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Saturday, July 6, 2013
Roundtable: Preseason football teams to watch

By ESPNBoston.com

Because Aug. 19 isn't too far away, we're adding another pack of hot dogs and hamburgers to the grill and saddling up for some good ole fashioned summertime football talk with our panel of experts.

This is the first in a series of two Roundtable segments we're bringing you this weekend to get hyped for the action in the fall to come. Today, we take a look at our panelists' preseason Top 10s, while looking at five teams that could surprise.

Enjoy.

Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor

TOP 10

1.  St. John’s Prep - If not the top spot, I’m guessing the Eagles will likely be a Top-3 selection in every major preseason poll. Maryland-bound running back Johnathan Thomas is the early favorite for Mr. Football after being named a finalist last season, much of the offensive line remains intact, and Holy Cross-bound linebacker Sean Smerczynski figures to put in another All-State campaign. But I’m earmarking junior tight end Jake Burt for a breakout season – remember that name.

2. Everett - There are holes to fill everywhere, but considerably less in the back seven, where linebacker C.J. Parvelus and safety Lubern Figaro are among the state’s best. But how do you turn over after losing an embarrassment of riches at the skill and line positions the last few years? And just who the heck is going to play quarterback? All things considered, the Crimson Tide have done more with less, and thus “In DiBiaso We Trust” remains the motto.

3. Reading - There are few opponents across the state that the Rockets can’t out-muscle at the point of attack. With All-State quarterback Drew Belcher returning under center, behind a line led by Andrew Bourque and Jimmy King, the Rockets will have a nasty run game once again. They figure to be a heavy favorite in Division 2 North.

4. Springfield Central - Under Valdamar Brower, the Golden Eagles haven’t just supplanted Longmeadow as Western Mass.’s premier program. They’ve become a wagon, with respect from the state’s traditional powers. Between quarterback Cody Williams, his cousin Ju’uan at wide receiver, linebacker Kenneth Marshall, lineman Shawn Lee, and running back/safety Da’Quon “Honey Badger” Clemons, there is no shortage of game-changing playmaking ability. They’ll face Everett for the third straight year to kick off their season – could this time be the charm?

5. Natick - The Redhawks were one of the state’s most prolific offenses (418.6 yards per game) behind a modified air raid attack, and nearly the entire core is back from that record-setting 2012 campaign. Boston College commit Troy Flutie has his favorite target Brian Dunlap back, as well as Justin Robinson, Alex Hilger and Andrew Boynton. Simply put, this is one heck of a passing attack. The question lies in the defense, and in the trenches.

6. Mansfield - It’s going to be fun watching the way Mike Redding utilizes 6-foot-5 tight end Brendan Hill (48 catches, 849 yards, 11 TD) over the next two seasons. In the chess match of football, Hill is a king piece, a matchup problem wherever you line him up. Expect that to open up the rest of the offense, with quarterback Kyle Wiseniewski and wide receiver Michael Hershman shouldering bigger expectations as the Hornets try to survive a loaded D2 South.

7. Leominster - Athlete Neil O’Connor, he of the high-80’s fastball during the spring, figures to be the assumed successor at quarterback. But therein lies the dilemma: do you really want to plant such a dynamic jack-of-all-trades at one spot? The two-time defending Super Bowl champs are the odds-on favorite in D2 Central, returning a loaded core of playmakers that includes Jarell Addo, Jason Valera, Mayson Williams and Eddie Rivera.

8. Brockton - The Boxers underwent a philosophy change last season, installing a Navy-style flexbone to better suit the strengths of the run game, and the result – a D1 Super Bowl appearance – spoke for itself. It’s unclear what they’ll adopt this year, but regardless the run game will be strong again between Aaron LeClair, Taunton transfer Jamal Williams and promising sophomore Kerry Raymond. Still, the Boxers are No. 8 here, and not No. 1, and thus the #BHallWontHoldMeBack movement rages on.

9. Lowell - Just by law of averages, there is talent abound here. After knocking on the door the last few years, many are predicting a breakout year for the more mature, more experienced Red Raiders. Wideout Jack Galvin (72 catches, 916 yards, 11 TD) and defensive end Alex Quintero (77 tackles, 12 sacks, 17 hurries) are two of the very best the Merrimack Valley Conference has to offer. But it’s the MVC, and so we must ask ourselves – can they put enough stops together on defense, or will they have to out-score everybody?

10. Bridgewater-Raynham - The Trojans relish the underdog role, so what the heck, this seems like a good spot for them. Don’t hedge your bets on them sneaking up on anybody, though. Shawn Whitaker leads a bullish line up front, wideout Ryan Martin brings balance, and junior tailback Brandon Gallagher will be a household name by season’s end. Week 1’s matchup with St. John’s Prep will be appointment viewing.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Boston English - Brian Vaughan called it “a dream job” when he was named head coach of the dormant Blue & Blue last January, after four years at Pope John XXIII, and you can understand his optimism. Vaughan brings his record-setting spread offense to a school where there is loads of athletic potential roaming the hallways. Numbers have always been a tricky thing in the Boston City League, and reportedly there has been high turnout. If done right, this could be a powder keg.

Springfield Putnam - The Beavers are licking their chops after a disappointing 2012 season, but they have potential to return to prominence quickly with speedsters like Wayne Lowery and Jaleel Brown on the perimeter. Also consider that rival Sci-Tech has now merged with the Beavers as a co-op, which should solve the numbers issue.

Cambridge - Like Boston English, there is tons of potential with this job, and new head coach Ryan Saulnier could see big returns if all goes well. Shaq Anderson could be bound for a bigger year, and there are a few quality arms expected to compete for the quarterback job after record-setting signal-caller David Maaghul left for prep school.

Nauset - Gritty quarterback Jimmy Sullivan (595 passing yards, 1,013 rushing yards, 15 TD) is back again to lead the state’s most unique offense – the single wing. The Warriors are always a load to handle between the tackles, and 2013 should be no different.

Taunton - This was a team that showed promise late in the season. With another year of experience in the flex bone, and running back Domingo Jenkins back in the fold, can the Tigers make a surprise run in the loaded Hockomock League?

Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor

TOP 10

1. St. John’s Prep - I still believe the Eagles have the greatest collection of talent in the state entering the season, thus the No. 1 ranking. But I’ll be keeping a keen eye on the competition in the preseason at the safety positions where the Eagles graduate two Division 1-level players in Mr. Football Alex Moore and Lucas Bavaro.

2. Springfield Central – This preseason spot might be a little bit lofty, but we’ll have a good judge of exactly where the Eagles stand out of the gate in their season-opener against Everett. Quarterback Cody Williams will emerge as a legitimate Mr. Football candidate this year.

3. Reading – The Rockets are again going to control the point of attack behind offensive lineman Andrew Bourque, creating holes in the ground game and capably protecting Drew Belcher.

4. Everett – Too low for the defending (now defunct) Div. 1A champions? Perhaps as the Crimson Tide rejoin the ranks of heavyweights in Division 1 North. I’m expecting a monster year for linebacker/defensive end C.J. Parvelus.

5. Natick – There is not a passing attack in the state that will keep pace with the Redhawks this season, nor are many defensives equipped to slow them down.

6. Mansfield – Wisnieski to Hill. Wisnieski to Hershman. Wash. Repeat. And watch the results.

7. Bridgewater-Raynham – Brandon Gallagher (who, by the way, is pretty fun to watch on the lacrosse field, too) is ready for a breakout season at running back. And offensive lineman Shawn Whittaker will be a big reason why.

8. Leominster – Was either going with the Blue Devils or St. John’s (Shrewsbury) in this spot, but I’m certain they’ll hash it out on their own terms.

9. Lowell – John Florence’s group is looking to take the next step in their third year under the head coach’s direction. Can we be as bold to say they’ll be a player in the stacked Division 1 North derby? I’m saying yes.

10. Brockton – Aaron LeClair gives the Boxers and intriguing look to their running game, with the speed to bust it to the outside, while maintaining the strength and balance to run between the tackles.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Attleboro – Mike Strachan takes over the Blue Bombardiers controls with the help of a coaching staff that includes former New England Patriots running back Sammy Morris. Can they lead them to a playoff appearance out of a stacked deck in the Hockomock League?

Barnstable – OK, so maybe not so much a surprise team, but after last year, the Red Raiders are more in a reloading stage than a rebuilding one, per se. Led by senior athlete Hayden Murphy, Barnstable might not score at last year’s pace, but they will not too far off.

Central Catholic – For all the preseason buzz around Lowell, the Raiders could become the class of the Merrimack Valley behind Division 1 FBS recruit running back/defensive back D’Andre Drummond-Mayire.

Hingham – The Harbormen gave their best shot at Patriot League rival Duxbury last year and fell just short in a 14-7 game. But Hingham moves out from under the Dragons’ fire and could have a shot at the playoffs in Division 3 Southwest.

Wellesley – Cats out of the back a little bit on the Raiders, especially after their shocking win over Natick last year, but head coach Jesse Davis has utilized a tie-in with the school’s wrestling program to breathe life back into the program. I look for continued success in year No. 2 under Davis.

Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent

TOP 10

1. St. John's Prep - At this point, this pick makes the most sense, as Maryland-bound running back Johnathan Thomas gets to run behind an experienced line. There are questions, though, like if the defense can replace nine starters around Holy Cross-bound linebacker Sean Smerczynski and cornerback Michael Fawehinmi and if the passing game can take the pressure off Thomas and Co.

2. Reading - The Rockets will have one of the state's best offensive lines, one of the state's best defenses and one of the state's best quarterbacks - if not the best, period - in senior Drew Belcher, a three-year starter. Overcoming the loss of offensive tackle Matt Comerford and several skill position players will be the biggest concern.

3. Everett - The graduation losses took a heavy toll, but there is no way the Crimson Tide can be counted out in Division 1 North and beyond. The defense, behind standout cornerback Lubern Figaro and linebacker C.J. Parvelus, should again be a strength and will carry the squad early until the offense finds an identity.

4. Natick - There really can't be many teams around that will be able to slow down an offense that has a BC-bound Troy Flutie at quarterback slinging the ball to the likes of Brian Dunlap and an experienced group of receivers. The defense needs to find more consistency than last year though to win a brutal Division 2 South.

5. Mansfield - Like Natick, this is an offense that should put up in the neighborhood of 30-35 points per game, as quarterback Kyle Wisniewski has the 6-foot-5 Brendan Hill and Mike Hershman to terrorize opposing defenses. Also like Natick, the defense comes in as a bit of a question mark.

6. Leominster - The Blue Devils will be favorites to win CMass Division 2 ahead of St. John's of Shrewsbury, and for good reason. Tight end and safety Jarrell Addo is one of the best players in the area and this is an experienced and well-coached group. A state semifinal with Springfield Central would be a classic take.

7. Springfield Central - This has to be considered the best team in Western Mass. at the moment and we'll find out just how good the Golden Eagles are statewide right away when they take on Everett. Quarterback Cody Williams has a strong arm and doesn't lack for weapons, starting with speedy playmaker Juwan Williams.

8. Bridgewater-Raynham - For now, the Trojans look like the favorite to emerge from Division 1 South in what looks to be a wide-open section chock-full of heavy-hitters. The strength of the team should be a big and experienced offensive line blocking for bruising junior running back Brandon Gallagher.

9. Brockton - Despite losing 18 starters to graduation, there is talent here to reload. Explosive running back Aaron LeClair is joined by Taunton transfer Jamal Williams, while the defense returns top linebacker Kervin Jean-Claude. The offensive line replaces everyone but will again have good size and strength.

10. Lowell - The skill positions will be well-stocked for the Red Raiders, who were just a few plays away from making the playoffs a year ago but are primed for a run this season. Receiver Jack Galvin put up huge numbers last year and the defense will be one of the best in the MVC with speed everywhere.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Billerica - New coach Rich McKenna did a nice job at Westford Academy and has a good quarterback to build around in Jordan Bolarinho.

Haverhill - Those that think losing running back Chance Brady (Tufts) will sink the Hillies' hopes of contending in Division 2 North are sorely mistaken.

Melrose - Division 3 Northwest is wide open and this team has some good skill and an excellent linebacker in Eric Mercer.

Watertown - Wide receiver T.J. Hairston is an underrated talent and this team could make noise in Division 4 North.

Winthrop - Another Division 4 North team flying under the radar is the Vikings, who have the experience necessary to take the next step.\

John Botelho, ESPN Boston correspondent

TOP 10

1. Everett - Another year, another loaded Everett team. They graduate D1 guys every year, and every year somehow just reload. Expect more of the same.

2. St. John's Prep - They might have the best offensive player (Jon Thomas) and best defensive player (Sean Smerczynski) in the state. Losing Gatorade Player of the Year Alex Moore won't be easy to replace.

3. Natick - Expect to see Troy Flutie throwing to Brian Dunlap this year -- a lot.

4. Reading – Matt Comerford is gone, but Drew Belcher is among the best offensive weapons in the state.

5. St. John's (Shrewsbury) - The offense clicked together last year in record-breaking fashion, and Andrew Smiley is back under center again this year.

6. Brockton - Austin Roberts, Joe Previte and Micah Morel have all moved on, but what would a Massachusetts ranking be without the Boxers?

7. Plymouth South - This team will go as far as Dylan Oxsen's legs can carry them. More than 2,000 yards and 40 touchdowns from him a year ago landed the Panthers their finest season ever. What can another year of maturation do for them?

8. Bridgewater-Raynham - Brandon Gallagher burst onto the scene last year and proved to be a dominant back for the Trojans. If he steps forward, this team is headed for a playoff berth.

9. Mansfield - Everyone got to see Brendan Hill's incredible athleticism during hoops season a year ago, and that translates into one of the toughest to stop offensive weapons in the state on the gridiron.

10. Needham - Mike Panepinto ran for more than 2,000 yards last year and scored 26 times. He's back for more - and the Rockets could be headed for a playoff berth they narrowly missed a year ago.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Brockton - I know, how can a team I expect ranked in the Top 10 be considered a surprise? Well, losing four guys who plays varsity downs all four years would hurt any team. When one of those players is a guy like Austin Roberts, perhaps the best option back in the state in recent memory, and certainly a kid whose will to win was other-worldly (he returned after two weeks after breaking two vertebrae). Throw in a borderline D1 talent like Micah Morel, as well as four-year starters and physical specimens Joe Previte and Anthony Davis, and the Boxers are left to plug plenty of holes. But you know what? Brockton always has guys waiting in the wings. Play-makers are on the way, and it was shown in brief glimpses last year when the reserves would enter a game, and not just hold a lead but expand on it. They'll be back in the playoffs.

Middleborough - They had a winning record a season ago, and coach Pat Kingman has his squad trending in the right direction. They played Duxbury, 0-0, to halftime last year, and showed competitiveness against their league. Another step forward shouldn't be a surprise, as this team has installed an off-season workout routine that challenges the players even in the off-season. Don't be surprised if at the end of the year, the Sachems have punched a playoff ticket.

Abington - Abington graduated a slew of stand outs: QB Brandon Cawley, RB Babila Fonkem, FB Jack Malafronte, DE/TE Pat Dwyer, OT Matt Diver, C Tyler Perakslis. But even with those graduation hits, the Green Wave return enough talent that they could become the first team to win the SSL in back to back season since they did it in 2008-2009. Matt Kilmain is as good as a running back in the SSL, and he's just the beginning. 6-0, 270-pound Jon Aprile is back to anchor the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Abington returns arguably the two best defensive players in the league, with DL Steve Manning and LB Sam Malafronte ready to lead the charge.

Oliver Ames - The Tigers followed up a Super Bowl appearance two years ago with a 6-4 season, but no doubt built toward success this year. Nick Cidado is back under center after tossing 14 scores and rushing for three more in 2012, and he's a tremendous athlete who could be one of this season's breakout candidates.

East Bridgewater - They've graduated a bevy of talent that has moved on to the college level the last few years (Casey DeAndrade - UNH, Tim O'Brien, Andrew Benson - Assumption, Kevin Lynch - WPI) and they just keep finding ways to be competitive. It'll be interesting to see how their QB battle unfolds, as last year Mike Kelly and Ryan Graham battled most of the preseason before Shawn Tarpey on the uberathletic Benson. Kelly might fit the option-style offense the Vikings have used the last few years a bit more because of his speed, but Graham - a sophomore - might have the best arm on the South Shore (not in the South Shore League, on the entire South Shore. This kid can sling it).