Prognosticators are everywhere in August. Even opinions of ODAC coaches make up the 2013 preseason poll, which placed the dreaded Hampden-Sydney Tigers atop the conference by two points over Randolph-Macon.
Does Yellow Jacket head coach Pedro Arruza care?
“Nope. Not at all. Don’t care if they pick us first, or last. I tell the team ‘ignore the noise.’ Ignore it when it’s good, ignore it when it’s bad,” Arruza noted Tuesday in his office after practice.
His concern is what he’s seen from his team since practice began Aug. 17. It includes a 36-13 scrimmage win over North Carolina Wesleyan last Friday, their lone tune-up against someone other than themselves. Arruza sees promise, he sees talent, and he sees a long road ahead.
It begins offensively with 2012 ODAC rushing champion Will McGhee. The senior from Fishersville rushed for 1,275 yards on 214 carries and can count on at least that many carries this season. The Friday scrimmage was used to find a #2 tailback, an integral cog in the Randolph-Macon machine. McGhee began 2012 as the second option behind Drake Sanders. Now it’s time to find the next Will McGhee.
John Byrd, a sophomore from Manassas Park, got the most carries Friday, but didn’t nail down the job. Others could line up behind junior signal caller Zac Naccarato at the Sept. 7 season opener against Johns Hopkins.
Naccarato threw for 1,837 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, but also showed erratic streaks at inopportune times. Early preseason returns show improvement.
“Zac works really, really hard. He does whatever you ask of him,” Arruza said. “His feet have really improved; he’s in much better condition than he’s ever been in.”
A steady Naccarato now awaits a new corps of receivers to emerge. With graduation depleting this area, the wide receiver slots are wide open, with senior Christian Cook the most experienced returnee. Fellow senior Zach Midulla leads a group of talented, inexperienced tight ends. Arruza describes the group as having “a lot of size and potential,” but is disappointed by their lack of ability to stretch the field so far in training camp.
Joe Breithaupt leads the offensive line after a second team All-ODAC performance as a freshman. Three starters return to a critically important element. McGhee can only race down the field north to south if the holes are opened for him.
Defensively, the Jackets welcome several returning starters, with Arruza singling out Cross Trued as a possible leader of the 11. Trued has battled injury, but “is healthy,” according to his coach.
“We’re expecting a lot out of him,” Arruza noted.
The entire defensive line returns, including junior Calvin Davis, a Lee-Davis graduate, and sophomore Zach Price.
Arruza has yet to decide which linebackers will get the call come opening day, as well as his defensive secondary, though he was high on their potential.
“I think we’ll have better chemistry in the secondary this year, and a couple of freshmen could be in the mix,” Arruza stated.
Glen Allen High School graduate Jacob Silva, one of the those freshmen, saw significant playing time in the second half of Friday’s scrimmage. Returnees Michael Weldon and Abel Simpson, who had 49 and 35 tackles respectively in 2012, figure to play key roles.
Tracy Murden, pressed into punting duties last year when the now-graduated Josh Storm went down to injury, responded with a stellar performance in 2012. He will handle the punting chores this season. The senior’s leg is described by Arruza as “NFL caliber.” Junior Clint Hermann and incoming freshman Colin McFadden (Manchester) lead kicking hopefuls.
The schedule is tough, with one home game in September (Johns Hopkins) and trips to Guilford and Bridgewater. The good news is Washington & Lee (Oct. 19) and Hampden-Sydney (Nov. 16) come to Day Field.
“I like this schedule,” Arruza noted, appreciating its toughness, preferring to play a Top 25 competitor to start the season (Johns Hopkins is ranked #17) and have games that create tough players, and thus, a tough team.
“My challenge to the players during camp has been this: We went 7-3 last year and I thought we underachieved,” Arruza said. “The thing that was disappointing was that we lost a game (Guilford) that we should have won, and the other two losses (Washington & Lee, Johns Hopkins) against two good teams that could have beaten us, those games weren’t competitive, and that’s what bothered me. I don’t think our kids competed.”
Will mental toughness and the ability to compete hamper championship efforts this season? Arruza notes it won’t be a “carry over effect.”
“This is team #126,” Arruza said with a smile, noting how each Randolph-Macon squad throughout its long, storied history, has been unique.
Lots of talent will storm onto Day Field a week from Saturday. With it, tons of potential, and a lot of hope that the Yellow Jackets will improve both their 5-2 ODAC record and 7-3 overall mark of a year ago. And they just might prove those coaches wrong when all is said and done.