Quarterback Mike Nebrich is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award.
Aug. 20, 2014
CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - If there was an FCS winner for preseason accolades, Fordham would take a back seat to no one.
The Rams have as many FCS awards candidates as any team in the country in quarterback Mike Nebrich, wide receiver Sam Ajala and linebacker Stephen Hodge, and offensive lineman Mason Halter and tight end Dan Light join that group to tie for the national lead in All-America selections, too. The Rams are a resounding favorite in the Patriot League, and come in ranked in the top 15 of both FCS polls.
Of course, there are games to be played and the Rams now have to take their on-paper resume to the field. Fordham looks the part of a top Patriot League team and even an elite FCS squad with an overpowering offense and opportunistic defense, and has a senior-laden roster that is ready to take the next step after making the second round of last year's FCS playoffs.
A preview of the 2014 Fordham Rams season is included below, with a look at the offense, defense, special teams and schedule, five burning questions and links to information and video previews for the season.
HEAD COACH: Joe Moorhead, 3rd Season (18-7 Overall/Fordham, 8-4 Patriot League)
2013 RECORD: 12-2 Overall, N/A Patriot League
FCS PLAYOFFS: First Round: Beat Sacred Heart; Second Round: Lost at Towson
FINAL RANKING: No. 9 Sports Network/No. 10 FCS Coaches' Poll
PATRIOT LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL: 1st
FCS PRESEASON RANKINGS: No. 11 (Sports Network)/No. 12 (FCS Coaches Poll)
PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT LEAGUE: Mike Nebrich (Sr., QB - Offensive POY); Stephen Hodge (Sr., LB - Defensive POY); Sam Ajala (Sr., WR); Brian Wetzel (Sr., WR); Tebucky Jones (Sr., WR); Dan Light (Sr., TE); Mason Halter (Sr., OL); Michael Marando (Sr., PK); Brett Biestek (Gr., DL); DeAndre Slate (Sr., DL); Ian Williams (Sr., DB); Joe Pavlik (So., P)
OFFENSE: A record-setting offense that rated among the best in the FCS brings back nearly all of its key pieces in 2014. It starts with Mike Nebrich at quarterback, who is among the top players in the nation at his position after setting most Patriot League single-season records last year. He has All-American targets in wide receiver Sam Ajala and tight end Dan Light and more All-Patriot League honorees with Tebucky Jones Jr. and Brian Wetzel at wide receiver. Each of the three wideouts had 85 or more catches and topped 1,000 yards last season. The offensive line is led by Preseason All-American Mason Halter. The only major change will be at running back, where all-purpose threat Carlton Koonce departs.
DEFENSE: While not as accomplished as the other side of the ball, Fordham's defense brings back almost its entire unit from a group that was among the national leaders in turnover margin. Stephen Hodge (124 TT) is the Patriot League Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, DeAndre Slate (49 TT, 7 sacks) and Brett Biestek (58 TT, 5 sacks) are preseason picks on the line and Ian Williams (86 TT, 4 INT) earned a spot in the defensive backfield. Linebacker Austin Hancock (80 TT) and defensive backs Jordan Chapman (64 TT, 5 INT) and Levon Williams (79 TT, 5 INT) joined the group as All-Patriot League picks last year, and all but one player who registered more than 20 tackles last year returns to the lineup in 2014.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rams bring back All-Patriot League players at both kicker and punter. Michael Marando made 19-of-26 field goals and set a single-season League record with 120 points, while Joe Pavlik averaged 39.4 yards per punt. Wetzel is an All-Patriot League punt return man in addition to his receiving prowess, and Jorge Solano averaged 21.1 yards and scored a touchdown returning kicks.
SCHEDULE: The Rams open the season with four non-League games against opponents they defeated last season: home against St. Francis (Pa.) (Aug. 30) and Rhode Island (Sept. 13), and at Villanova (Sept. 6) and Columbia (Sept. 20). Fordham begins Patriot League play with matchups at Holy Cross (Sept. 27) and at home against Lafayette (Oct. 3). After a home date with Penn (Oct. 11) and a bye, the Rams finish League action by going to Lehigh (Oct. 25), hosting Colgate (Nov. 1), visiting Bucknell (Nov. 7) and welcoming Georgetown (Nov. 15). Fordham finishes the year with an FBS game at Army (Nov. 22).
1. Will everything go right again?
Fordham won six more games in 2013 than it did in 2012, but if you look at the outcomes the records do not tell the whole story. In 2012, the Rams were nearly much better than 6-5 as they lost three Patriot League games by three points or less. On the flip side, last year's memorable 12-2 campaign included last-second wins over Temple and Bucknell and two and three-point wins over Holy Cross and Villanova, respectively. The Rams enter this season with a bulls-eye that comes with a top 15 ranking and preseason favorite status in the Patriot League. They will get everyone's best shot, and will undoubtedly have to pull out a couple more close victories to end up with another postseason berth.
2. Can the offense be stopped?
From putting up 51 points in the opener against Rhode Island to lighting up the scoreboard in the FCS playoffs, Fordham's offense was a well-oiled machine in 2013. Quarterback Mike Nebrich set multiple Patriot League records on his way to a fifth-place finish in the Walter Payton Award, and skill position players filled the field. That will be the case once again, as almost the entire group returns including Nebrich, wide receivers Sam Ajala, Brian Wetzel and Tebucky Jones, tight end Dan Light and offensive lineman Mason Halter as Preseason All-Patriot League picks. The Rams have to replace Carlton Koonce, who does leave a big void, but they have the athletes to pick up the slack at running back. On paper the Rams stack up as one of best offenses in the nation, maybe even the best in FCS. But of course they now have to go play the games. The offense wasn't the same when Nebrich went out with an injury last year, as Fordham scored 23 points in a win over Bucknell and 14 in a loss to Lafayette. And with Nebrich willing to run as well as throw the ball, it will be important to keep him from getting hit too often. The only other issue last season was red-zone hiccups, as Fordham had to settle for field goals 14 times and did not score 12 others on their trips inside the 20. But if everyone on the offense stays healthy, it's hard to see Fordham having any issues scoring points this season.
3. Will the defense shut down the run?
Fordham's defense made enough plays to win games last season. The Rams led the nation by forcing 40 turnovers, including seven in the red zone as Fordham would bend but often not break when an opponent moved down the field. The defense should have plenty of wiggle room to give up some points with the offense's capability, but will need to improve against the run to become an elite unit. Fordham finished last in the Patriot League and 97th in the nation by giving up 203.6 rushing yards per game last year, and allowed nearly 5.3 yards per carry. The Rams have most of their top players back on defense, including Buck Buchanan Award candidate Stephen Hodge at linebacker, and better depth on the defensive line could go a long way towards improving the run defense. The Rams will very likely need to do just that, because counting on turnovers is always a risky proposition.
4. Can Fordham become rare Patriot League favorite to win the title?
Fordham is back in the Patriot League race for the first time since 2009, and the Rams were the unanimous first-place selection by fellow schools in the preseason poll in July. But going from preseason favorite to end-of-season champion has proven to be a challenging task in Patriot League history. The preseason favorite has gone on to win the League title only twice in the last 12 years, and there are two history lessons in particular for the Rams. In both 2003 and 2008, the Rams were heavy favorites with strong teams coming off Patriot League titles, but did not end up winning the crown either year. The preseason polls and history don't necessarily matter, but it does show being the top dog before the year means nothing once everything gets going. Fordham will be playing games that count in the Patriot League standings for both teams for the first time in five years, and the Rams are sure to get everyone's best shot as the preseason favorite.
5. How far can Fordham go?
There is another side to Fordham's preseason accolades, both individually and for the team. The respect from other schools and nationally shows that the Rams have believers in the FCS, and for good reason. With a handful of elite players and a schedule that offers an opportunity to play an FCS top 15 team and an FBS opponent, the Rams are in position to earn a place among the top teams in the nation. If Fordham can go 12-0 or even 11-1, the Rams could end up with the playoff seed that evaded them last year due to the late-season loss at Lafayette. It has been 11 years since Colgate made it to the national title game in 2003, and the Raiders still stand as the only Patriot League team to make it past the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. That is a very tall task, but the Rams look as good on paper in the preseason as any Patriot League team since the Raiders made their run.