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With 2012 NCAA scoring leader Luke Heinsohn's graduation, W&L breaks in new starters.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
W&L coach Scott Abell, shown addressing his team, has five offensive starters and five defensive starters back from last season’s playoff squad.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Washington and Lee coach Scott Abell would seem to have every reason to be nervous about his ground game.
The defending ODAC champs must replace their top three running backs, including ODAC offensive player of the year and 2012 NCAA scoring leader Luke Heinsohn.
But the team does return quarterback Nick Lombardo and four starting offensive linemen.
“I feel good about where we are with the kids that we have prepped to take over in the backfield and the kids that are coming in because they’ll be running behind arguably the best offensive line Washington and Lee has had here in the modern era of football and with a senior quarterback leading them,” said Abell, entering his second season at the helm after a four-year stint as W&L’s offensive coordinator.
“Obviously there are concerns with graduating all those senior running backs, but at the same time there’s a calmness that you get with a senior quarterback and a senior-led offensive line.”
The Generals went 8-3 last fall — their third straight eight-win season. They won the ODAC title with a 6-1 league mark and made the NCAA Division III playoffs for the second time in three years.
They led Division III in rushing offense (363.7 ypg) with their option attack.
But the Generals no longer boast Heinsohn, a Gagliardi Trophy finalist who ran for 1,253 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns last fall. He broke the W&L career marks for rushing yards (3,517) and scoring (344 points). He even kicked the winning field goal in the team’s quadruple-overtime victory over Hampden-Sydney.
Running backs Brett Murray (776 rushing yards last year) and Sasha Vandalov (614 yards) also graduated.
“Heinsohn’s an unbelievable player and no one can really … fill those shoes, but I feel like we’ve got a pretty solid group of guys,” Lombardo said.
The new starting running backs will be Jimmy Moynihan, Austin Eisenhofer and Luke Terna.
“Eisenhofer is probably as talented a kid as we’ve had here as far as raw ability. He’s very explosive,” Abell said. “Moynihan is the most physical runner we’ve maybe had since I’ve been here.”
The ground game will still feature Lombardo. He was the team’s second-leading rusher last season, when he ran for 1,010 yards. But he completed just 39 of his 87 passes (44.8 percent) for 704 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions.
Four of the offense’s five returning starters are on the line, including tackle Connor Hollenbeck, who has been named a preseason All-American by D3football.com.
“They’ve been a huge part of our success,” Abell said of the linemen. “We’re going to really rely on them this year.”
Lombardo will no longer be throwing to 6-foot-5 tight end Alex Evans, who had a team-high 17 catches and four touchdown receptions as a junior last fall.
Evans wanted to be in a more pass-oriented offense. He transferred to Cincinnati earlier this summer before eventually winding up at one of W&L’s ODAC rivals — Catholic. So he will play against his old team this season.
“Coach Abell said a couple [NFL] teams had interest in me … but I didn’t feel like I would get very much recognition catching  passes again,” Evans said. “I just wanted to go somewhere and kind of get a chance to showcase my abilities a little more .”
Six starters must be replaced on defense, including All-ODAC safety Jake Pelton. But Abell is optimistic.
“You’re going to see our defense improve,” he said. “We thought we needed to get bigger and stronger and our kids really bought into it.”
The Generals have been picked fourth in the ODAC coaches preseason poll, although they finished just four points out of the top spot.
“I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the hunt Week 7 and 8 because I think these kids know how to win,” Abell said.
“The expectations are to get back” to the playoffs, defensive tackle Michael Unholz said. “That’s just the culture that’s developed.”
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