Tough shoes for Lycoming Warriors to fill

The shoes aren’t that big to fill for Lycoming’s returning defensive lineman. Two All-Americans and one of the best pass rushers in recent memory?

OK, maybe they are pretty big shoes to fill. In reality, though, Warriors defensive coordinator Steve Wiser is used to this kind of turnover. More than 40 years at Lycoming will get him ready for this kind of situation.

So here he is, once again, with the start of another football season bearing down on him, tasked with replacing another defensive lineman capable of completely changing the course of a football game. This time, it’s Dwight Hentz, an All-America defensive tackle. Prior to that, it was all-region selection Nate Oropollo who finished the 2012 season with 10 sacks. And the year prior, it was Anthony Marascio, the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, an All-American, and one of the best defensive lineman in Lycoming’s distinguished history.

In total, those three defensive linemen combined for 49 tackles for loss. You want to talk about game changers? Marascio, Oropollo and Hentz were it from the defensive line.

So with the Warriors’ season opener against Susquehanna just over a week away, there are two questions for Wiser and head coach Mike Clark: Is there a player on this year’s roster capable of having that kind of impact? Or, will the some of the parts of Lycoming’s defensive line equal the production of one standout player?

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Clark, following an intrasquad scrimmage last week to cap off the first week of preseason camp, hinted both were a possibility.

“Right now, I feel like all the guys we have there are above average. And I still think we could be really good,” Clark said. “Cole Welham could be the guy. He won’t be the combination of speed and power Anthony was, but Cole, speed-wise, might be Nate. He will give people problems off the edge.”

Then Clark rattled off name after name. Braden Zeiner, Zack McMenamin and Jimmy Nottingham, players with plenty of playing experience who could take the next step. John Ciurlino and Tyler O’Connell as players to keep an eye on.

The truth is Lycoming could very well use seven or eight-players to fill the production needs of one player. Wiser’s defense has never been about one player, though. Consider that while he’s coached some of the best defenses the MAC has ever seen, it wasn’t until Marascio in 2011 that Wiser coached his first conference Defensive Player of the Year since the award was first handed out in 2002.

“If you play eight guys only 40 snaps a game instead of just four guys for 65 or 70 snaps, it should help (late in the game),” Clark said.

“Our D-line is the craziest group of guys on the field, just with the way they practice and the way they play,” Lycoming safety Tanner Troutman said. “Team chemistry is a big thing we preach. I think it’s the main contributor to our success. Trust your teammates and communicate. And they’re good guys and they’re good with keeping team chemistry which makes us very strong as a defense.”

Zeiner is definitely a player to keep an eye on as a potential playmaker. The senior has been a consistent contributor for the Warriors, playing in 28 games over his first three seasons. He’s compiled 14 tackles for loss, including 7 sacks over the last two seasons in between some nagging injuries.

Nottingham was a starter for the Warriors a year ago, but missed two games because of injury. But the senior is a force in the middle of the defensive line who could make some noise.

The bottom line for Lycoming is it knows it’s going to get production from the line. It has to. It’s the start of everything Wiser likes to be able to do with his defense. It just may take some time to figure out who the key contributor is going to be.

“With these guys, the more they’re in the program and the more they learn the defense, the tougher they get,” Troutman said. “I have 100 percent confidence they can do the same thing the guys in the past have done.”