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Monday, August 26, 2013
Football Notes: High praise for breakout candidates

By Brendan Hall

A few notes and observations from the first week of MIAA preseason football:

Lofty, Loyte-y Comparisons: It's probably the worst-kept secret at St. John's Prep that junior tight end Jake Burt had one of the best summers in the program. All summer long, the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Lynnfield native dazzled in passing leagues and 7-on-7 tournaments, out-muscling defenders on 50/50 balls and boxing out others on goal line plays.

All summer long, coaches at the Prep program have raved about his development; and melded with his prowess on the school's basketball and volleyball teams, many are projecting highly for Burt, who is entering his first season as full-time starter after serving in part-time duty with the varsity last fall.

But perhaps no praise yet has been as high as the name head coach Jim O'Leary dropped on Tuesday morning, following a press conference to introduce the school's new baseball coach. Making a comparison to former great Jon Loyte -- an All-American who starred at Vanderbilt and Boston College, and had a brief cup of coffee with the New York Giants in 2010 -- O'Leary was blunt.

"I love Jon Loyte, but he [Burt] is more athletic," O'Leary said. "He's not as physically imposing as Jon was. Now, he weighed in last night [Monday, Aug. 19] at 6-4-1/2, 224 pounds, [and] he ran a 4.8 40. I thought that was impressive last night."

Burt dabbled last year in an H-back role, lining up both in the backfield and on the perimeter, and also took some snaps at quarterback in "Wildcat" packages. Expect him to take a similar role this fall, as the Eagles try to live up to their preseason billing as the state's No. 1 team and capture a second straight Division 1 title in the first year of a true MIAA State Championship.

It could be a similar situation to what St. John's of Shrewsbury had in 2010 with Richard Rodgers, the monster tight end/defensive end currently entering his third season at Cal. The 6-foot-4 Rodgers lined up both in the slot and split out wide, creating a matchup problem compounded with the added running threat of quarterback Dan Light, a converted tight end who is now manning a similar spot at Fordham.

"It's not our first rodeo here, we're probably going to use the talents that our people have," O'Leary said. "I think that you saw that situation last year, running some wildcat stuff. The trouble is, he sets the edge so well blocking, that it's going to be difficult to take him out of that tight end position. And his ability because he's 6-foot-4-1/2, to be split out as a wideout, similar to what St. John's Shrewsbury did with the kid that went to Cal, Rodgers, they used to split him out.

"It's a good matchup for us out there. Honestly, as weird as this sounds, we're probably gonna have to throw the ball more than we did last year. We need to take people out of the box."

High remarks from a former coach: One week of preseason in the books, and senior transfer Joe D'Onofrio is already making his presence felt at Everett High, scoring twice in yesterday's scrimmage with Lynn English. That comes as no surprise to his former coach at Pope John XXIII, which has since co-oped its program with Chelsea due to lack of numbers.

"You can quote me, Joey’s a stud. He’s a stud, man," said Brian Vaughan, now the head coach at Boston English. "Not a lot of people know about him, people try telling me he's not gonna play at Everett, and I laugh. I'm shocked he was with me at Pope John -- he's a stud. Some of the things he's done for me the last two years is just ridiculous. He's a perfect fit for them."

After his freshman season at Everett, D'Onofrio transferred across town to Pope John, and made his impact felt immediately in Vaughan's patented spread attack. In D'Onofrio's sophomore season of 2011, he ranked second on the team in receiving behind ESPN Boston All-State selection Malcolm Brown, while also rushing for 1,106 yards on just 105 carries.

Last fall, D'Onofrio earned Catholic Central Small MVP honors after carrying 174 times for 1,356 yards and 16 scores. Offensively, blessed with high-4.5 speed, he got touches in every skill position, including quarterback; defensively, he was just as vicious, making downhill plays from both the safety and outside linebacker spots.

Among the most talented players he's worked with in his two-plus decades of coaching, Vaughan recalls back to his time as an assistant at his alma mater Lynn English, and to former defensive tackle Matt Curtis, an athletic savant who overcame dramatic hardships to captain Harvard's football team in 2008.

"[Joe] would always wow you on offense, but when he'd come upfield from an outside linebacker or safety spot, he comes up and he's laying the wood," Vaughan said. "I've been coaching high school sports for a long time, and he's up there with my favorite athletes. He’s up there with Matt Curtis from the early 2000's. Obvioulsy he was a defensive tackle, but his athletic ability was crazy. He was a defensive tackle that returned kicks for us."

So what should folks in Everett expect from D'Onofrio this fall?

"What they should expect is someone who will work hard and do whatever it takes to win," Vaughan said. "He's definitely a team player, whatever you ask him to do he's gonna do it 120 miles an hour. Personally, I expect nothing but a lot of good things over there. [Everett head coach] John DiBiaso does an excellent job with the talent that he has, and Joe is going to fit right in and continue to have the success he's had at the high school level."

Secret ingredient? The first touchdown of No. 21 Needham's preseason came from a name familiar to the hardwood.

John Madsen, the 6-foot-6 senior star forward for the Rockets' basketball squad, is back out for football for the first time since his freshman year. You could say he's made his impact felt already, scoring the first of two Rockets touchdowns in Saturday's scrimmage with Newton South, hauling in a pass from senior quarterback Ryan Charter.

Needham is one of those programs that typically draws unique crossover talent, led this year by Mike Panepinto, a 2,000-yard rusher last fall who is committed to UMass for lacrosse. Two years ago, lacrosse star Mark Riley was a stud on the gridiron, stretching the field vertically as a flex tight end to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors.

Basketball backgrounds typically translate well to the tight end position -- see Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham at the NFL level. It's a work in progress, but you can't teach size, and so far Madsen has demonstrated a wide catching radius. He will likely stick at wide receiver, and won't play defense.

"He can catch, and he’s tall, and in terms of playing wide receiver those are two very good intangibles," Rockets head coach David Duffy said. "If we can get him up to speed on the offense...I'm hoping he improves every week, but he’s working hard at it. He's gonna be another weapon we can utilize, because everybody is going to be keying on Mikey [Panepinto]."