Now that we've wrapped up the 2012 football season, ESPNBoston.com staff and correspondents offer some early projections for next fall. Because hey, it's never too early, right?
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
Top 10 for 2013
1. St. John’s Prep – Jonathan Thomas is my early, early front-runner for the 2013 Mr. Football Award, and for good reason. This kid is the total package, and with him back in the fold, I expect that Ferrari of a run game to hum nicely once again.
2. Natick – OK, so you think you’ve solved Brian Dunlap (and the operative word there is think). Now, get a load of Justin Robinson and Alex Hilger. Making it all sing is quarterback Troy Flutie and his dangerous ability when extending the play. Wondering if the Redhawks should go full-out Air Raid, with so many elite weapons at their disposal and the graduation of running back Nick Lee. If so, they could put some passing records out of reach.
3. Reading – If Jonathan Thomas is the No. 1 contender for Mr. Football in 2013, QB Drew Belcher is the 1A. The Rockets will miss Matt Comerford, but return a number of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, including lineman Andrew Bourque.
4. Everett – Finally out from underneath the shadows of Jakarrie Washington and Jalen Felix, safety Lubern Figaro and linebacker C.J. Parvelus step up and take the reigns of the Tide’s ball-hawking defense.
5. Mansfield – We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface with 6-foot-5 wideout Brendan Hill. Couple that with fellow wideout Mike Hershman and QB Kyle Wisniewski, and you have a pretty well-oiled machine.
6. Leominster – Curious to see if athlete Neil O’Connor slides from wideout to quarterback, with the graduation of Garrett DelleChiaie, because they certainly have enough returning skill to hang with anyone in the state. Also look out for linebacker Jason Valera on the other side of the ball.
7. Brockton – Boxers must find a way to replace experienced senior class and, especially on the line. But a number of playmakers still return, including Aaron LeClair, Kervin Jean-Claude and Giovanni Pimentel. Also keep an eye on 2015 lineman Aaron Monteiro, a promising prospect at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds.
8. Springfield Central – Golden Eagles lose Aaron Owens and their own “Honey Badger” in Tejano Smith, but return safety DaQuon Clemons, receiver Ju’uan Williams and his cousin, promising quarterback Cody Williams. Like Leominster, Natick, Mansfield and a few others, I’ll put Central’s group of skill players up against anyone in the Massachusetts.
9. Bridgewater-Raynham – Brandon Gallagher is going to be a legend in Bridgewater when his playing career is done, and as long as Dan Buron is around the Trojans are going to be one of the toughest outs in Massachusetts –- and perhaps even moreso, with the new state playoff.
10. St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – Defensively, you can’t get much worse than the product the Pioneers put on the field in 2012. But with some terrific individual talents, and a blitzkrieg offense led by record-setting quarterback Andrew Smiley, they have to get better, right?
Others to watch: Bishop Feehan, Cambridge, Catholic Memorial, Dennis-Yarmouth, Doherty, Lowell, Lynn English, Millis/Hopedale, Plymouth South, Stoneham
5 Players to Watch
Cody Williams, Jr. QB, Springfield Central – Showed his mettle against one of New England’s top teams in Week 2, and showed his grit in leading the Golden Eagles to a Division 1 Super Bowl with a badly-injured ankle. He’s receiving varied degrees of interest from Division 1, with Boston College and Missouri among the most notables.
Hayden Murphy, Jr. ATH, Barnstable - I'm hesitating to call this kid underrated, especially after leading the Red Raiders to the OCL title with a dramatic overtime win over B-R in 2011. The 6-footer is deceptively speedy and figures to fill multiple roles on the offense next season -- maybe even quarterback -- and in the secondary he could be one of the better safeties in Eastern Mass.
Davon Jones, Soph. FS, St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – As bad as the Pioneers were at stopping the run this season, the 6-foot sophomore was a wrecking ball in the secondary, recording 96 tackles, seven forced fumbles and five interceptions. Has the potential to play at the highest level of college football.
Justin Robinson, Jr. WR, Natick – A big, long target at 6-foot-2 who came on strong late in the season, finishing with 37 catches for 552 yards and five scores. Together with Brian Dunlap and Alex Hilger, this could be the best group of receivers in the MIAA since Everett took the state by storm with Matt Costello, Manny Asprilla and a young Jakarrie Washington in 2010.
Rufus Rushins, Soph. RB/LB, Bishop Fenwick – Lynn resident ran for 1,302 yards and 17 touchdowns for the 8-3 Crusaders. He is a bruiser 6-foot and 225 pounds, and considered one of the top Class of 2015 prospects in Massachusetts.
5 Storylines to Watch
Doherty Powder Keg Ten years ago when I was playing high school ball, losing to lowly Doherty was flat out embarrassing. Now, they've got a heck of a program on their hands, with linebackers leading BCS programs (UConn's Yawin Smallwood) and an impressive grouping of skill players and back-seven defenders. Talent-wise, the Highlanders have been viewed as a sleeping giant. After tasting the playoffs this year, and returning one of the more intriguing QB-to-WR connections in Luke Brennan and Isaac Yiadom, can they build on that success in the radically refurbished state tournament?
Second life in the GBL Building on the "powder keg" theme, I've always contended that there is always great talent in the Greater Boston League outside of Everett, with the point that three active NFL vets come from the league yet none of them are Everett guys. Cambridge is by far the most intriguing of the non-Everett bunch, with quarterback David Maaghul returning from a record-setting 2012 campaign, alongside receiver Elijah Booker and running back Shaquille Anderson.
Can the saint slay the devil? Since Dave Palazzi took over the Leominster program in 2011, the Blue Devils are 4-0 against nemesis St. John's of Shrewsbury, including Super Bowl victories in 2011 and 2012. Both teams return tons of talent, between St. John's quarterback Andrew Smiley and Leominster athletes Neil O'Connor, Jerrel Addo, Mayson Williams and Jason Valera. Both teams could start the year high in the polls, and are the two favorites in Central Mass. Div. 2.
More conference hopping? With the shortened seven-game regular season upon us with this new playoff system, several conferences will be stuck in no-man's land as one league with nine members, unable to make the 5-5 split. The South Coast Conference currently sits at nine members, while the South Shore League will add Hanover as its ninth member in 2014. Could we still see teams jumping to new conferences?
New Best of the West? For the longest time, Longmeadow was the Academy of Western Mass. football, having made a Super Bowl an unprecedented 16 straight seasons. Head coach Alex Rotsko moved on to a new frontier at Marshwood (Maine) last offseason. Meanwhile, Springfield Central has grown as a program power, giving Everett a good run in Week 2 this season, and taking three of the last four meetings with 'Meadow, including this year's Super Bowl. Is a shift in power happening in Western Mass., or is it already under way?
ESPN Boston correspondent
Top 10 Teams for 2013
1. St. John's Prep - No, losing players like Alex Moore, Lucas Bavaro, Gerald Kahari, Tucker Mathers, James Fagan and Corey Jean-Jacques will not make your team better. However, when you return a running back like Johnathan Thomas, who coach Jim O'Leary thinks could be a national recruit, you won't exactly be hurting, either. Oh yeah, Thomas will be running behind a line that returns four starters. The defense needs to replace nearly everyone but middle linebacker Sean Smerczynski and cornerback Michael Fawehinmi are good building blocks.
2. Lowell - This team nearly made it to the playoffs a year ahead of schedule this fall, but you can expect the Red Raiders to make an even bigger push in 2013. Jack Galvin comes back as one of the most productive receivers in the area, while other speedy skill players like Shyheim Cullen, Ngilva Mason and Musa Mansaray add to what promises to be a high-scoring bunch. The major question mark will have to do with an inexperienced offensive line. Overall, though, this team has the athleticism and speed to match anyone.
3. Reading - The offensive line will take a big hit with the loss of Matt Comerford and receiver Ryan Maney will not be easily replaced. Still, the defense returns enough pieces to again be one of the best in the state. Rob DiLoreto is an underrated two-way player at tight end and linebacker and Liam Kenneally is a chain-mover at tailback. Also, it doesn't get much better at the quarterback position for next year than Drew Belcher.
4. Natick - There may be some holes that need to be filled on the offensive line and on a defense that at times was a little porous this season, but forget about that for a second and just focus on this offense. There may not be a more explosive unit than what the Redhawks are going to be able to roll out next fall. Troy Flutie will have a terrific group of receivers to throw to, including the ultra-productive Brian Dunlap, and this team will be able to put up points on anyone.
5. Mansfield - The biggest losses here are in the backfield, where Robbie Rapoza and Kevin Makie both had good years, and in the defensive front seven, which was a strength for most of the year. But there is plenty to be optimistic about, especially the passing game, which returns quarterback Kyle Wisniewski and receivers Brendan Hill and Mike Hershman. Big offensive tackle Ollie Erickson is another player to keep an eye on and highlights a line that returns three starters.
6. Duxbury - Sure, the winning streak may be over, but this program is in reload mode right now. The offensive line loses Rob Kosharek but returns three other starters and the backfield loses Jon Hurvitz but brings back Khai Perry. The Dragons have not one but two dependable quarterbacks to run the up-tempo spread offense in Sean McCarthy and Liam Stauss. The question mark will be how the defense replaces middle linebacker Marshall McCarthy, the heart and soul of that side of the ball.
7. Leominster - You look at this team in warmups and think there's not much to worry about, because the Blue Devils are never going to blow anyone away with their size. But once the ball is snapped, this team attacks opponents with a high level of quickness. Also, Dave Palazzi is proving to be one of the top young coaches in the state. Neil O'Connor is a special player at wide receiver who can also play quarterback, while Jarell Addo is one of the better linebackers around.
8. Everett - In John DiBiaso We Trust. Basically, there's very little reason personnel-wise to expect the Crimson Tide to experience anything other than a big step backward next season. Gone is the entire offensive line, including Notre Dame-bound John Montelus. Gone are scintillating skill players like Jalen Felix, Jakarrie Washington and Kenny Calaj. However, the defense should be strong with the likes of Lubern Figaro, Josh Palmer, Angel Duarte and C.J. Parvelus coming back. If the offense can restock the lines and find some new playmakers, expect this team to grow into one of the top teams in the state by the end of the season.
9. Bridgewater-Raynham - The Trojans had a disappointing losing season this fall but figure to rebound in 2013 with a team that may be the favorite in Division 1 South. The offensive line should again be a strength, and it will block for a running back in Brandon Gallagher who had a breakthrough year as a sophomore. He will share carries at times with Arcel Armstead, who doubles as a hard-hitting outside linebacker. Quarterback Matt Clement should take the reins and give this team a threat through the air, as receiver Ryan Martin has game-breaking speed.
10. Brockton - The graduation losses are heavy, but there is still enough here to make a deep playoff run. The backfield should be a strength with second-leading rusher Aaron LeClair back and the talented Kerry Raymond set to take a more prominent role. They will run behind battering fullback Giovanni Pimentel and a sizable line, led by Sebastian Porter, Terrence Thorpe and tight ends Dean Vacca and Justin Ahanon. Strong-armed quarterback Pat Burke takes over for Austin Roberts. The defense has good pieces to build around in Jayden Celucci and Ahanon up front, John Flaherty and Kervin Jean-Claude at linebacker and LeClair in the secondary.
Ten teams that were heavily considered but just missed the cut (in alphabetical order): Central Catholic, King Philip, Needham, Plymouth South, St. John's (Shrewsbury), Springfield Central, Tewksbury, Walpole, Waltham, Xaverian
5 Players to Watch
Jarell Addo, LB/TE, Leominster - A fierce hitter who patrols the middle of the field as well as anyone. If the Blue Devils win the state's inaugural Division 2 title, he will have a lot to do with it.
Shayne Kaminski, OLB/RB, Xaverian - If you watched Xaverian play this season, chances are you heard the phrase, "No. 33, Shayne Kaminski in on the tackle for Xaverian," around a dozen times a game. This kid simply has a nose for the ball and those inside the program compare him to former tackling machine Chris Tamasi, which is pretty high praise.
Eddie Matovu, RB/LB, Tewksbury - As versatile a player as it gets in the Merrimack Valley Conference, Matovu shows off impressive speed out of the backfield and can hurt you in the return game, as well.
C.J. Parvelus, LB, Everett - Trusted high school football talent evaluator and Boston Herald colleague Bruce Lerch is very high on this defender and for good reason. An instinctive and athletic player, Parvelus is as strong coming off the blitz as he is stuffing the run.
Isaac Yiadom, WR, Doherty - If Yiadom played in Eastern Massachusetts, he would be on everyone's radar. A tall receiver with good speed and excellent hands, he can go up and get it with the best of them.
5 Storylines to Watch
True State Championship The top storyline has to be how the new playoff proposal works out. The main issues to watch are scheduling and how teams treat Thanksgiving rivalries.
All eyes should be on Division 2 Putting aside the fact that you will have a slew of Eastern Mass. teams coming back with loaded rosters, this will be the highest division that includes teams from both Central and Western Mass., as Division 1 will be comprised of just North and South brackets. If you're not excited to see how a Leominster, St. John's (Shrewsbury) or Springfield Central would match up against a Reading, Natick, Duxbury or Mansfield in a true state title game at Gillette Stadium, this site and high school football in general probably isn't your thing.
Hey Catholic Conference, should we be concerned or are you just going through a phase here? Look, everyone is allowed to have an off year (see Brockton, 2011), but while St. John's Prep rolled to a Division 1 title this fall and will be the favorite to do so again, the rest of the league has to get its mojo back after a seriously subpar 2012. While some longtime observers are optimistic about the young talent at both BC High and Xaverian, both programs lost a lot of talent. It will be interesting to see how those teams and Catholic Memorial recover from what was a forgettable fall.
Has Springfield Central overtaken Longmeadow as the premier program in Western Massachusetts? Maybe. It takes more than one year for a statement like that to be true, but the Golden Eagles swept the Lancers this year and return enough talent to be treated as the favorites for that section in 2013. How will this program handle going from being the hunter to the hunted? The thought here is that the momentum is going to carry over.
Is Governor's Academy coach Jim O'Leary ever going to suffer a loss? In two years, all O'Leary has done is go 9-0 in back-to-back years with convincing NEPSAC bowl wins. Chances are this run comes to a halt sometime next fall, as it will be difficult to replace the likes of linebacker Ryan Macri, quarterback Tate Jozokos and running back Eli Morrissey. Then again, doubt O'Leary and the Governors at your own peril.
Editor-in-Chief, South Shore Sports Journal
Top 10 for 2013:
1. St. John's Prep Hard not to have them on top with Jonathan Thomas and Sean Smercynzski coming back.
2. Reading Drew Belcher will be back under center next year, which means the offense should keep rolling.
3. Natick Hard to believe Troy Flutie has another year, but Natick should have one of the premier offenses in the state next year.
4. Everett Even after graduating a ton of talent, something feels wrong by having Everett ranked No. 4.
5. Weymouth David Harrison and his 33 total touchdowns will be back running the offense for the Wildcats.
6. Brockton Similar to Everett, this team just seems to find a way to reload.
7. Plymouth South Dylan Oxsen led the state in touchdowns, and there's no reason to think he won't be up there next year too.
8. BC High What's a top 10 without two Catholic Conference teams?
9. Abington Matt Kilmain tortured playoff opponents this season. Next year, he'll do the same to the South Shore League.
10. Bridgewater-Raynham If Dan Buron has a good running back, his team will find a way to be good. Brandon Gallagher is one of the best young runners out there.
5 Players to watch
Dylan Oxsen, Plymouth South: He scored 40 touchdowns as a junior this year while leading Plymouth South to their first ever playoff appearance, so what could be in store for an encore? Oxsen has to be among the early favorites in the 2013 Mr. Football watch.
Brandon Gallagher, Bridgewater-Raynham: Gallagher piled up 16 touchdowns as a sophomore for the Trojans next year, despite splitting caries most of the season. Next year, he's going to be the featured back from the get-go and has a chance to break out in a big way.
David Harrison, Weymouth: The first year signal-caller scored 21 touchdowns and added 12 through the air. Weymouth looks like the early favorite to win the Bay State Carey, especially when you consider it'll be the first time they've returned a starting QB in three years.
Aaron LeClair, Brockton: A dynamic back for the Boxers this season, he finished second on the team with 10 touchdowns. Brockton spread the ball all over the field because a slew of athletes this season, but LeClair is line to carry most of that production next season.
Matt Kilmain, Abington: Similar to LeClair, Kilmain's numbers this year were constricted by sharing carries in a loaded backfield (he, Jack Malafronte and Babila Fonkem rushed for nearly 2,500 yards this year). Kilmain jumped on to everyone's radar in the postseason, piling up more than 400 rushing yards and four scores in the first round playoff and Super Bowl wins.
Storylines to watch:
1. The biggest storyline to pay attention to this year is how the new playoff system unfolds. Will it be a success? Will it fail? It's been a long time coming, but for the first time we'll get true state champions. All eyes will be on the new system during the two year trial period to see if it's the best solution for football in this state.
2. Can Abington put together another run like this season? Jim Kelliher plans to be back, but he admits his days have to be numbed on the sidelines at Abington. Is there enough magic left for one more big run? In addition to Kilmain, the Green Wave also return stars Steve Manning, Jon Aprile and Sam Malafronte.
3. Can anyone unseat Everett at year's end as the best team in the state? Lately, that's where they stood when all the chips fell.
4. Football on the cape has come along way in recent years, can they keep it up? It's not likely they can match their Super Bowl performances of 2011, but Upper Cape won this year and Barnstable was finalist. So, which Cape teams will continue the trend of good football next year?
5. Will Brockton reinvent itself without Austin Roberts under center? One of the best option QBs in school history, Roberts perfectly ran an offense that seemed built for him. Peter Colombo has shown an ability to adjust to the weapons he has, and next year should be no different.
Editor-in-Chief, New England Prep Stars
5 Players to Watch in 2013
Jonathan Thomas, 2014 RB, St. John's Prep - Thomas was the top back in New England as a junior and continues to improve and dominate opponents with his speed and ability to explode through the hole. The Division 1 recruit will look to lead St. John's prep to a repeat Super Bowl performance and Catholic Conference crown in 2013.
Jon Baker, 2014 OL/DL, Millis-Hopedale - Baker was on of the most dominating two-way lineman in Massachusetts this season. The Division 1 prospect helped lead Miliis-Hopedale to the 2012 post-season and should continue to improve and dominate opponents again in 2013.
Brian Dunlap, 2015 WR, Natick - Dunlap is on pace to shatter local records as the junior has proved to be one of the top skill players in the MIAA since entering the gridiron his freshman year. Dunlap is a game-breaker who provides Natick quarterback Troy Flutie '14 with an elite weapon to terrorize Bay State opponents again in 2013.
Drew Belcher, 2014 QB, Reading - Belcher led Reading to a Super Bowl championship in 2011 and all signs point to Belcher being a favorite to do that again in 2013. The tall and athletic, dual function quarterback will enter his third season under center for Middlesex League power, Reading, next season.
Jack Galvin, 2014 WR, Lowell - Galvin has been torching Merrimack Valley Conference defenses for three years now. He helped lead Lowell to a share of the MVC Large crown in 2012 and will provide the incumbent Lowell quarterback with one of the area's top targets in 2013.
Top 5 storylines
QB Class: The Class of 2014 is loaded at the QB position, between Belcher, Troy Flutie of Natick, and David Maaghu of Cambridge. It should be exciting to see the developments of these returning players and the impact they make on their offenses.
Coming out party: Beverly running back/ defensive back Isaiah White '14 of Beverly looks like he is ready to take the baton from Brendan Flaherty and Kenny Pierce as the current junior had an explosive 2012 playoffs en route to a Super Bowl championship.
The MVC Large balance: The Merrimack Valley Conference is always one of the top conferences top to bottom in the state. In 2012 Andover, Central Catholic and Lowell all had great seasons but next year it should be anybody's race. Look for a very balanced MVC Large next season as Chelmsford and Billerica both return starters at quarterback and running back as well as on the defensive side of the football. The top three from 2012 should also be strong as they are will be led by running back Jack Sylvester (Andover), RB/ DB D'andre Drummond Mayire (Central Catholic) and Galvin (Lowell).
Who will reign in the Catholic Conference? St. John's Prep looks like the early favorite as they return Thomas and All-State LB Sean Smerczynski. Can BC High bounce back from and injury plagued 2012 season and can CM and Xaverian challenge for the top spot next year?
Can anybody dethrone Governor's in the ISL? St. Sebastian's may be the answer as they shared the title at the top this year and if schedules work out we should see them go head-to-head next year. Linebacker Connor Strachan '14 is a top talent in the ISL and in New England. Milton, BB&N, Roxbury Latin. Lawrence , Nobles and Thayer also return top talent. It should be another competitive season 1-16 in the ISL.