South Xtra: Despite lots of youth, W&J sets high goals

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One word can easily describe Washington & Jefferson College's 2014 football team -- young.

"This is the youngest football team we've had in the 12 years I've been head coach," said Washington & Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni, who ranks second among all NCAA coaches with an .808 winning percentage (101-24). "We're young, real young."

Sirianni has only 11 seniors on the Presidents 2014 preseason roster.

"We usually have 20 to 25 seniors," said Sirianni, who had 27 on last year's preseason roster. "We may be young, but potentially this could be a terrific team. I'm tired of hearing people say how good we can be in 2015. Our seniors don't care about how good we can be in 2015. We want to be good this year."

Twelve of the graduating seniors were recognized on the All-Presidents' Athletic Conference team, including six on the first team, as the Presidents tied for the PAC title for the second consecutive year.

The most notable losses were quarterback Matt Bliss, wide reciever Alex Baroffio and tailback Dion Wiegand.

Bliss threw for 2,089 yards and 18 touchdowns despite battling an injury all season. Baroffio caught 91 passes for 1,051 yards and 11 touchdowns. Wiegand rushed for 1,339 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

"Obviously, we lost some great players who won some big games for us," said Sirianni, who must replace 11 starters, both return specialists, a place-kicker, and punter. "We play JV games for a reason. And we recruit big numbers for a reason.

"Our JV offense gets almost as many reps as our first-team offense in practice. We need them to step in and be our starters this year."

Upper St. Clair graduate Pete Coughlin (5-10, 175, Soph.) is expected to replace Bliss. Coughlin played in nine games last year and had the challenging task of replacing Bliss in the Presidents NCAA playoff game against Mount Union.

"Pete Coughlin is as talented a player as I've ever coached," Sirianni said. "But that doesn't mean he's going to be as good. He's a special type of player who only comes around once every 10 or 15 years. He reminds me a lot of [former W&J quarterback] Bobby Swallow. How good Pete will be is up to me, as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He has the attitude required to be successful quarterback."

Sirianni's wife got her first close-up glimpse of Coughlin at the hotel prior to W&J's playoff game against Mount Union.

"She told me Pete looks like he's 10-years old," Sirianni said. "I told her, I hope he doesn't play like he's 10."

Sirianni checked with Coughlin before the game to see if he needed any words of wisdom.

"He told me 'Coach, I played against Woodland Hills twice last year. I'm fine,'" Sirianni said. "I told him that Mount Union has more players in the NFL than Woodland Hills, but not by much. He handled the pressure very well."

Coughlin is the front-runner to replace Bliss, but he's not assured the position.

"Pete still has to win the starting spot," Sirianni said. "Kevin Mechas played at the end of the 2012 season. We also have freshman Alex Rowse (6-2, 190) coming in after leading the WPIAL in passing at Beaver. Pete has to beat them out."

Four starters are back on the offensive line, center John Wanner (6-0, 240, Sr.), guard Joe Graziani (6-1, 280, Jr.), and tackles Zack Crossey (6-0, 280, Jr.) and Ty Wildey (5-11, 270, Sr.).

Wanner, a North Hills graduate, is a three-year starter. Wildey, a Connellsville grad, started at guard until a midseason injury ended his season. Graziani, a Canon-McMillan grad, replaced Wildey in the second half. Crossey is from Penn-Trafford.

"We have good experience returning on the offensive line," Sirianni said. "With Zack Crossey and John Wanner, it is easy to say we have two of the five best linemen in the conference."

The other two returning starters on offense are wide reciever Max Creighan (5-10, 180, Sr.) and tight end Michael Giampole (6-2, 210, Jr.). Creighan is a North Hills grad, while Giampole is from Avonworth.

"Max Creighan is a fifth-year senior who decided to come back [for his final season of eligibility]," Sirianni said. "Four years ago, he was the rave of Western Pennsylvania. People couldn't believe we recruited him. Max really hasn't played up to his ability. We're hoping to see him step up this year and be our feature receiver."

Ryan Ruffing (6-1, 215, Jr.), a Thomas Jefferson grad, will take over at tailback after rushing for 379 yards and five touchdowns on 63 carries in a back-up role to Wiegand last year.

"Ryan Ruffing would have started for seven of the nine teams in the conference last year," Sirianni said. "He wouldn't have started at Thomas More with [PAC Offensive Player of the Year] Domonique Hayden in the backfield, and he didn't start for us because he was behind Dion."

Five starters return on defense, end Jon Turner (6-2, 230, Jr.), linebacker Jared Pratt (5-11, 215, Sr.), cornerback Alec Schram (5-8, 155, Sr.) and safeties Bryce Merrill (6-2, 195, Sr.) and Dan Graziano (6-0, 190, Jr.).

Pratt recorded 53 solo tackles, 45 assists and two sacks last season.

"Jared was our leading tackler last year," Sirianni said. "He's a fifth year senior, so to have him back is a big plus."

Merrill ranked fourth on the team with 55 total tackles, 32 solo and 23 assists, despite missing the first four games due to a suspension.

"He made a mistake and learned from it," Sirianni said. "He's as good as I've had at safety. He has a chance to be something special."

W&J posted an 8-3 record last year and tied with Thomas More for the PAC title. The Presidents received an NCAA Division III berth and lost, 34-20, in their opener against Mount Union.

"Our goal is still eventually to challenge for and win our first national championship," said Sirianni, who has led the Presidents to five PAC titles. "We are pleased with the conference championships, but that's still our goal."

W&J has three of its first four games at home, including the Sept. 6 opener against visiting Wooster at 7 p.m. Four of the Presidents first five games will be played at night.

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