We've got two intriguing regional showdowns between squads ranked in ESPNBoston.com's Top 25 poll, with No. 1 Everett traveling to upstart Springfield Central and No. 6 Longmeadow traveling to St. John's of Shrewsbury.
To break down the two matchups, we've collaborated with MassLive.com sports producer Jay King to get Western Mass.'s perspective on both of these matchups, and ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan Hall provides the skinny on what to look for from the Eastern and Central Mass. squads.
(Editor's Note: You will also find this same article on MassLive.com, with slight alterations)
NO. 1 EVERETT (1-0) AT NO. 15 SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL (1-0)
Berte Field, Friday, 7 p.m.
WHEN CENTRAL HAS THE BALL
Brendan Hall: Everett was in bend-but-don't-break mode last week against Leominster, giving up the shallow flats but, save for one or two miscommunications, barely giving up the big play. If Central is to gain yardage against this Crimson Tide D, it needs to look at Leominster coach Dave Palazzi's blueprint from last week -- short drop-backs, swing passes, draws and an assortment of screens -- and try to emulate it.
The biggest weakness right now might be linebacker, where they graduated two of their best ever in Vondell Langston and Buck McCarthy, and currently sit without Kenny Calaj (high ankle sprain). But one of the state's sharpest secondaries, led by Jakarrie Washington, Jalen Felix and Gilly De Souza, should buy the front seven time.
More than any other individual, however, the player to watch on this defense is senior defensive end Jeff Soulouque. Last year, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder formed a fearsome bookend duo with All-State edge-setter Ralph Jonathas, now at the University of New Haven. He's even taken Jonathas' No. 8 jersey. Now, in the spotlight, Soulouque is proving his worth as an athletic playmaker and one of the state's best five-technique pass rushers. His strip-sack of Leominster quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie last week was downright Chandler Jones-esque.
Jay King: The Golden Eagles are a very different team than the one that lost 42-13 to Everett last season, in ways both beneficial and hurtful to their cause.
Sacoy Malone graduated after rushing for 2,001 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior, and took his talents to the University of Maine. That left an FCS-sized whole in Central’s backfield, which the Golden Eagles are filling with a number of talented rushers. Aaron Owens received the most carries during Central’s Week 1 victory against Springfield rival Putnam, and DaQuon Clemons emerged as a playmaking threat alongside him by rushing for a touchdown. They run behind a line featuring Shawn Lockett and Ismael Figueroa, two of the state’s finest blockers.
The backfield changes aren’t confined to the running back positions. Quarterback Cody Williams was making his first varsity start against Everett last season as a sophomore. Sadly for him, starting against the state’s top team as an inexperienced quarterback is like jumping into a shark tank as a goldfish. But Williams isn’t the same quarterback Everett saw last year. Asked before the season how last year’s experiences should help him, Williams replied, “It can’t hurt to have 10 wins under your belt.”
Now, after Central’s 21-8 opening win, the junior has 11. Smart, poised, accurate and tremendous at limiting mistakes, Williams has grown significantly since meeting Everett last season.
WHEN EVERETT HAS THE BALL
Hall: My co-editor Scott Barboza and I have nicknamed this year's version of the Tide's offense an "Amoeba Offense", because scouting these guys will be a crap shoot on the week-to-week basis -- all the components seem to blend into one another. In addition to standard trips and double-slot formations you will see in a spread offense, the Tide also used a significant amount of "Wildcat" plays and in several series reverted back to the Double Wing look that kick-started this historic period of Everett football nearly 15 years ago.
Last week at Leominster, the Tide were missing their two to quarterbacks and top running back to injury. Wideout/safety/kicker Gilly De Souza took his first ever snaps at quarterback, and calmly tossed a TD strike on his third attempt, an underthrown fade to Jakarrie Washington. Whether Lukas Denis (tendonitis) or De Souza gets the start under center, it's clear the Tide are going in a direction that is more 50/50 run-pass than the last three seasons under record-setter Jonathan DiBiaso.
Bolstering this movement towards balance up front will be an offensive line that is the state's heaviest, led by Notre Dame-bound left tackle John Montelus, arguably New England's top Class of 2013 prospect. If there was a weakness to the unit, it might be how they play in space, but you can seemingly run behind Montelus all day and barely get touched -- he didn't allow a sack all of 2011, and had a clean sheet last week.
What this really comes down to on offense is Everett's brand of speed. Whereas other teams have players that are simply fast, Everett's skill players are college-level fast -- and there's a difference. Leading the way are arguably the state's two best receivers, Washington and fellow senior Jalen Felix. The two are receiving a plethora of Division 1 FBS interest, ranging from UMass to as far across the country as Nebraska and Washington State. In Felix, some are reminded of former Everett great and current Boston College sophomore cornerback Manny Asprilla, a gifted perimeter player who was elusive in space and could deliver a harsh crackback shiver. Washington's straightline speed, as displayed once again in the Leominster game, is almost without peer in Masachusetts.
King: Head coach Valdamar Brower wasn’t perfectly content with the way Central defended in Week 1 against Putnam. The Golden Eagles allowed first-year Putnam quarterback KayJuan Bynum to complete 12 of 18 passes for 158 yards, prompting Williams to say after the game, “Our defense was on the field for far too long. We need to change that.”
Still, Central allowed just eight points. DaQuon Clemons registered a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown to put his team ahead midway through the fourth quarter and the Golden Eagles helped to cement their victory by forcing a fumble on the ensuing Putnam possession.
The fourth-quarter stands could best be described as opportunistic, as Central utilized its athleticism to make game-altering plays.
That athleticism—especially on the perimeter, where Owens and Clemons will be tasked with slowing the vaunted Everett speed—helps to give the Golden Eagles confidence as they look to avenge last year’s humbling defeat.
“We’ve seen them now. They’re not just Everett, the name. We’ve actually played against them, so we know they’re just guys like us,” said Brower. “And hopefully our players, with that experience from last year, our players can know that we can line up and play with them.”
NO. 6 LONGMEADOW (1-0) AT NO. 18 ST. JOHN'S OF SHREWSBURY (1-0)
Pioneer Field, Saturday, 1 p.m.
WHEN LONGMEADOW HAS THE BALL
Hall: The downside to St. John's new offensive approach is that it gives way to more possessions by the opponent, but regardless I can't imagine the Pioneers are happy about last week's result. Against Holy Name's vaunted Double Wing scheme, the Pioneers allowed 40 points and over 500 yards of offense, including 463 on the ground (including 282 from preseason All-State running back Quron Wright).
Where the fault lies seems to be the $25,000 question. But when you're replacing key personnel in the front seven, there is a bit of an adjustment period. Shadrack Abrokwah, John Giacoppe and Barron Dandridge are expected to lead the defense at linebacker, and after some miscommunications in the run game last weekend I expect them to shore that up.
There is some promise with this defense, however. Sophomore Sam Norton has stepped in mightily this first month, and sealed the win last weekend with his fumble recovery with under four minutes to go. In the secondary, look out for sophomore free safety Davon Jones. The Worcester resident is the only player under John Andreoli to ever start on varsity as a freshman, and so far this season he has been arguably one of their hardest hitters. It seems like every time I watch him there are a handful of hits you can hear from the press box.
King: The Lancers seemingly began running the Wing-T offense while tyrannosaurus rexes roamed the earth and last altered it during George Washington’s presidency. Legend Alex Rotsko departed after last season, but new coach Nick St. George is sticking with the misdirection- and run-heavy offense.
What rarely changes as Longmeadow tops Western Mass. football annually is the top-notch quality of the Lancers line. This year is no exception, as the Lancers boast a stable of five senior offensive linemen who average approximately 260 pounds and seem designed specifically to control the line of scrimmage. In the Wing T offense, the Lancers line is required to do a lot of trapping and pulling, requiring agility among the front five. That’s not an issue with this crew, as Robbie McClure, Lou Calabrese and Steve Krushell are all among the best linemen in the western side of the state.
There’s no shortage of experienced players who can be found running behind the line. The best among them are seniors Frankie Elder, who doesn’t like to play quarterback but often seems to find himself stuck at the position due to injuries, and Austin Sierra, a north-south running back who seems to take enjoyment from putting down his shoulder and running through opponents. Junior Max Chipouras and senior Devante Clarke, if healthy, will also receive carries in the crowded Lancers backfield. During the occasions when Longmeadow’s offense takes to the air, Mike Woods and Mike Sell will be the primary targets. But that won’t happen often.
Perhaps the Lancers’ offensive philosophy can best be explained by the amount of pass attempts they accrued while racing to a 46-0 Week 1 win against Chicopee Comp: three.
WHEN ST. JOHN'S HAS THE BALL
Hall: When Pioneers head coach John Andreoli evaluated his returning talent during the summer, he took note of the 40 times and concluded that his smaller, quicker personnel were conditioned well enough to run what is known as the "Blur Offense", a balanced spread-based attack most famously ran by Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks.
The spread isn't exactly a new thing in Shrewsbury. The Pioneers had arguably the state's most dynamic offense in 2010 running a read option behind two future Division 1 commits, quarterback Dan Light (Fordham) and tight end Richard Rodgers (Cal), to easily capture the Division 1 Central Super Bowl title. But the speed with which Andreoli wants to run it this year is without precedent at the school.
So far, the returns have been promising. The Pioneers threw up 47 points on a stout Holy Name defense in last Saturday's season-opener at Pioneer Field, thanks to big efforts from junior quarterback Andrew Smiley (353 yards, 4 TD) and senior running back Shadrach Abrokwah (205 yards, 3 TD). Much of the offense's success so far has been the result of the surgery with which they operate the inside zone read. Every time Smiley pulled the ball, it seemed, the middle of the field opened wide for him to run for a first down. Abrokwah, meanwhile, seems to know when to cut against the flow of whichever way the line is zone-blocking, and has deceivingly above-average leg strength and a low center of gravity to make him difficult to bring down in space.
Incumbent starting quarterback Connor Kurtz went down with a knee injury in the Pioneers' scrimmage against Brockton, giving way to what is expected to be a breakout season for Smiley under center. The 6-foot-3 junior can sling the ball downfield, and he has two versatile targets in Micah Cummins and T.J. Kelley.
If you've ever watched Oregon play, you know that what gives their offense the "Blur" moniker is the speed with which they operate at, aiming to snap the ball 15 to 20 seconds after the previous play is blown dead. At the high school level, that can unravel the most disciplined of defenses if they aren't conditioned well enough or are mentally drained.
King: The Lancers will try to dominate in the trenches, with their stud linemen clogging holes and getting penetration behind the line of scrimmage. That’s where they normally have the biggest advantage, as their tremendous offensive line doubles as a defensive weapon.
The Lancers were almost perfect against Chicopee Comp in Week 1, holding the Colts to nine total yards from scrimmage. Obviously, they will be facing a considerably more worthy opponent in St. John’s on Saturday.
Longmeadow’s defense isn’t perfect; though the Lancers are physically strong and smart, they can be susceptible to long plays in the passing game because they don’t possess elite athleticism on the wings. Giving up an ill-timed big play killed the Lancers last season against St. John’s, who used a 55-yard touchdown pass from Connor Kurtz to Drew Ortone with two minutes left to register a 26-21 victory.
Several tears were shed on the Longmeadow sideline after that game. Weirdly enough for a team that has made 15 consecutive Super Bowls, the Lancers felt like they let an opportunity to rejoin the state’s elite. This year, they are out to establish their place in the Massachusetts football hierarchy with a victory. In Longmeadow, competing isn’t enough, even against the Eastern Mass. powers.