2016 Record: 6-2
Projected 2017 Record: 8-1
Projected Starters: Offense (*3 Returning)
QB: Jared Lebowitz ‘18*
RB: Diego Meritus ‘19*
WR: Conrado Banky ‘19*
WR: Jimmy Martinez ‘19
WR: Tanner Contois ‘18
TE: Frank Cosolito ‘20
OL: Andrew Rogan ‘19
OL: Joao Rocha ‘18
OL: Connor Roche ‘18
Projected Starters: Defense (*6 Returning)
LB: John Jackson ‘18*
LB: Wesley Becton ‘18*
LB: Clay Hunt ‘19*
DL: Robert Wood ‘18*
DL: Martin Williams ‘20
DL: Ibrahim Nasir ‘20
CB: Matthew Daniel ‘19
FS: Justin Fahey ‘19*
SS: Kevin Hopsicker ‘19*
Projected Starters: Special Teams (4 Returning*)
K: Carter Messingill ‘20*
P: Maxwell Rye ‘20*
KR: Willis Mckissick ‘20*
PR: Kevin Hopsicker ‘18*
Offensive MVP: QB Jared Lebowitz ‘18
Admittedly this is kind of a Chris Broussard take, but there may be no player in the league more important to their team than Lebowitz is to the Panthers. The entire Middlebury offense is designed around his ability to throw darts all over the field. The rest of the league has caught to them, but Middlebury is still the leader in no-huddle throughout the league. That can’t happen without Lebowitz. However, he “only” competed 57% of his passes last year, and threw 12 interceptions in eight games. Of course, he also threw 29 touchdowns, so these complaints are nitpicking to a certain extent. But for Middlebury to really compete with Trinity (and most likely Amherst this year,) Lebowitz will have to bring his game up still another notch. And the graduation of receivers James Burke and Ryan Rizzo, as well as several key offensive linemen, will make his job harder than ever.
Defensive MVP: LB John Jackson ‘18
Middlebury has lost a lot of talent in a lot of places this off-season, and linebacker is certainly one of them. This is almost entirely due to Addison Pierce ‘17. Pierce was a terrific linebacker, leading the team in tackles with 62, but his influence on the team was wider than that. He was a leader, and many players on the team, offensive and defensive alike, have mentioned that he will be missed. However, luckily for the Panthers and their fans, John Jackson is still around to pick up the slack. Jackson uses tremendous speed and agility to be a menace in the backfield, picking up 7.5 sacks last season. He’s also effective in coverage, picking up one interception and several deflections. He picked up 41 tackles as well, despite Pierce’s presence. He will certainly get more chances to eat up opposing running backs this season.
Player to Watch: WR Tanner Contois ‘18
The Panther receiving corps was among the best in the league last season, and that was with Contois missing pretty much the entire season with a knee injury. Now that James Burke and Ryan Rizzo graduated, the Panthers are in need of another threat at receiver. Conrado Banky ‘19 might well be the best in the league, but teams are going to double and even triple team him every chance they get. Contois has been very impressive in camp thus far, and looks fully recovered in terms of speed and quickness. If he and lanky deep threat Jimmy Martinez ‘19 can be weapons, teams won’t be able to key in on Banky, and the Panther offense will keep right on rolling.
Key Game: October 28 vs. Trinity
Middlebury lucks out this year and gets to play Trinity at home. As Colby pointed out in his preview, Trinity was the league champion last year and brings back nearly every key contributor, especially on offense. Therefore, they are the odds on favorite to win this season. If Middlebury has any hope of taking the crown, they will need to take care of the Bantams.
As Division Three college football team twitter pages go, this is actually not that bad a joke. Trust me, I’ve looked few a bunch of them.
— Middlebury Football (@MiddFootball) March 11, 2017
The Panthers spent much of last season in a three way tie with Tufts and Trinity for the top spot in the league. However, they lost handily to both those teams, and Wesleyan climbed into the mix. By the end of the year it was clear that they were a step away from contending with those powerhouses, and Middlebury ended with a slightly disappointing fourth place finish. Now star quarterback Reece Foy ‘18 has returned to Amherst after missing all of last season with a knee injury, so the Mammoths seem poised to take their spot back in the upper tier. Additionally, the Panthers had one of the largest departing classes in the league, both in numbers and in talent. Middlebury has their work cut out for them if they want to improve on their 6-2 mark from 2016. But they certainly have the talent returning to it.
The Panthers’ biggest losses are definitely on offense. For most of the last decade, Middlebury’s philosophy has been to air it out, and with good reason. Coach Ritter certainly has earned the right to call himself a quarterback guru, with Don Mckillop, McCallum Foote and Matt Milano all earning All-NESCAC nods under him. Jared Lebowitz ‘18 has the talent to be the best one yet, and put up a mostly-stellar season last year. This was due in large part, however, to most talented receiving class in the league. Phenom Conrado Banky ‘19 earned an All-NESCAC First Team nod, James Burke ‘17 landed on the Second Team, and Ryan Rizzo ‘17 offered a dynamic third option and also excelled as a return man. Only Banky remains from that group. Unless young receivers like Jimmy Martinez ‘19 can step up, Middlebury might need to balance their offense more than in years past. Running back Diego Meritus ‘20 showed flashes of excellence last year, and should be ready to explode in his junior year with a heavier workload.
Lebowitz’s job will also be made more difficult by a young offensive line. Senior leaders like Andy Klarman provided needed stability to a unit that struggled at times last season, and there is still uncertainty about who will fill those spots. Lebowitz showed himself to be prone to rushed decisions at times last year, and a shaky offensive line could only exacerbate that problem.
The defense mostly returns, with a few notable exceptions. DB Nate Leedy and LB Addison Pierce provided stability and toughness to a unit that was otherwise very young, and they both graduated. Leadership responsibilities now fall largely on the shoulders of LB John Jackson ‘18, and anyone else who steps up throughout the year. However, for all that leadership Middlebury still gave up 48 points to Tufts and 49 to Trinity. The defense will have to improve a great deal for the Panthers to remain one of the elite NESCAC programs. Middlebury lost a lot in the off-season, but that could give several youngsters a chance to step up. Hopefully they continue their high level of play and Amherst returns to glory, giving us a real five way race at the top of the league.