The Johns Hopkins seniors who ended their football careers last fall posted some amazing numbers during their days at Homewood Field. They finished with a 40-0 regular-season record, helped the Blue Jays win the Centennial Conference championship each year — the Blue Jays have won or shared it in eight consecutive seasons — and the group made four trips to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Last year's team finished 11-1 after a heartbreaking 28-21 loss to Mount Union in the second round of the playoffs, a game where the Blue Jays lost a 14-point lead. That team now is just a memory. Only 10 starters remain from the 2016 group, which lost several key players including quarterback Jonathan Germano, who threw for 3.593 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
Now, though, it's a new day at Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays need players to plug the holes caused by the losses of the starters, but coach Jim Margraff regularly plays his underclassmen, pushing them to get into the flow and learn the system. That way, when it's their time to be called upon, they're ready.
They'll need to this year because the starters lost were Germano, one offensive and defensive lineman plus two wide receivers, two defensive backs and four linebackers. Johns Hopkins basically is trying to reload this year. The Blue Jays have won 41 consecutive regular-season games and are 59-1 in the regular season over the past six years, but they've dealt with similar situations during Margraff's tenure.
"We've been here before," Margraff said. "I'm not sure if we're as talented as we've been in the past. We'll find out. My line, which I've used a couple times, is I think we're going to be a pretty good football team, I just don't know if it's in Week 2 or Week 8. That's the scary part."
Margraff knows Johns Hopkins lost a lot from last year, but still feels this team can perform at a high level. The Blue Jays' opponents obviously think so. Johns Hopkins unanimously earned the No. 1 spot in the Centennial Conference preseason football poll, which is picked by coaches and athletic communications directors.
The Blue Jays received a maximum 18 of the possible 20 first-place votes in the poll, and coaches can't submit their two first-place picks for their own team. They also were ranked nationally by web sites and publications despite the key losses.
That comes from respect that Johns Hopkins has built up over the years, having not lost in the regular season since a 14-12 defeat at Franklin & Marshall on Nov. 3, 2012. The Blue Jays have made the NCAA playoffs six straight years, and the coaches preach the importance of the more experienced players helping the younger ones learn their ways.
Defensive end Keonte Henson (Broadneck) remembers how a junior gave him some help when experiencing trouble with a drill during his freshman year while he was a defensive back.
Junior Brady Watts pulled Henson aside and helped him understand the correct manner to work his way through that drill. Henson said Watts told him to just focus and explained everything. It sounds simple, and it was just one drill, but that act carried a lot of weight for a nervous freshman.
"It helped a lot, not just with me playing football but with me feeling welcome to the team," said Henson, who was switched to defensive end before his sophomore season. "It's just a family here. Everybody's focused on that one goal and winning the Centennial Conference and being the best team we can be."
That's why Margraff and his staff believe it's so important — almost crucial — for upperclassmen to mentor the newer players, especially in a season like the upcoming one when the Blue Jays will need the younger guys to play. Depth has been a big part of the team's recent success. When someone leaves, another player is ready to replace him. That's what Margraff and his coaches want.
They understand that a second- or third-string player can grow frustrated with not getting much playing time, but they need to be ready when called upon. Margraff and his staff work hard to make sure those who don't start get playing time when possible, but the coach wants them to learn from their experiences.
"You talk to your guys about investing their time or spending their time," Margraff said. "When you're second team, if you invest your time, then you're ready for this opportunity. Our guys have invested their time over the years. The older guys, they want to keep this thing going, but it's not easy."
The players who replace those who left want to keep the tradition of winning and excellence continuing.
"We're really a couple deep at every position, so just because there's an all-star starting, there's someone right underneath him who's really good, too," senior running back Ryan Cary said. "The program definitely has depth. Sitting through that, you learn everything, what it takes to play at that level. You may not be getting on the field as much as you like, but you're just taking it in and learning from the best. [When it's time], you'll know what it takes."
Cary speaks from experience as he led the team with 943 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns last year after rushing for 295 yards as a sophomore. Senior Brett Caggiano was second on the team in receiving yardage last year with 656 yards on 29 catches (22.6 yards per catch).
The quarterback situation had not been settled as of Thursday night, with junior Zack Baker and sophomore David Tammaro getting most of the first-team reps in practice and a recent scrimmage at Catholic. The Blue Jays open Friday at Washington & Lee and will use a variety of formations on offense and defense.
The Johns Hopkins players and coaches know they might not be starting this season as well-equipped as in recent ones. When asked if he thought any teams might underestimate the Blue Jays a bit this season, Henson just smiled.
"We're just going to play with the same intensity," he said. "With us, we don't worry about what they think. They'll see who we are when we get out on the field — and that's a championship program."
Said Caggiano: "We lost great guys … but we've got a lot of guys here. We're coming out and we're gong to play as hard as we usually do. We have a lot of talent."
LOCAL DIVISION III CAPSULES
Coach: Jim Margraff (28th season, 200-85-3 at Johns Hopkins)
2016 record: 11-1, NCAA Division III second round
Expected finish: Unanimous preseason Centennial Conference favorites
Sept. 1, at Washington & Lee, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9, Susquehanna, 1 p.m.
Sept. 16, Moravian, noon
Sept. 23, at Dickinson, 1 p.m.
Sept. 30, at Ursinus, 1 p.m.
Oct. 7, Franklin & Marshall, 1 p.m.
Oct. 20, Gettysburg, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28, at Muhlenberg, 2 p.m.
Nov. 4, Juniata, noon
Nov. 11, at McDaniel, noon
Coach: Ed Hottle (Seventh season, 34-29 at Stevenson)
2016 record: 9-2 overall; Middle Atlantic Conference champions; NCAA Division III first round
Expected finish: Tied for second in MAC preseason poll with Albright
Aug. 31, at Frostburg, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9, King''s (Pa.), noon
Sept. 16, at FDU-Florham, noon
Sept. 23, at Delaware Valley, noon
Sept. 30, Misericordia, noon
Oct. 14, at Lebanon Valley, 1 p.m.
Oct. 21 Albright, 1 p.m.
Oct. 28 Widener, 1 p.m.
Nov. 4, at Wilkes, noon
Nov. 11 Lycoming, noon
Coach: Mike Dailey (Second season, 3-7 at McDaniel)
2016 record: 3-7 overall; eighth in Centenniel Conference
Expected finish: Picked to finish eighth in Centennial Conference preseason poll
Sept. 2, Catholic, 1 p.m.
Sept. 9, at Moravian, 1 p.m.
Sept. 16, at Franklin & Marshall, 1 p.m.
Sept. 23, Gettysburg, 1 p.m.
Sept. 30, Juniata, 1 p.m.
Oct. 7, at Dickinson, 1 p.m.
Oct. 21, Muhlenberg, 2 p.m.
Oct. 28, at Ursinus, 1 p.m.
Nov. 4, at Susquehanna, 1 p.m.