2019 football season preview

Billy Wagner '20 (Josh McKee photo)
Billy Wagner '20 (Josh McKee photo)

After winning three games in a season for the third year in a row, the Hamilton College Continentals are aiming for more in 2019. Four players who made the all-NESCAC team last year are back, along with the starting quarterback and the team's leading rusher.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the conference shuffled its schedule. Hamilton kicks off its 2019 slate on Saturday, Sept. 14 at Bowdoin, which had traditionally been a mid-season opponent. The Continentals take on Wesleyan in their home opener on Sept. 21 and host Colby on Sept. 28 for Fallcoming and Family Weekend. Hamilton and the Mules had been playing each other in mid-October. Amherst and Bates also visit Steuben Field on Oct. 19 and Nov. 9, respectively.

The Continentals defeated each of the first two teams on their schedule last year. Hamilton was just three points shy of breaking its record for most in a game with a 62-27 victory against Bowdoin as kicker Sam Thoreen '22 set a program record by making eight extra points. The Polar Bears have won just one game in the last three seasons.

The Continentals edged Wesleyan 33-29 on the road thanks to defensive back Christian Snell '22, who blocked a punt and recovered the loose ball in the end zone with 1:34 left in the fourth quarter. Snell was later named the NESCAC Special Teams Player of the Week, and the Cardinals still went on to post a winning record.

Hamilton wrapped up 2018 with a 38-13 rout at winless Bates. The Continentals controlled the line of scrimmage with 292 rushing yards while allowing the Bobcats to gain a total of 213 yards on offense. The teams play each other in the season finale.

Special teams has been a strength the last two seasons and that shouldn't change this year. Hamilton led the conference in punt return average, was second in yards per punt and third in kick return average in 2018. Wide receiver Sam Robinson '20 and punter Billy Wagner '20 were on the all-NESCAC special teams first team for the second year in a row. Robinson set a conference record with 785 kick return yards and averaged 24.5 yards per return. He also averaged nearly seven yards on his 13 punt returns. Wagner averaged 37.7 yards and pinned 17 of his 57 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Wagner, who also plays tight end, caught 10 passes for 58 yards. Thoreen handled the kicking duties and was 5 of 7 on field goals with a long of 36 yards and missed just two of 26 extra-point attempts.

Veteran starting quarterback Kenny Gray '20 returns to lead the offense. Gray is third on the Continentals' career passing yards list with 4,368. Last year he completed 153 of 294 passes for 1,594 yards and was third in the NESCAC in yards per game and tied for second with 13 touchdowns. He also was third on the team with 216 rushing yards. Gray was named the conference's player of the week after the Bowdoin win.

Gray has a trio of talented returning receivers to throw to this year. Joe Schmidt '20 has been on the all-conference team on offense each of the past two years including the first team in 2017. Schmidt had 52 catches for 472 yards last year, is second on Hamilton's career list with 1,584 yards, and needs just four receptions to break the program's career record. He set the team's single-season records for most receiving yards and touchdowns in 2017 and shares the mark for most receptions in a season. Christian Donahoe '20 continued to be the Continentals' downfield threat as he led the team with 476 yards and 15.9 yards per catch. Will Budington '21 emerged as a reliable third option with 30 receptions including a team-high five touchdown catches.

The backfield is in good hands with the return of Joe Park '22, Mitch Bierman '21 and David Kagan '20. Park enjoyed a solid rookie season with 521 rushing yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Kagan added 218 yards as the starting fullback and he and Park averaged 6.4 and 5.2 yards per carry, respectively. Bierman was limited to three games due to injury but posted 405 yards and six rushing scores as a first-year in 2017. The offensive line that allowed the backs to average 4.4 yards per carry is led by 2018 all-NESCAC team honoree A.J. Rattee '21.

The defense led the conference with 13 interceptions as eight different players picked off at least one pass. Carmine Bruno '20 is the leading returner with 57 tackles from his outside linebacker spot a year ago.

Ends James Ball '21 and Alex Ganter '20 and tackle Luca Katz '21 are the top returning lineman. Ball made 47 stops, forced a fumble and recovered two more. Ganter was all over the backfield with 8.5 tackles for loss, one blocked kick, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups. He was named the conference's defensive player of the week after the Bates victory. Katz added 27 tackles and a fumble recovery.

The secondary will miss free safety Colby Jones '19, made the all-NESCAC team twice before he graduated. Strong safety Sam Bowen '20 returns after he was credited with 48 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defended last year. Starting corners Justin Leigh '20 (two INT, four passes defended) and Mufudzi Chogugudza '21 are back as well. Snell defended four passes and returned an interception 47 yards.

Bowen, Ganter, Gray and Kagan are the 2019 team captains.