Natick installed a fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense to its repertoire last season with quarterback Troy Flutie calling the shots.
The results -— 31.4 points per game and an 8-3 record —- turned out to be pretty good, and this season the Red Hawks are hoping that a playoff birth comes with the successes of the offensive production in year two.
“Last year was the first year we went with the no-huddle spread and we are putting in some new wrinkles (this year),” said Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli. “Now it’s kind of adding to it and tweaking to make sure we are utilizing our strengths and keeping teams off-balanced.”
Flutie’s lineage (he is the son of former Boston College great Darren) is no new story in the football-rich community of Natick, and his sophomore season did more than enough to make sure the production matched the namesake.
Flutie completed 62.4 percent of his throws and threw for 2,018 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback was also the most productive runner on the ground for the Red and Blue as he rushed for 1,100 yards with 11 scores. He overcame an ankle injury late in the season to throw for nearly 400 yards on Thanksgiving Day in a losing effort against Framningham, and Mortarelli is looking for a major contribution from his quarterback again this season.
“He’s got such a great mind for the game,” said Mortarelli. “We really put a lot on his shoulders. We let him make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and we give him a lot of packages with what to look for, and he makes the call on what play to run. He’s very good at it and he has the natural ability to get us into the play we want and he’s a dual threat.”
Flutie has the ability to make plays out of the pocket with his legs when the pocket breaks down, but Mortarelli has no issues harnessing his quarterback like so many coaches face when they have an athletic quarterback running the show.
The running weapon is just that, another weapon for other coaches to worry about.
“If he has to he certainly can, but Troy is a pocket passer,” said Mortarelli. “He is so accurate and he knows where to put the ball. He wants to throw it first. If he has to pull it and run it he will. But I think he will give defenses some nightmares when he does that.”
Of course Flutie can’t do everything alone, and he has two complimentary pieces on the outside to make up what looks to be one of the most dangerous, and complete, passing attacks in the Bay State Conference. Brian Dunlap and Alex Hilger are both threats on the outside and they make up part of the young offensive nucleus with Flutie.
Dunlap may have surprised many with his 69 catch, 1172-yard, 14-touchdown freshman campaign a year ago. But he's no longer sneaking up on anyone.
“He won’t surprise anybody that’s for sure,” said Mortarelli. “We are expecting him to be double covered and we have to move him around a little bit in different spots and keep people guessing to where he is going to be.
“He works unbelievably hard and he’s a great student. Every little thing we do in practice he does well...He doesn’t have to say much and the other kids respect how he works. He’s a gifted athlete, but he does everything that a coach can want.”
Hilger is a 6-foot, 2-inch wideout, and Nick Lee -- who rushed for the 1,035 yards with 10 scores last year -- adds a between-the-tackles caliber of runner out of the spread to keep opposing defenses honest.
The Red Hawks ripped off seven wins in a row before last season losses to Walpole, which was by a field goal in the final seconds of the game, and Framingham to ultimately miss a playoff spot. Mortarelli sees a hungry group, and the offense will be a huge key towards erasing those bad feelings of last year.
“Certainly that loss on Thanksgiving is sticking with us,” Mortarelli said. “Our seniors talk about it every practice and evertime we worke out. We have a great group of leaders, seniors, juniors and some sophomores. That should help us down the stretch.”
NATICK AT A GLANCE
2011: 8-3 (7-3 Bay State Herget)
Coach: Mark Mortarelli (Third season, 14-8)
Strengths: Returning skill players.
Weaknesses: Experience on offensive and defensive line.
Key Returnees: Troy Flutie, Jr. QB, 6-0, 160 lbs; Brian Dunlap, Soph. WR, 5-11, 175 lbs; Alex Hilger, Jr. WR, 6-2, 165 lbs; Nick Lee, Sr. RB, 5-10, 190 lbs.; Bobby Beausoleil, Sr. OT/DT, 6-0, 285 lbs.; Lee Grismer, Jr. OL/DL, 6-0, 240 lbs.; Mike Dunlap, Sr. LB, 6-0, 190 lbs.; Jack Lowell, Sr. LB, 5-10, 190 lbs.; Zack Hilger, Sr. LB, 5-11, 190 lbs.
Outlook: Looking around the Bay State Conference it seems as if Natick is one of the only teams who didn’t lose a major piece in the skill-position department. Troy Flutie will be Troy Flutie if he can stay healthy this year, and it’s going to be tough for teams to match up with Brian Dunlap on every snap. The big question comes on the line, according to head coach Mark Mortarelli. There isn’t much experience on both sides of the ball, but they do have two good building blocks in Bobby Beausoleil and Lee Grismer. The linebacking core is back with three senior captains in Mike Dunlap, Jack Lowell and Hilger. The offense will get most of the press, but if the defense can stay away from the big outputs by opponents then we could be looking at a Walpole-Natick showdown for league bragging rights until the end of the season.