The following is part of a multi-part preview of the 2019 Merrimack football season, which begins next Saturday (Aug. 31) at home against Virginia of Lynchburg at 6 p.m.
NORTH ANDOVER — A new era in Merrimack football is just over one week away.
The Warriors kickoff their Division 1 era on Aug. 31, under the lights at Duane Stadium, when they host Virginia of Lynchburg. Technically not a Division 1 team — Virginia Lynchburg plays in the NCCAA — Merrimack head coach Dan Curran said that the Dragons will pose a physical challenge for a Merrimack team that returns nine of 11 starters on each side of the ball, but still remains young at many key positions, potentially starting a slew of sophomores.
“(Virginia Lynchburg) is going to have a lot of size,” Curran said. “They don’t have some of the regulations that NCAA teams have, as far as academics and aid, so they’re bringing some serious players here. We need to show up. I think people are going to look at that team in warmups and say ‘wow, look at that guy,’ because they have some serious players.”
The Warriors have been in training camp for almost three weeks and are looking to build on their depth. Curran says roster depth will be the biggest area the Warriors need to address as they venture into Division 1 FCS football.
“It’s been a productive camp,” said Curran. “You don’t see many teams return the number of starters we return on both sides of the ball.”
Truthfully, if the Warriors were still in the Northeast 10, they’re probably considered the favorite to win the league championship.
Christian Carter, who started at quarterback last season as a true freshman, returns along with Marquise Spence (WR), Johnny Rosario (WR) and Michael Mercuri (LB). The offensive line returns most of its big bodies and has remained healthy in camp and the Warriors are so loaded at linebacker that All-Rookie linebacker Tyler Roberts has moved to the offensive side of the ball and is now the Warriors’ starting tight end.
“We have the foundation set,” Curran said. “Now our job is to develop the young guys. We have to get everyone integrated into our system and our culture. Even though we have a lot of returning starters, we want to create more positional competition. The programs that have taken that step quickly at the FCS level have done so because of their depth, and we need to establish more of that.
“Our starters have always been top-of-the-line guys. We’re beginning to create more depth. We’re not quite where we want to be yet, but we’re getting close. We’re starting to see the gap between the starters and the backups get really tight. With football and the physicality of the sport, you need depth. You see stories at some of the Power 5 schools where one of the threes goes in and takes a starting job and doesn’t give it back. We’re not at that point yet but we’re getting there. If we can continue to build with good recruiting classes, we’ll get there.”
The move to Division 1 does allow the Warriors to use more scholarship aid in recruiting, but not all of that aid is coming at once. That’s a strategy laid out by the college and it also makes sense from a competitive standpoint to spread out the aid over multiple classes.
Division II programs are allowed to give 36 scholarships. Division I FCS schools can award 63 scholarships across 85 players (broken up into partial and full scholarships).
“That’s a school choice,” Curran said. “We’ll get a little more each year. Getting more aid definitely helps us in recruiting but also just being Division I opens some doors for us that weren’t open before, and it gives us access to players that we didn’t have access to before.”
Spreading out the influx of aid will also make sure the Warriors remain balanced in recruiting. Infusing all of that aid in one class creates an imbalance where a huge recruiting class graduates every four years, and the program is tasked with rebuilding.
“More aid creates more depth, because you are able to up the talent on your roster,” Curran said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The Warriors will play a partial Division I schedule in 2019, including playing new opponents from the Northeast Conference. Merrimack will travel to Central Connecticut State, Saint Francis (Pa.) and Long Island University while the Warriors will host Bryant on Oct. 5. Other notable games include road games at Lehigh and Rhode Island and a home game against Presbyterian on Oct. 26.
“The schedule is always a work in progress,” Curran said. “With football, there are agreements that are sometimes three or four years out, so it’s challenging to get games when you first make the move to Division I, but this schedule will challenge us. We’ll play some NEC schools and we’ll be tested against teams like Rhode Island.”
Merrimack’s schedule last season was a tale of two halves, somewhat due to the number of freshmen starting at key positions. The Warriors started the season 1-4 before closing the year with four wins in their last five games (4-1), with the only loss coming by one point against Pace on the road.
“You look at that schedule early on and it was one Top 20 team after Top 20 team after Top 20 team,” Curran said. “Last year we ended up developing a really good group of freshmen. We got guys back on defense after the first half of the year. We almost had the longest winning streak in school history to close out the season; we were off by one point at Pace. I think if you took the team we were at the end of the season and play those games in the first half again, we win a lot of those games.”
For now, the Warriors are focusing on finishing up camp and next week is a game week.
“Everyone in our locker room can’t wait to get started,” Curran said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re excited.”