadonna Miller and sophomore Coray Williams.
"Cappadonna is a playmaker," Drass said. "Cappadonna was not on the field enough a season ago, so we have prepared him to be on the field as much as possible. Greg has gotten a lot of experience over the past couple of years. He is a very athletic player and can do great things in the secondary. Coray is a real physical football player and had a tremendous spring. There will be a lot of competition in the secondary."
The Wolverines will lean on the leg of sophomore Nick Bruhn. Bruhn will handle the field goal kicking and punting duties in 2017. He went 4-of-8 in field goal attempts with a long of 44 yards and punted six times for 226 yards last season. Sophomore Aaron Nelson will handle kickoffs, where he notched 10 touchbacks a season ago.
The 2017 schedule is as strong as ever with four opponents that were ranked or received votes in the D3football.com Preseason Top 25 poll. The Wolverines will open the season on the road on Thursday, Aug. 31 for "Thursday Night Lights" against the No. 20 Delaware Valley Aggies.
"We always try and play a non-conference game against a team that is a playoff-caliber team," Drass said. "We want to be in that world that we play a team that is an elite team in Division III football."
The NJAC slate features games against No. 17 Frostburg State on the road on Oct. 7 and Kean (Oct. 14) and Salisbury (Nov. 4), who received votes in the Top 25 poll.
"The NJAC is one of the most complete conferences top to bottom in the nation," Drass stated. "You have to be prepared every week for each team."