October 26, 2011

All over the field

More news about: Salisbury
Regardless of the spot he's attacking from, Matt Leon has racked up a team-high nine tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead with four sacks.
Salisbury athletics photos

Go ahead, ask Matt Leon which positions he's played on the football field. It'd be easier for him to simply tell you the ones he hasn't played since high school.

Leon, a senior standout on the 16th-ranked defense in the country, is officially listed as a defensive lineman. That's about as specific as the Salisbury athletic department can get. The truth is that Leon is a football player. Tell him where to line up and hike the ball.

"When you think about football, you think about Matt Leon," Salisbury head coach Sherman Wood. "He's a bona fide football player."

At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Leon is big enough to play on the interior of the line -- which he did for most of his junior season -- but he's also quick enough to rush the quarterback from the outside end spots -- which he's excelled at this season.

It's that versatility that defines Leon on the field. And it's that skillset that Wood was drawn to.

"He doesn't label any position as some type of trademark," Wood said. "... Matt Leon trains as an athlete. He wants to be the fastest. He feels that if we need him at the corner position checking a wide receiver, he would do everything he can to check him. He loves it.

"He's the type of kid that stays after practice and he'll race the defensive back or he'll brag about his days in high school and he'll challenge people. That's what I like about him."

As a freshman at Hillsborough (N.J.) High School, Leon played both running back and strong safety. The following year, Leon shifted to fullback and linebacker, before finally being moved to defensive line and tight end.

Each stop along the way provided unique challenges and different perspectives. But all the changes were made to put the constantly-growing, always-improving Leon in the best situations to help Hillsborough win games.

So it came as little surprise to Wood and the rest of the Salisbury coaches when Leon -- confident there was something more he could do to help the Sea Gulls during his sophomore year -- asked the staff what could be done. The coaches responded by telling him they had envisioned Leon, then a linebacker, shifting to defensive end when the time was right.

The time was right.

"I've never really played the same position two years in a row," Leon said. "... It wasn't really something I wasn't accustomed to because I consider myself a team-oriented guy, and whatever the team needs to be successful, I feel like I can fill whatever role I need to be."

Leon finished the 2009 season with three sacks, tied for fourth most of the team, despite starting just two games. The following year, Salisbury had a large hole to fill -- both literally and figuratively -- in the middle of its 3-4 defense with the departure of nose guard Alex Bresner. The coaches called on Leon, who finished with 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss en route to second-team all-ACFC honors.

"They called me and asked me to do a job and I did it," Leon said. "... I like it. It kind of creates havoc for offenses because they don't really know where I'm coming from, whether it's from the inside or the outside."

This season Leon has predominantly played defensive end, though Wood and defensive coordinator Robb Disbennett don't hesitate to move Leon back inside to nose guard in certain packages. Through seven games this season, Leon is tied for the team lead in sacks (four) and leads the Empire 8 in tackles for loss (nine).

"He knows how to use his pass rush techniques to perfection," Wood said. "He does an outstanding job against the run as well. He's quick, he's quicker than the person in front of him to get to a certain gap against the run, and he's quicker than the person in front of him to get to the quarterback. He's done that on a consistent basis."

Wood doesn't deny it -- Leon is exactly the type of player the Salisbury football program is looking for: an athlete that doesn't pigeonhole himself to a single position. Wood wants the 11 best players on the field on a given play. For the majority of his Salisbury career, Leon has been among that group of 11.

Wood points to Salisbury's 58-52 win over St. John Fisher -- the school's first over the Cardinals in Rochester -- in a four-overtime game in 2008 as an early indicator of what was to come in Leon's career.

"I pulled Matt and [now-senior linebacker] James Piersanti to the side and ... I said, 'Look, you guys will never forget this as long as you live,'" Wood recalled. "'No. 1, you never give up. No. 2, you're going to be leaders down the road. We just pulled off a great victory against a great football program.'"

Piersanti and fellow senior linebacker Jamey McClendon have been with Leon from the beginning and now, along with younger standouts like junior linebacker Matt McMurdo, junior safety Chris Everett, sophomore defensive end Tim Anderson and sophomore cornerback Andre Carter, among others, have helped the Sea Gulls' shut down the rest of the Empire 8.

"We're a force to be reckoned with," Leon said. " ... I like what we're doing defensively as far as personnel and what the coaches are telling us to do. I think we can compete with pretty much anybody across the country."

Leon, a marketing major who hopes to forge a career in sports marketing once his playing days are over, began playing football in first grade. He points to his father, Gary, and two uncles, who both played Division III football, as key motivating factors in his career.

Salisbury, ranked No. 11 in this week's D3football.com Top 25 poll, faces No. 7 Wesley on the road this Saturday and then hosts St. John Fisher in two weeks. The game against St. John Fisher will likely to determine the Empire 8 champion.

Leon is confident the Sea Gulls will finish the regular season on a high note before, ideally, punctuating the senior class' tenure with a deep playoff run.

"We knew we had something special from day one this year," Leon said. "... You're only as strong as your weakest link and, to be honest with you, I really don't think we have any weak links on our team."

Between his on-field versatility and team-first attitude, Wood isn't anxious to see Leon give up his No. 6 jersey.

"I'll hate to see him go," Wood said.

Parity reigns supreme in the NJAC

Eight weeks into the season and this much remains clear -- the NJAC is there for the taking. The key question is: Which team wants it?

Just two weeks ago, Montclair State looked like the clear favorite. But without injured senior quarterback Tom Fischer, the Red Hawks lost their first game of the season Saturday, falling 27-21 to in-state rival TCNJ.

TCNJ bounced back from a disappointing loss of its own -- 34-12 to Buffalo State -- to insert itself right back in the thick of the conference hunt. Quarterback James Donoghue was smart and efficient, completing 18 of his 30 pass attempts for just 102 yards -- but that included the go-ahead, seven-yard scoring strike to Joe Falco in the fourth quarter. Donoghue also rushed for 65 yards on 12 carries, including a 1-yard score in the first quarter.

Kean rebounded from its first loss of the season a week ago to knock off Morrisville State 26-13. Not surprisingly, the Cougars found themselves in another close game -- Kean's seven games have, on average, been decided by less than seven points. Darius Kinney rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown and added another 20-yard score on a catch in the second quarter. Though Morrisville State dominated the first down and time of possession battles, only a late fourth-quarter score brought the Mustangs within 13 points.

And of course there's Cortland State, one of three teams to share the conference crown a season ago. The Red Dragons just keep rolling along. Cortland defeated William Paterson 35-7 on Saturday, earning its second consecutive win after a one-point loss to Montclair State. Dan Pitcher tossed four touchdown passes, with three to John Babin (10 receptions, 135 yards). The Red Dragons' defense held the Pioneers' offense to just 93 total net yards.

So, which team is the favorite? Well, two weeks ago I would have told you Montclair State. Now I'd probably say Kean. But I might say Cortland next week. Let's just take this week by week, shall we?

Two-team race in the Empire 8

Unlike the NJAC, which is as wide open as any conference race in the country, the Empire 8 race appears to be down to just two teams -- Salisbury and St. John Fisher.

Salisbury (7-0, 5-0) routed Hartwick 61-14 Saturday to remain undefeated. St. John Fisher (6-1, 4-0) kept pace with a 33-6 win over Springfield, eliminating the Pride from the conference race. With three weeks left to play in the regular season, the Cardinals have a two-game conference lead over Utica and Frostburg State. But more importantly, the Sea Gulls hold a two and a half game lead.

Here's the simple reality: For either Utica or Frostburg to earn just a share of the Empire 8 title with Salisbury, one of the two teams would have to win its final three, while Salisbury would have to lose its final two Empire 8 games. This seems unlikely when you consider Salisbury has outscored its last four opponents -- all Empire 8 opponents -- by an average margin of 66.2-20.5. This makes the Nov. 5 meeting between Salisbury and St. John Fisher the de facto Empire 8 championship game.

Salisbury once again used a balanced triple-option rushing attack to grind down its opponent. Twelve players carried the ball at least twice for Salisbury, but only quarterback Dan Griffin (11 carries, 65 yards, one touchdown) had more than 10 carries. For the season, six Salisbury players have carried the ball at least 20 times, while nine players have combined to score 34 rushing touchdowns, the most in the country. The Sea Gulls also lead the country in rushing yards per game (357) and rank third in yards per carry (6.28).

But as dominant as its offense has been, Salisbury's defense has been just as formidable. The Sea Gulls rank 16th in the country in total defense and are tied for fifth in turnovers forced (24). Just one week after forcing Alfred quarterback Tom Secky into one of the worst games of his career, the Sea Gulls' defense harassed Hartwick quarterback Dan Brainard into five interceptions.

St. John Fisher looked just as dominant in holding Springfield's vaunted rushing attack to just 132 net yards. St. John Fisher quarterback Ryan Kramer rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown himself, nearly matching Springfield's total output. Kramer also connected with Ryan Schmidt and Artie Bigsby on touchdown passes.

Ever since a 36-point loss to Hobart, the Cardinals have looked like a different group. St. John Fisher has rattled off four straight wins, including impressive victories over Alfred, Frostburg State and now Springfield.

Hobart remains unbeaten

Another week, another convincing victory for Hobart.

Hobart defeated Merchant Marine 42-14 this past Saturday, securing its fifth victory in as many games this season. All five wins have come by at least 17 points, including four by at least 23 points. And the Statesmen aren't beating up on weak teams. Hobart knocked off St. John Fisher, one of the top teams in the Empire 8.

Hobart also shut out St. Lawrence, the defending Liberty League champion. And just two weeks the Statesmen knocked off the Union Ducthmen, a team many expected to be the Statesmen's toughest competition for the league title.

Nick Strang passed for 226 yards and two touchdowns and added 30 yards and one touchdown on the ground for Hobart against Merchant Marine. But it was the Statesmen's special teams that gave them a spark early. Merchant Marine punter Richard Grennen had trouble handling a snap late in the first quarter. Drake Woodard beat Grennen to the ball and covered it in the end zone for Hobart's first score. That would open the floodgates as Hobart found the end zone four times in the second quarter to take a 35-0 lead into halftime.

Reggie Robinson (14 tackles, one sack, 2.5 tackles for loss) and Andrew Klindera (11 tackles, forced fumble, fumble recovery) led a sparkling defensive effort for the Statesmen.

Hobart has the top scoring offense and top scoring defense in the Liberty League, both by wide margins. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that Hobart won't run away with the conference title. Hobart has games remaining against WPI (2-5, 1-3), RPI (3-3, 2-1) and Rochester (3-3, 2-2).

RPI, which held off St. Lawrence 14-7 this past Saturday, probably has the best shot to overtake Hobart, but the Engineers have to find consistency. RPI has followed each of its two previous wins with losses this season, a trend that will have to stop this week if it hopes to push Hobart. A road game at Union will be tough, however.

Widening the gap in the MAC

Widener not only kept the pressure on MAC leader Delaware Valley with its convincing 57-33 win over Lebanon Valley this past Saturday, but it all but eliminated Lebanon Valley from the title chase. Lebanon Valley (5-2, 3-2) now must win out and hope Delaware Valley loses its final two games, just to earn a share of the conference crown.

Meanwhile, Widener (7-1, 5-1) sits just one game back of Delaware Valley (8-0, 6-0). Lycoming (6-1, 4-1) is also within striking distance.

Chris Haupt was sharp, throwing for 243 yards and four touchdowns, including a pair to Cedrick Clayton. The Pride's defense was able to keep stud running Ben Guiles (108 yards, one touchdown) from single-handedly beating them, while at the same time forcing Colt Zarilla into three interceptions, one of which was returned 83 yards for a touchdown by Laquan Robinson. The explosive Robinson also returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the third quarter.

Delaware Valley rolled past King's 54-13 behind Aaron Wilmer's four touchdown passes. With a season full of tight games, the Aggies will happily take the lopsided victory. Jim DiLisio returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns -- one for 48 yards in the first quarter and the other for 13 yards late in the second quarter. The Aggies' defense smothered the Monarchs' offense, forcing three interceptions and collecting three sacks on the day.

Delaware Valley is idle this week, then returns for a two-game stretch against Lycoming and Widener that will determine the MAC champion.

Top 25: Salisbury continues climb, Montclair State takes a tumble

Four of the five teams ranked in last week's D3football.com Top 25 poll won this past weekend. Only Montclair State suffered a defeat, and it saw a fall in the rankings as a result.

Salisbury jumped from No. 14 to No. 11 following its win over Hartwick. Delaware Valley (No. 13 to No. 12) and Kean (No. 19 to No. 18) each rose one spot. Hobart, which defeated Merchant Marine, held steady at No. 25.

Montclair State, which was handed its first defeat of the season by TCNJ, dropped from No. 9 to No. 17.

Cortland State, Widener and St. John Fisher didn't crack the top 25, but still received votes.

Quick hits

Jake Larson rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns -- including the go-ahead score with 1:01 remaining in the fourth quarter -- to lead Utica past Ithaca 20-15 this past Saturday. The win marked the first ever for Utica over the Bombers in 11 all-time meetings. Ithaca's Dan Ruffrage caught five passes for 68 yards to move into second place on Ithaca's all-time receptions list. ... Josh Volpe passed for 441 yards and a school-record six touchdowns as Frostburg State knocked off Alfred 54-53 in a double overtime thriller. Volpe connected with Anthony Young 16 times for 214 yards and a pair of scores. Alfred went up 53-47 in the second overtime on a 15-yard touchdown run by Austin Dwyer (114 yards, two scores), but missed the extra point. Frostburg's possession in the second frame came down to fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line. Volpe found Adam Tuzikow for the tying score, and Jonathan Adams' extra point cemented the Bobcats; victory. ... Craig Needhamme (93 yards, one touchdown) and Parker Showers (92 yards, two touchdowns) formed a potent one-two rushing attack in Lycoming's 48-14 win over Stevenson. C.J. Hopson passed for 203 yards and two scores and added 46 rushing yards for Stevenson. ... T.J. Luddy tossed three touchdown passes -- including two to Scott Pillar -- to help Albright snap a three-game losing streak with a 35-10 win over FDU-Florham. Punter Brooks Mitzkewich helped the Lions win the field position battle, burying four of his seven punts inside FDU-Florham's 20-yard line. Jon Bennett led the FDU-Florham offensive attack with seven catches for 127 yards. ... Clarence Onyiriuka rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns as Rochester knocked off WPI 28-21. Johny Antonopoulos passed for 169 yards and two scores to lead the Engineers' offense. ... Tyrone Nichols (187 yards, two touchdowns) powered a Brockport State ground attack that gained 457 yards on 62 carries in a 56-14 win over Western Connecticut. Jake Spalik caught eight passes for 128 for Brockport, which won its second straight after opening the season with five straight losses. Dion Small had 108 rushing yards and Will Arndt scored twice on the ground for Western Connecticut.

Looking ahead

One of the more crucial NJAC matchups of the season will feature Rowan (5-2, 5-1) at Kean (6-1, 5-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday. These two squads -- along with Montclair State (6-1, 5-1) -- find themselves locked in a tie for first place in the conference. This game will help break that tie, particularly if Montclair State is upset by Western Connecticut.

Widener (7-1, 5-1) needs a win at home Saturday (1 p.m.) over Albright (5-3, 3-3) to keep pace with idle Delaware Valley (8-0, 6-0). A Widener loss puts Delaware Valley firmly in the MAC driver seat.

For Utica (5-2, 2-2) to keep its slim Empire 8 title hopes alive, it must knock off St. John Fisher (6-1, 4-0) on the road Saturday night (7 p.m.). That's a task easier said than done. For the Cardinals, a win would eliminate the Pioneers and help them keep pace with Salisbury (7-0, 5-0).

Other games of note: Hobart at WPI, noon, Saturday; Salisbury at Wesley, 1 p.m., Saturday; TCNJ at Cortland State, 1 p.m., Saturday; RPI at Union, 1 p.m., Saturday; Lycoming at Lebanon Valley, 1 p.m., Saturday.

Contact me

I'm always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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