LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- In two years at the helm of his alma mater, Leominster coach David Palazzi has restored the program to past glory.
With a pair of Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowls and four consecutive wins over rival St. John's of Shrewsbury, expectations are sky-high for the No.7 Blue Devils, who will now compete in a loaded Division 2 Central for a state title. Despite having to replace star quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, Leominster returns a great deal of talent and experience from last year's championship squad, including a pair of do-it-all seniors.
Jarrel Addo has already captured the attention of the entire state. The UMass-bound athlete will line up pretty much everywhere on the field for the Blue Devils. During Leominster's scrimmage with fellow CMass power Auburn, Addo was spotted at safety, linebacker, stand-up defensive end, tight end, wide receiver and running back.
"Jarell is just a great blocker, he's got good hands, he jumps, he's tall, so he's gonna help us out in the pass game with some of those things obviously, run after the catch-type things," Palazzi said. "He was (on the defensive line) because of a particular defense. (Auburn) runs power stuff so we had to move him up there… We run a three-man front, so if teams start doing that to us, you have to do the math and move somebody up."
The quarterback position was the biggest question mark heading into camp, but it appears that senior Neil O'Connor has locked the job down. Palazzi will tell you he has the best receiver in the region playing quarterback, as O'Connor transitions from Leominster's leading receiver to its signal caller. The early returns have been positive for one of the more versatile athletes in the state, and Palazzi believes he has a true dual-threat under center.
"Yeah, that's a big deal when you can run the ball (with the quarterback)," Palazzi said. "He's been in the huddle for two years and he's been listening to the plays. He kinda knew to watch Garrett last year and learn the plays, so it's not like I'm teaching him new plays. He’s just doing them from a different position. I was confident and comfortable with what I saw."
But the Blue Devils won't win a state championship with two players, and with the speed they have throughout, they won't have to. Wide receiver Jake Allain seems poised for a breakout year, and the backfield is full of talent with Mayson Williams, Eddie Rivera and James Gurley all fighting for carries.
On defense, the Blue Devils have one of the fastest back-sevens in the state. Headlined by Addo and O'Connor at safety, Leominster will rely on its speed laterally to stretch out run plays, and the Blue Devils hope a physical three-man line will give those linebackers and defensive backs plenty of freedom to roam.
Questions of depth still loom on both lines, but Palazzi is confident his team will be ready for an opening week showdown with rival St. John's on September 13th.
LEOMINSTER AT A GLANCE
2012: 9-4, Won Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowl
Coach: David Palazzi (3rd Season, 19-7 overall)
Strengths: Speed in the backfield and the secondary, versatility, experience
Weaknesses: Experienced depth on both lines
Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Key Returnees: Jarrel Addo, Sr. WR/TE/DB; Neil O'Connor, Sr. QB/DB; Jake Allain, Sr. WR/DB; Jason Valera, Sr. ATH; Mayson Williams, Sr. RB/DB; Eddie Rivera, Sr. RB/DB; James Gurley, Jr. RB/DB
Outlook: Leominster should again be one of the best teams in Central Mass, and building around a pair of players like Addo and O'Connor on both sides of the ball is certainly a great start. Blessed with speed on both sides of the ball, Leominster has the potential to be a big-play offense, and will be tough to outflank on defense. The question will be depth. While Leominster seems to have talent and experience at the skill positions and in the secondary, the offensive and defensive lines are shorter in numbers. But, overall, this team has the look of a state title contender.