St. John's of Shrewsbury will look to reclaim its spot atop Central Mass., and will lean on one of the state's best quarterbacks to do so.
Andrew Smiley took the region by storm in 2012, setting the Central Mass single-season passing record in his first year as the Pioneers' starter. Now a senior, Smiley will again lead the St. John's "Blur" attack, an offense similar to the no huddle scheme Chip Kelly made famous at the University of Oregon.
With a combination of numerous receiver sets, a zone read style option attack and break neck pacing, the Pioneers should again boast one of the best attacks in state.
But, there is the issue of defense…
Last season, the Pioneers gave up over 29 points per game, and allowed opponents to score 33 points or more each week during a mid-season four game losing streak. The defense did show flashes, and finished the year strong, allowing only a touchdown to rival St. Peter-Marian and 19 points in the first round of the CMass playoffs against Wachusett.
Coach John Andreoli knows his group has a ways to go on that side of the ball, but he's been encouraged by what he's seen so far in camp, and during the Pioneers’ scrimmage with state power Brockton.
"Our one's against (Brockton's) one's, I think it was pretty much a stalemate (Monday)," Andreoli said. "We've had a great week of practice… Particularly, working against our offense every day, it gives us something to work against that's a pretty good test."
One player that should help the Pioneers thrive on both sides is receiver/defensive back Davon Jones. The talented junior is expected to be Smiley's go-to receiver on offense, and close passing lanes in a hurry as a ball-hawking safety on defense.
A two-sport star that excels on the hardwood for the Pioneer basketball team, Jones' physicality and intelligence have caught the eye of his coach.
"First of all, (Jones) is a football player," Andreoli said. "He's always around the ball, and he's a physical kid on both sides of the ball. His yards after catch are yards that he earned by grinding it out and being physical… I think he's just continuing to develop as a player, and there's no doubt he has a real high ceiling, just on his football IQ and ability to play the game physically."
While St. John's always has numerous high profile games, they don't get much bigger than the season opener at rival Leominster. The Blue Devils have bested the Pioneers in the last two Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowls, and won their last four overall against St. John's.
Leominster scored 79 points in two games against St. John's last season, so that improving defense will be tested immediately.
ST. JOHN'S AT A GLANCE
Coach: John Andreoli (8th year, 66-18 overall)
Last Season: 8-5, Lost in Div. 1 Central Super Bowl.
Key Returnees: Andrew Smiley, Sr. QB, Davon Jones, Jr. WR/DB, Pat Ryan, Jr. LB, Jeff DeMango, Jr. DE.
Strengths: Experience at quarterback and speed at the skill positions.
Weaknesses: Inexperience and inconsistency on defense.
Overview: St. John's has, potentially, one of the best QB-WR duos in the state in Smiley and Jones, but will need to replace running back Shadrach Abrokwah and receivers Micah Cummins and John Giacoppe. Having a senior quarterback and a scheme that gives defenses no time to rest should help, but Smiley was hit early and often in a scrimmage against Brockton Monday, and he forced a few throws into coverage. But we'll chalk that up to early season growing pains, and assume an offense that averaged over 38 points per game last season will figure things out. Surprisingly, the defense was the star of the scrimmage, forcing three different “three-and-outs” and a turnover against the Boxers. The Pioneer defensive front isn't huge, but it holds the point of attack and has the speed to string out runs to the outside. If the Pioneer defense continues to improve, it could be a banner year for St. John's in brutal Division 2.