Football focuses on fundamentals for 2006

Football focuses on fundamentals for 2006

Head coach Rocky Hager has one word on his mind entering his third season at the helm of Northeastern’s football team: fundamentals.

It is fundamentals, Hager contends, that bring victories instead of the late-game losses that plagued the Huskies last season. And it is fundamentals that this year’s squad are working on to improve last season’s 2-9 record (2-6 Atlantic-10).

“Fundamentals are the most important part of any doggone Saturday or Sunday,” Hager said. “That’s something that we feel we really need to focus upon here, especially when we’re young, and then get the layers in a position where they rely on those fundamentals to carry them.”

Saying these Huskies are young is an understatement. Three seniors graduated, leaving just two juniors starting on the offensive line. It will be fundamentals that will instill confidence on Saturdays this fall.

“When you have solid fundamentals, you start to have confidence in how you can adjust things a little bit here or a little bit there and give yourself a littler better advantage on the field,” Hager said. “In previous seasons we’ve always been fundamentally sound as a football team; they all add up to being champions and that’s what we want to build here.”

The 2006 football season is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated in recent years. The spotlights will focus on the development of sophomore quarterback Anthony Orio and the offensive line, a sturdy defense lead by an athletic core of linebackers and a workhorse tailback who has done nothing but improve. Standing in the way of improvement, however, is a tough schedule opening with Division 1-A powerhouse Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. on September 2.

However, a tough schedule is nothing but a reason to be excited about the upcoming season, according to junior linebacker A.J. Little.

“They’re humans just like us.” Little said. “They’ve been beaten before. Anything is possible. Anybody can be beaten on any Saturday. It’s going to be loud and I can’t wait for it, just from the noise and everything, it gets me excited.”

Little is just one piece of a defense hoping to make noise under first-year coordinator Paul Schaffler. The Huskies will employ a new 3-4 defense, using three defensive ends on the line of scrimmage with four linebackers behind them.

“You can bring people from all different leverage, all different kinds of angles,” Hager said. “It gives us a little bit of an element of uncertainty when we line up and face the offensive line. [The opponents] don’t know for sure if this outside linebacker’s coming or not.”

The change isn’t all that drastic for the players, as Little contends the linebackers are eager to begin the season.

“I think the linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense,” he said. “Everybody right now is looking fast, on point. Right now, we’re like a ticking clock. We’re ready to go. We know the defense right now, we’ve been doing it for a while. It’s time to go.”

It’s also time for Orio to lead the offense, after showing signs in his rookie season he can be a steady passer. Orio, who set a Husky record with 1,198 yards in 10 games, is finally feeling experienced and ready.

“My comfort level is a lot higher, compared to last fall,” Orio said. “I’ve had a whole season of A-10 competition, and as a QB you learn from your mistakes and get better as time goes on.”

Orio’s spot as the uncontested starter is something of a surprise. Fellow sophomore John Sperrazza was supposed compete with Orio for the starting nod, but fell ill with Lyme Disease. The team is considering using red shirt QB Alex Dulsky as backup in place of the ailing Sperrazza.

“Orio a very smart young man,” Hager said. “He’s picking up the offense quickly.”

A large part of that offense is junior tailback Maurice “Mo” Murray, who amassed 998 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns last season. Murray is well known by the coaching staff and his teammates for being a tough competitor.

“Mo is really steady – he’s really tough,” Hager said. “Sometimes to the point that it ends up being a flaw because he’ll stay in and wear himself out, as opposed to letting us take him out and letting him rest and keep going right.”

Murray understands his role in the offense and on the field perfectly, Hager said.

“He’s kind of one of the leaders, not a real vocal guy, but he leads by doing things exactly right and doing them very hard on the practice field and out on the game field,” Hager said.

Murray’s teammates are confident in his on-field abilities.

“I think Murray is a beast,” Orio said. “Flat out, when he decides that no one can top him, he really is a beast.”

A young offensive line will be hoping to open a lot of room for Murray to plow through. Junior lineman Scott Kaplan, who recently transferred from D-1A University of Akron, is a solid addition to a depleted line.

“I was brought in to shore up the line, and we will continue to get better to have a successful season,” Kaplan said. “The younger guys are getting older and have more experience; we’ll be able to take steps forward to lead this team.”

Husky veterans are happy to have Kaplan on the line with them.

“Scott Kaplan is going to be a good addition,” said senior offensive tackle Tim Avery. “He’s had a lot of game experience out in Akron. I think we just need to pull together and we’ll be the group that leads this team.”

As fast as the linebackers may be, or as promising as the young offense may look, nothing is more glaring than the match-up against Virginia Tech. How are the Huskies dealing with the inevitable butterflies that accompany 65,000 screaming fans?

“When you get on the field and you hear what your first play is, it all becomes football from there,” said red shirt freshman offensive lineman Kevin Newhall. “It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing, it’s all the same when you get out on the field.”

– Staff writer Chris Estrada contributed to this report.

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