WESTMINSTER -- The most common question directed to Western Maryland College head football coach Dale Sprague this preseason will undoubtedly regard life for the Green Terrors after All-America running back Eric Frees.
And while Sprague will tell you how much Frees meant to the program and the impact he had on Division III football (second place on the all-time Division III career rushing list with 5,281 yards), you can sense the seven-year mentor itching to talk about the 81 players who are in camp this year.
Itching to talk about the 19 starters back from last year's 5-5 squad, the return of tailback Rob Johnson after a one year absence and WMC's fine recruiting season.
It has left Sprague "wicked optimistic" about the upcoming season, set to start Sept. 13 at Albright.
"Our main focus this season will be taking them one at a time," Sprague said. "It starts with fundamentals, techniques, everyone learning the system and then it's Albright."
Offensively, Sprague plans to spread the wealth to offset the loss of Frees (1,545 yards rushing with 15 touchdowns in 1991) and wide receiver Andy Steckel (34 catches for 776 yards and eight TDs) -- the only two offensive starters not back this year.
The Green Terrors again will emphasize the running game, where Johnson and sophomore tailback Mark Vergalito will join junior quarterback Paul McCord in the backfield to run behind an experienced line anchored by co-captain senior offensive tackle Paul Picchierri.
"We're going to put more emphasis on the option and try to get outside a bit more," Sprague said.
"Tailback is the prime position with Johnson and Vergalito both back there. We'll spread the carries around a little more this season."
Johnson, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior, accumulated more than 2,100 all-purpose yards in the 1989 and 1990 seasons before leaving school for personal reasons after his sophomore year. After his one-year departure, he says he's hungry to get back in pads.
"I don't feel any pressure trying to replace Eric," the North Carroll grad said. "We have a great offen sive line, Paul [McCord] is a great QB and Mark also is a great runner. I just want to do whatever it takes to have a great season."
Vergalito carried the ball 60 times last year for 263 yards playing behind Frees. Freshman Gerry Gatelein could see some time at tailback as well.
Sprague is looking for McCord to come into his own this season.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound University of Delaware transfer stepped into the starting lineup last year despite missing the first week of practice. He also had an ankle injury that slowed him during the season.
"We're looking for him to take a step up from last year," Sprague said. "Paul got better and better throughout the year and he has to be ready from the start this season."
The Green Terrors will employ a medium-range passing game with McCord throwing to a variety of receivers. Sophomores Alan Pietkiewicz and Butch Schaffer are among the four returning lettermen at wide receiver.
With 10 starters returning and 19 lettermen back on defense, it looks like opponents will have a tough time scoring points against the Green Terrors.
It all starts up front, where Sprague believes he has "as strong a line as any in the league."
Nose guard Adam Gregori was the only freshman to earn a spot on the Centennial Football Conference all-star team last season, making 71 tackles, including a team-high 20 for losses.
"He can't be single blocked, at least not all the time," Sprague said.
That should leave plenty of opportunity for returning linemen Seth Obetz (senior co-captain), and juniors Robert Rimmel and Tim Smith.
Junior Trevor Sellers will anchor the linebacking group, while junior Gary Carter leads the secondary at his free safety spot.
"Our goal is to allow 10 points or less this season," Gregori said.
"Last year, you could almost count on the offense to put up 20 to 25 points a game. With Eric Frees and Andy Steckel gone, we feel a little more pressure on the defense and we like the pressure."
The punting duties will belong to McCord, who last year averaged 38.3 yards a punt to earn him all-conference status. The place-kicking job remains up for grabs.
It all leaves Sprague and his team eager to get on the field.
"There's no one on our schedule we can't beat," Sprague said. "And if we don't play well, there isn't anyone out there who can't beat us."
"When you talk about the CFC, it all starts at Carlisle [Pa.] where Dickinson has a heck of a football team and has dominated the conference the past five years. I would say [Franklin & Marshall], Western Maryland and Hopkins are also in the picture and I wouldn't hesitate to throw in Gettysburg."