BALTIMORE, MD -- Johns Hopkins head coach Jim Margraff knows a little something about handling expectations. After all, his Blue Jays have won seven Centennial Conference titles in the last 10 years and only the first, in 2002, came as that much of a surprise. The others, including last season's, which came on the strength of a perfect 10-0 regular season, all came after the Blue Jays were picked at or near the top of the league's preseason poll of coaches and SIDs.
Margraff and his Blue Jays find themselves in familiar territory entering the 2012 season as they were once again selected as the team to beat in the Centennial preseason poll, a spot Margraff feels could have easily been occupied by four or five other teams as well. It's also a spot the Blue Jays have become accustomed to occupying as this is the seventh time in the last nine years they have been the league's preseason favorite.
If Johns Hopkins is to claim its fourth straight Centennial title and make a fourth appearance in the NCAA Playoffs since 2005, the Blue Jays will need to replace perhaps the finest single class in school history. All the departed seniors did during their four years was tie the school record for wins by a class (36), win three Centennial titles (2009, 2010, 2011) , make two trips to the NCAA Playoffs (2009, 2011) and win an ECAC title (2010).
While the losses to graduation were significant, Margraff knows he won't get any sympathy from his fellow Centennial head coaches. They know the Blue Jays feature some of the top returning players in the league and will carry 14-game regular season and 13-game Centennial Conference winning streaks in to the league. Couple that returning talent with a strong freshman class and the Blue Jays may just have what it takes to extend their run atop the league and meet their own lofty expectations.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the Blue Jays as they enter the 2012 season with key returning personnel included.
Quite simply, the second-most prolific quarterback in school history (Margraff) must replace the most prolific quarterback in school history as Hewitt Tomlin graduated in May and took his more than 40 school records with him.
Under normal circumstances this would be cause for a alarm, but Margraff and offensive coordinator Dan Swanstrom have the luxury of returning junior Robbie Matey, who served as Tomlin's primary backup last season.
All Matey did was complete 61-of-84 (.726) attempts for 598 yards with three touchdowns against just one interception. He also guided JHU to a pair of wins early in the season, including a 27-17 win over Muhlenberg, when Tomlin was out with an injury. He has a tremendous understanding of Swanstrom's offense and plays with an infectious energy level on the field.
Sophomore Braden Anderson saw action in four games a year ago and threw for 127 yards on 10-of-16 passing and is a big, strong-armed quarterback. He and Matey provide the Blue Jays with a solid returning tandem and both are capable of running the offense at a high level.
Any first-year starting quarterback relishes the opportunity to have a solid running game and the Blue Jays should have just that with the return of running back Jonathan Rigaud, a Second Team All-Centennial selection last season, and fullback Scott Barletta, who has a nose for the end zone. Rigaud averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season and totaled 905 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was at his best in some of JHU's biggest games as he racked up a career-high 166 yards in a key late-season win over Ursinus and added a personal-best 230 all-purpose yards against St. John Fisher in the NCAA Playoffs. His ability to take pressure off the Blue Jay passing attack will be a key to any success JHU enjoys in 2012.
Barletta provides the Blue Jays with a strong blocking fullback who is also a threat with the ball in his hands. He rushed for 177 yards on 43 carries a year ago and finished second on the team with eight rushing touchdowns. He has scored 13 times on just 84 carries in his career and provides the power to complement Rigaud's big-play capabilities.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
If returning a strong running game is number one on the wish list of a first-year starter at quarterback, then a talented receiving corps is not far behind and the Blue Jays return as good a tandem as any team in the nation in junior Dan Wodicka and senior Scott Cremens.
Wodicka is coming off one of the great seasons in school history as he posted a school-record 87 receptions for 1,245 yards and seven touchdowns en route to earning First Team All-Centennial and First Team d3football.com All-South honors. He already ranks among JHU's all-time leaders in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,775) and has firmly established himself as one of the premier receivers in the country.
Cremens led the team with nine touchdown receptions a year ago and counted 59 catches for 705 yards to his credit. He has 95 receptions for 1,114 yards and 12 touchdowns for his career and will become just the 12th player in school history to reach the 100-reception mark with five more catches.
The Blue Jays will need to replace Sam Wernick, who graduated with 228 receptions for 3,023 yards and 30 touchdowns, but have several capable returnees and a talented group of freshmen competing for playing time alongside Wodicka and Cremens.
Juniors Bob D'Orazio, Jared Beekman and Jonathan Monteiro all saw limited action behind the big three and combined for 14 receptions a year ago. They are joined by A.J. Safi, who returned for a fifth year after missing virtually all of the 2011 season with an injury. The foursome will look to make up for the 71 receptions and eight scores Wernick contributed a year ago.
Although not used extensively in the passing game, the Blue Jays do return a pair of tight ends who saw time a year ago in junior Brendan Hartman and sophomore Brad Foulke. Both have good size and could develop into dangerous threats inside the red zone.
The Blue Jays took some hits on the offensive line, where three-year starters Ed Rodger and Doug Drummond and two-year starter Roland Massimino departed after earning All-Centennial honors last season.
While the loss of those three provides perhaps the biggest challenge to the Blue Jay offense, the two returning starters offer a solid nucleus to rebuild the line around.
The headliner up front is junior Armand Jenifer, who has started every game of his career and is firmly established as one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. He garnered First Team All-Centennial and Second Team d3football.com All-South honors last season and has landed a pair of preseason All-America nods entering the 2012 season. He is a fixture at right tackle and is equally effective as a pass blocker or run blocker.
Junior Ben Cranston transferred to JHU prior to last season and immediately stepped into a starting spot at guard. After helping a unit that paved the way for an offense that averaged more than 39 points and 490 yards per game, he slides over to center, where he takes over Rodger and is primed to become the latest in JHU's long line of accomplished centers.
Although short on starting experience, JHU's other returning offensive linemen bring plenty of game experience and should seamlessly transition into larger roles.
Juniors Vincenzo Bonaddio and Kevin Quinn are slotted to take over at left tackle and left guard, respectively, while seniors Rich Dulski and Sean Reeder will likely split time at right guard. Reeder is one of the most versatile linemen the Blue Jays have had in recent years and could line up at several spots.
Other returning linemen who could figure into the rotation include seniors Patrick Kiernan (C) and Keith Graeff (T) and sophomore Zach Lorenz (G). Margraff is also excited about the prospects of several of the newcomers, who could also push for playing time early this season.
Defensive coordinator Frank Colaprete has long seen the value in using a deep rotation to keep players fresh and develop depth. His philosophy will pay dividends this season on the defensive line, where the Blue Jays lost four starters to graduation, but return four players who played in 10 or more games last season and several others who saw regular action.
Colaprete will build from the inside out along the line as three of his four most experienced returning linemen play on the interior.
Juniors Joe DiTrolio and Mike Zikoski are likely to share time at nose guard after the two combined for 37 tackles and four tackles for losses a year ago. DiTrolio posted 20 stops and one sack before missing JHU's NCAA Playoff game with an injury, while Zikoski added 17 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, last season.
Sophomore Michael Rocca appears ready for a breakout season after playing in 10 of JHU's 11 games as a freshman. He counted three tackles for loss and two sacks among his nine tackles last season and has the size (6-6/245) to be a disruptive force inside.
Senior Jordan Randolph, who has added 20 pounds to his 6-4 frame, has enjoyed a tremendous preseason and will team with Rocca to give the Blue Jays a strong tandem at defensive tackle.
Colaprete utilizes a pair of versatile ends in the Blue Jays' 4-4-3 alignment and a pair of sophomores – Matthew Connery and Michael Longo – are the leaders of this group. Both played in all 11 games last season and each registered six tackles as freshmen. The duo is being called on to replace a pair of First Team All-Centennial performers - Kale Sweeney and Tyler Brown - and have shown tremendous growth and understanding of the system.
The key to the Blue Jays' 4-4-3 alignment is an active group of linebackers that excel against the run and pass. This figures to be a team strength this season as seniors Taylor Maciow, Adam Schweyer and P.J. Caufield return to anchor the defense after combining for nearly 200 tackles a year ago.
On a senior-laden defense, it was Maciow and Schweyer who led the team in tackles last season as Maciow punched up a team and career-high 88 from his spot in the middle, while Schweyer finished second on the team with 64 stops.
Maciow grabbed Second Team All-Centennial honors a year ago and counted 6.5 tackles for losses, 4.5 sacks and five pass breakups to his credit, while Schweyer, one of the top special teams performers in school history, added 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks from his outside position.
Caufield enjoyed the finest season of his career last season as he totaled 37 tackles, including 4.5 for losses, and four pass breakups at the outside spot opposite Schweyer. He also added one of the memorable moments of the 2011 season when he intercepted an extra point attempt by Ursinus and returned it 100 yards in the driving rain and snow.
The lone newcomer to the projected starting lineup was one of Hopkins' top freshmen last season as rising sophomore Hani Annabi played in all 11 games and registered 32 tackles. His ability to take over for Ryan Piatek, a First Team All-Centennial performer, will be a key for the Blue Jays this season.
While several newcomers have been impressive and could push for time in the rotation here, a group of returning players – seniors Joshua Heft and Ben Williams and juniors Nate Winek and J.P. Marquess – provide experienced depth and should all see increased playing time this season.
Colaprete must replace a pair of three-time All-Centennial performers in the secondary as safety Michael Milano and cornerback Sam Eagleson departed after enjoying outstanding careers.
Sophomore Ryan Rice returns to lead the way in the secondary after he stepped right into a starting spot at cornerback last season and totaled 23 tackles and four pass breakups from his spot opposite Eagleson. He demonstrated the ability to play the run effectively while also emerging as one of the top young cover corners in the Centennial.
Although not technically a returning starter, senior Alex Logue returns with plenty of game experience and should take over for Eagleson at cornerback. He played in all 11 games and had 18 tackles to his credit last season.
Junior John Arena may have the largest shoes to fill as the departure of Milano is a key loss for the Blue Jays, who rely heavily on their lone safety in both run support and against the pass in their 4-4-3 alignment. Arena, who played primarily OLB in his first two years, has a strong understanding of the Blue Jays' system and played in all 11 games with 21 tackles and two interceptions a year ago.
There is no shortage of young players who have demonstrated the ability in preseason camp to contribute in the secondary. Many of these younger players will be given an early opportunity to contribute as the Blue Jays adjust to several of the pass-happy offenses they'll face in the Centennial Conference this season.
Junior Richie Carbone returns for a second year handling both the place-kicking and punting chores. He set a JHU record with 55 extra points and added a pair of field goals last season, when he also averaged 34.5 yards on 42 punts.
Senior Jun Park, a former member of the Blue Jay soccer team, joined the team in the spring and demonstrated a strong leg and could figure into the team's plans on kickoffs.
In the return game, Wodicka averaged 13.7 yards on 13 punt returns, while Rigaud averaged 21.9 yards on nine kickoff returns. Both could handle the responsibilities again, although this is also an area where several newcomers could figure prominently into the rotation.