Football team gears up for season opener at Hamilton

Senior quarterback and co-captain Ryan McDonald is sacked in Tufts' 35–24 loss to Middlebury on Nov. 11, 2017 Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily Archives

It’s football season again, and coach Jay Civetti’s Jumbos are ready to hit the road for their season opener. The Jumbos will take on the Hamilton Continentals on Saturday in Clinton, N.Y. The game will come nearly one year to the date after Tufts’ 2017 season opener against Hamilton last fall.

In their matchup with the Continentals last year, the Jumbos came away with a 35–28 overtime win. Senior quarterback and co-captain Ryan McDonald threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns before coming out of the game with an injury. His backup, senior quarterback Ryan Hagfeldt came into the game and scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime on a recovery of his own fumble. The Jumbos’ defense then made a goal-line stand, stopping the Continentals to end the game.

Despite coming out of that matchup with an injury, McDonald is not afraid of being physical going into this year’s game against Hamilton.

“We always know that Hamilton’s going to bring their best when we play them Week 1,” McDonald said. “They come out as a physical football team, and that’s something we pride ourselves on as well — being a physical football team. The injury component doesn’t really add anything to it. We just want to be 1–0 after Week 1.”

Tufts went on to finish its season 5–4, good for sixth in the NESCAC. The Continentals sat one spot back of the Jumbos at the end of the year, with a 3–6 record and a seventh-place finish. The overtime game and the teams’ proximity in the conference standings underscore the challenge that Hamilton poses.

Going into the first game, Civetti is not sleeping on Hamilton in the slightest, as he still views the matchup as very well-balanced.

“Hamilton is as well coached [a team] in [the NESCAC] as you’re going to find,” Civetti said. “I really think their staff does a great job. They return a lot of starters so, if anything, [the] advantage is Hamilton’s right now with it being a home game. I think they’re a really good team, and we’ve got our hands full.”

Tufts’ offense, a unit that will once again be led by McDonald, must play well in order to beat Hamilton on the road. As the starting quarterback last year, McDonald threw for 1,879 yards (second in the NESCAC), 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 59 percent completion rate. He also led the team in rushing with 722 yards on the ground.

Senior wideout Jack Dolan led the Jumbos in receptions last year with 44, and he figures to be McDonald’s favorite target once again while also retaining punt-return duties. The team’s offense will have many familiar faces — continuity that McDonald believes will help its thrive.

“[The offense] is going to look a lot more fluid,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys back, a lot of experience on the offensive side of the ball. Spending time together in the offseason, last season and this preseason, we’ve gotten a lot of work in together. I think it’ll be a high-powered offense.”

While the skill positions will have many familiar faces, the Jumbos will see some change in their offensive line, which graduated offensive linemen Liam Thau (LA ’18) and Gian Calise (E ’18). Both Thau and Calise were integral to the Jumbos’ offensive success, so the early-season position battles to take their places are of interest.

Perhaps the most significant losses of the Jumbos’ offseason came on the defensive side of the ball. The team graduated linebackers Zach Thomas (LA ’18), who was second on the team in sacks last year with 5.5, and Steve DiCienzo (LA ’18), who was second in tackles with 69. The secondary lost defensive backs Brett Phillips (LA ’18) and J.P. Garcia (LA ’18). Two crucially important defensive linemen departed, as well, in Micah Adickes (LA ’18), who recorded a whopping 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss, and Doug Harrison (E ’18), who logged 4.5 sacks of his own.

That list includes six major defensive pieces, so Saturday’s game will be a chance for many defensive players to grab more playing time and to show that they can help ease the loss of production.

“When you lose a core group of guys like that, it presents its challenges,” Civetti said. “I’m sure Hamilton’s licking their chops, ready to get after us, and that’s the beauty of football, right? I’m excited for [the younger players] to rise up to the occasion.”

The Jumbos will retain one of their best defensive players, however, in junior linebacker and co-captain Greg Holt. Holt was named NESCAC Rookie of the Year in his first season and paced the team in tackles with 84 last year.

Hamilton’s starting lineup was slightly younger last season, as the team did not graduate as many of its key statistical leaders. Junior quarterback Kenny Gray will lead the offense once again after throwing for 1,871 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. Junior wide receiver Joe Schmidt also figures to be a leader for the Continentals’ offense. Schmidt stunned the Jumbos in their matchup last year with a four-touchdown performance, racking up 214 receiving yards along the way.

The Continentals’ defense did not rush the passer as well as the Jumbos did last season: Hamilton had 18 sacks, while Tufts recorded 30. However, Hamilton senior linebacker Tyler Hudson recorded 92 tackles, which was good for second in the NESCAC — one spot ahead of Holt.

After last year’s overtime thriller, the grudge match between Tufts and Hamilton will kick off at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Hamilton’s Steuben Field. The Jumbos will return to the Hill a week later for their home opener against the Wesleyan Cardinals on Sept. 22.