If the Green Terrors of Western Maryland are to win the Centennial Conference for the first time, senior tailback Rob Johnson will have much to say about it.
Last year at this time, Johnson was a lightly regarded, first-year starter. Ten games, 330 carries, 1,560 yards and 18 touchdowns later, he is known as one of the country's most durable, Division III workhorses.
At 5 feet 8, 170 pounds, Johnson has returned stronger, healthier and more knowledgeable about the toll a 10-week season can take on a small player, especially one who averages 33 carries a game.
"By the second half of the season, I was a little worn out. After awhile, teams [defenses] were putting nine guys within 2 yards of the ball. It was tough," said Johnson, a North Carroll High School graduate.
The second half of the season was doubly tough on Johnson and the Green Terrors. After a 5-1 start, the team lost its last four games to wind up tied for third in the conference, and a recurring knee injury caught up with Johnson. He had arthroscopic surgery in March.
Johnson leads a group of 10 returning starters under first-year coach Tim Keating. One of Keating's priorities has been to take some responsibility away from Johnson, who accounted for about two-thirds of Western Maryland's rushing offense last year.
"You can't rely on one guy to get it done. You've got to spread the ball around," said Keating, who has incorporated a pro-style offense. "Knowing I have this All-America type of kid, I'd be crazy not to use him a lot, but we're going to make it easier on him. I want Robby healthy for the last game as well as the first."
For the Green Terrors to sustain last year's 26.4-point average, -- they need more than a healthy Johnson. They must overcome inexperience in their offensive line, and they need a breakthrough season from sophomore quarterback Brian Van Deusen.
Van Deusen, a 6-2, 155-pounder who was an all-Howard County QB at Atholton High, saw limited playing time last year. The same goes for center John Carroll, guards Pat Godfrey and Tom Gruneberg and tackle Carlos Ramos. Only tackle Rob Nightingale -- moved from right to left to protect Van Deusen's blind side -- started. Junior Alan Peitkiewicz (16 catches, 292 yards) returns at one wide receiver, and Paul McCord, last year's QB, moves to the other wide-out.
The biggest improvement must come on defense, where Western Maryland allowed 334 yards a game and gave up 171 points in its last six games. Six starters return, led by linebackers Trevor Sellers (83 tackles) and Dennis Walker (65 tackles) and cornerbacks Gary Carter and Greg Roycroft, who have started for three years.
In their preseason poll, Centennial Conference coaches picked the Blue Jays to finish second behind five-time defending champion Dickinson.
After three straight winning, middle-of-the-pack seasons in the conference under coach Jim Margraff, Hopkins might live up to the hype, although expectations have been --ed a bit with the temporary loss of sophomore halfback Hari Lymon. After leading the team with 753 yards and six TDs last year, Lymon injured his knee early in summer camp and probably will miss three games. John Killar and Rob Beach will fill in.
But the Blue Jays have great depth at quarterback. Senior John Guglielmo, a first-team all-conference player in 1991 who sat out last season for personal reasons, has reclaimed his starting role. Junior Mike Bopp, who passed for 1,414 yards and nine TDs to earn second-team all-conference honors last year, will be the backup. Senior wide-out Joe Richards (51 receptions, 719 yards, 10 TDs), another all-conference first-teamer, leads the receiving corps.
Hopkins' season ultimately will come down to how quickly its offensive line matures. Only sophomore John Applegate started last year.
Defensively, the Blue Jays are strong up the middle. Junior nose guard Jelani Rucker (103 tackles) was a first-team all-conference selection, and he may have the league's best group of linebackers behind him. Senior Stu Markley, all-conference for two years before missing last season with a knee injury, is back. So are promising junior AlQuadir Walker (65 tackles) and sophomore Victor Carter-Bey (50 tackles, four sacks).
To improve on last year's 2-7 record, the Sea Gulls must fix a defense that allowed 410.7 yards and 34.4 points, including more than 40 points in four games.
It starts with the front four of Dan Quinn, Greg Parkins, Kevin Vail and Kevin Bradford, who must do a better job of clogging the running lanes and keeping opposing blockers off of Salisbury's linebackers.
The linebacking unit figures to suffer without two-time defensive MVP Rick Helton, but third-year coach Joe Rotellini is counting on juniors Brian Gallavan (26 tackles) and Angelo Morreale (33 tackles) to fill the void. Four-year starting safeties Henry Fehlman (202 career tackles) and James McCormick (74 tackles last year) should hold the secondary together.