A total of 16 seniors graduated from Penn sprint football after last season.
Many of them made up a big chunk of the defense, including James Juliano and his team-leading 45 tackles, Angelo Matos and his team-high four sacks, as well as major contributors Tom Console and Sam Smallzman.
“I’m not going to say that wasn’t a big loss or anything, [since] they absolutely were a huge part of our [defense],” said senior linebacker Jack Hennigan.
Now, the Quakers will have to look to the returning members of the team for defensive talent.
Besides Hennigan, who chipped in with 17 tackles last season, Penn will also return sophomore defensive back Luca Curran, who led the Collegiate Sprint Football League with five interceptions.
Talent alone, however, will not suffice, as the team is also searching for new leaders on the defensive end. That's where new captains Aaron Johnson and Matteo Murgia come in.
Johnson, a junior linebacker, only joined the team last season but was able to showcase his athleticism and versatility on the field in six games.
“I started as linebacker, moved to safety, then to down lineman, and now I’m a linebacker again,” Johnson said.
“Aaron, he’s an outstanding player [at] multiple positions and a leader for us,” coach Bill Wagner said.
Johnson admitted that it will be no easy task filling the void left on defense after the departure of last year's seniors.
“We’re coaching [the newcomers] the best that we can,” Johnson said. “But it’s been a bit of a challenge for me to kind of just lead by example and not tell them what they've got to do.”
Murgia, a senior linebacker, placed third on the team with 30 tackles last season. Having been with the team since his freshman year, Wagner hopes his experience will bring stability to the front four.
“Matteo, he is going to be a major impact stud player for us,” Wagner said. “He is going to be one of our leaders, [helping] the young kids gel.”
Wagner also spoke highly of his incoming defensive players, whose performances in training and at the alumni game have pleased him.
“The new defensive guys, they surprised me with so much speed and energy,” he said. “I would say all nine of those kids, they’re all going to be in a starting role some [day].”
On Friday, Wagner and everyone else will be able to take a better look at Penn’s new-look defense as the Red and Blue take on Army in their first game of the season. Johnson is adamant the team can come out and make an early statement.
“Penn’s defense has always been a powerhouse,” Johnson said. “The spirit of [our] sprint football [team] is continued, and Wags is holding us together like glue.”
Meanwhile, Hennigan preached the need for patience, as only a few of the players on defense have actually played together before.
“You know, it’s a process,” he said. “It takes 11 men on the field all working together, so I think we’re all pretty much there [in terms of] what we need to learn, and now [we’re] just learning how to play with one another.”
With both new and returning talent at Wagner's disposal, it should only be a matter of time before the Red and Blue's defense is firing on all cylinders.
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