Despite a 4-6 record in 1995, Canisius College was in the running for a share of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference football championship up to the last week of the season. The Golden Griffins were 4-3 in the MAAC, where they were seldom outclassed.
"This year we're picked anywhere from fourth to seventh," says second-year head coach Chuck Williams.
There are no Western New York rivals on this year's schedule, so the Griffs are almost totally focused on doing well in the conference; eight of nine games on the schedule are in the MAAC. The exception is the Sept. 14 opener at Gannon.
Williams counts on a strong defense to give his team a shot at a winning season and a run at the MAAC title won by Duquesne last year. Canisius was No. 1 among Division 1-AA teams in pass defense efficiency. The Griffs allowed only a 39.7 completion percentage, picked off 21 passes and yielded only five touchdown passes.
"A lot of that has to be attributed to the front four. We had good pressure with the hurry-ups, the batted balls and the rainbowing of the ball," Williams said.
All four starters up front return, including left end Frank Zabawa (West Seneca West), listed as a preseason Division I-AA All-America in some publications. Zabawa led the team with six sacks and 12 tackles for losses and was third in overall tackles, but he isn't the only standout.
"(Scott) Dochat is probably every bit as good as Zabawa," Williams said. "Scott is more of a technique player where Frank is very creative. Both are extremely aggressive and give us a lot of experience there."
The Dallas-style defense that Canisius employs, an attacking 4-3, produces a lot of pressure up the middle. That's where junior tackle Brian Swatland (Iroquois) plays.
"We're looking for a great year from Swatland, who is up to 290 pounds," Williams said. "He should be a force for us."
The other tackle is T.J. Webb (Hamburg). Linebackers Brad Steve and Michael Fliss (Iroquois) were the two leading tacklers last season and free safety Chris Carlson (Maple Grove) was the interception leader with six.
P.J. Rakoski and Marty Chuttey are strong safety candidates. Cornerbacks Shane Hurd and Darrione Nall have some experience. Sean Martin, Max Kerry and Rich Bridenbacker (Cleveland Hill) figure to vie for the other linebacker spot.
Last year Nick Adinolfi of West Seneca West was the Most Valuable Defensive player as a linebacker in the Kensington Lions High School All-Star football game at UB. He was Canisius' starting tailback by the end of his freshman season.
Williams had Adinolfi penciled in as a defender and was shocked when the 5-11, 182-pound freshman opted to play offense. Adinolfi rushed for 273 yards in just four games, including a 199-yard performance against Iona which earned him MAAC rookie of the Week honors.
Adinolfi started the the 1995 season with the junior varsity but worked his way up the depth chart.
Jon Ross, who started at quarterback the last four games, and Paul Marvar, who directed the team in the first five, are both back. They will direct what Williams hopes will be a short passing game which will attempt to keep opponents off balance.
"We won't be able to sledgehammer anybody," Williams said.
Tight end John Prizner, the offensive captain, and wide receivers Mark Kolbe and Christian Kramer (St. Joe's) are back, but a new offensive line has to be put together.
You may hear the name "John Unitas" called at Canisius games this year. That will be fullback Jon Uonites, whose name is a sound-alike for the Hall of Fame quarterback of the 1950s and '60s. Uonites and John Murphy figure to split the job at fullback.
Tackle Tony Zoratti (Clarence) looks like the only certain starter in the line. Other leading candidates are Matt Marriott, William Jacobs, Casey Kosiorek, Mike Shelley (Lancaster), Michael Sclafani and Ray Krug (St. Francis). Despite the rebuilding job, Williams believes Canisius will be better than last year in the line.
Williams, who was the Griffs' defensive coordinator under Barry Mynter before he became head coach, will act as his own offensive coordinator this year. Tom Brenner, the offensive coordinator last year, had to give up coaching because of the demands of his regular career in banking. Robert Kitchen again will direct the defense.