Football seniors ready for last shot at NESCAC title

Senior quarterback Alex Snyder looks for an open player to catch his pass in the homecoming game against Bowdoin on Oct. 10, 2015. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

For the first time in nearly 10 years, Tufts football celebrated a winning season last year. This year, the team expects to once again compete for a NESCAC Championship

“Everyone here is focused, both in terms of what we want and what we expect,” coach Jay Civetti said. “We should be able to compete with anybody in this league. We don’t talk about the championship; we talk about having a championship culture.”

Though last year’s senior class will certainly be missed, the majority of Tufts’ key contributors, both on offense and on defense, will be returning. Most notably on the offensive side of the ball, senior running back Chance Brady will return to build on his dominant 2015 campaign. Brady will undoubtedly be the Jumbos’ primary offensive weapon, but he will also be a clear target for opposing defenses to key in on.

Brady, the defending NESCAC offensive player of the year, rushed for 121.9 yards per game in 2015, a full 30 yards more than any other back in the league. Brady’s 975 rushing yards were by and far the most in the conference, and with only two fumbles on the season, there are no concerns about his ball security.

“There will be a lot of attention on [our running game],” Civetti said. “Chance Brady will garner a great deal of focus from defense-not that he didn’t last year, but he’ll garner that much more.”

Not to be overlooked in the running game are the blockers who ensure that Brady has room to run. The offensive line will work hard to ensure Brady always has a gap to hit, even as opposing defenses look to stop the run.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in my O-line,” Brady said. “Even if they bring down extra defenders, I know they’ll pick up their blocks, and it falls on me to make the extra guys miss. I’ve been at this for a long time so when they bring guys in, I have to make the magic happen.”

Though Brady is undoubtedly the star of the offense, senior quarterback Alex Snyder is another offensive player to watch. A three-year starter, Snyder’s arm was a reliable option in 2015, as he passed for 1435 yards and 10 touchdowns with only six interceptions on the season.

“We’ve been working to increase our versatility,” Brady said. “It should make us more of a dual-threat offense. It will make it harder for defenses to stop us; it won’t be as easy as just stopping the run or just stopping the pass.”

Snyder benefited from defenders overcommitting to stop Brady in 2015, and with the Jumbos likely to face even more loaded boxes in 2016, Snyder will need to provide a greater vertical threat in the passing game. Snyder’s downfield throwing stats from 2015 were respectable but not spectacular. He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt with a completion percentage of just 53.5 percent.

“Having Alex Snyder as a three-year starter as well as some really talented receivers, people will have to make a decision if they want to put eight guys in the box to stop Chance [Brady], and that will dictate our game plan,” Civetti said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Jumbos’ junior dynamic duo of lineman Micah Adickes and linebacker Zach Thomas will once again be a nightmare for NESCAC quarterbacks. Thomas led the NESCAC last season with nine sacks, to go with Adickes’ five.

“They were young puppies, just kind of figuring it out,” Civetti said. “That group as a whole continues to get better and better. Like Chance [Brady], I expect Zach [Thomas] to garner a lot of attention in terms of slide protections, which should open up opportunities for other guys.”

If the offense puts up a lead, Adickes and Thomas will be the two ensuring they keep it. Opponents playing from behind are forced to pass more aggressively, allowing Civetti to unleash his pair of powerful pass rushers on opposing quarterbacks. One area the Jumbo pass rushers are looking to improve upon is forcing turnovers. Thomas registered no forced fumbles in 2015, while Adickes forced one to go along with an interception.

In the secondary, expectations are high for former rookie sensation and sophomore defensive back Tim Preston. Preston was a force to be reckoned with, snagging a NESCAC high six picks last season to go along with another four batted balls.

“I came in not knowing what my role was going to be and I didn’t expect to have the impact that I did last year,” Preston said. “Last year was last year. I’ve just got to keep improving.”

The Jumbo secondary benefits from the pressure the line places on opposing passers. The front seven forces a lot of off-balance or weak throws that make defending easier for the defensive backs.

“I love having what I believe to be one of the best defensive lines in the NESCAC,” Preston said. “It helps us out a lot in the secondary.”

While the Jumbo defense had its strengths last year, it also had its fair share of struggles. Tufts allowed the second most yards per game and the third most points overall in the conference.

“We were pretty young on defense last year,” defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Kevin Farr said. “We made some mistakes that we can probably point to youth and inexperience. With another year under our belt, hopefully we can improve on some of those areas and improve on the success that we had.”

While often the most overlooked part of a football team, special teams, according to Civetti, are an area of strength for the Jumbos.

“I think our special teams with [senior kicker] Willie Holmquist are a big strength,” Civetti said. “I really think we have a weapon there.”

Holmquist was fourth in scoring overall in the league last year with 53 points, led all NESCAC kickers in points and holds the Tufts record for most field-goals in a season, 11. Senior wide receiver Mike Rando is Tufts’ unique threat on return duties. Rando finished third in all-purpose yards last year behind a duo of explosive running backs, Brady and Trinity’s Jabari Hurdle Price. Rando, while simultaneously playing a full-time role in the offense, was second in the NESCAC in both kick and punt return yardage, with 446 and 165 respectively.

This Saturday’s 6 p.m. game against Wesleyan at the Ellis Oval marks the first time in Tufts history that the team will play a home night game. This is just the second instance of football under the lights in NESCAC history. The first was in 2013 with the same teams at Wesleyan.

“I played night games in high school, and I was here for the first game against Wesleyan [in 2013],” Brady said. “There’s obviously a change in atmosphere. There will be more people there and more hype around it, but we’re trying to push that it’s still a football game; it’s still 60 minutes and we have to get out there and prove that we’re the best team.”

With their first game of the year against a formidable Cardinals lineup, Civetti knows that the team will not be given time to get used to playing under the lights.

“[Wesleyan] is excellent,” Civetti said. “If they aren’t the best team in the league, they’ll be as close to the top as anybody. They have a ton of talent and are very physical. They’re going to get off that bus extremely confident.”

Wesleyan finished the season 5-3 last year, tied with Middlebury for fourth, one spot behind Tufts. The 2015 season was the fourth straight winning season for the Cardinals, who were runners-up to the NESCAC title in 2014, and split the trophy three ways in 2013. No doubt the Cardinals will be going into this season with their eyes on winning their first ever individual title.

Wesleyan was a well-balanced team in 2015, ranking third in both total offensive yards and defensive yards allowed. Senior defensive lineman Jordan Stone and senior defensive back Justin Sanchez headline the Cardinals’ defense. Both were first-team all-NESCAC selections last season.

“We focus on being prepared to handle adversity,” Civetti said. “We can’t worry about the things we can’t control. We really can’t control the events that we’re going to face. The only thing we truly have control of is our response to those events.”

With a number of the key players on both sides of the ball in their final seasons, the Jumbos hope to send them out on top with a NESCAC championship. After last year’s 6-2 record, the best since 2001, the team has come a long way from the 31-game losing streak of 2010-2013, and continued growth and success is the goal for the Jumbos.

“[This season] means everything to me,” Brady said. “I didn’t win a state championship in high school, so this is my last attempt to win it all.”