Boston High School: Connor Gatto

Tale of the Tape: Northbridge vs. Bishop Fenwick

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
7:43
PM ET
Ahead of Saturday's six MIAA Football State Championships at Gillette Stadium, today we are bringing back our "Tale of the Tape" series to break down each participating team's matchups headed into the game.

In the Division 5 Final, ESPN Boston High Schools editors Brendan Hall and Scott Barboza take a closer look at Central champ Northbridge and North champ Bishop Fenwick, respectively.

Division 5 State Championship
NORTHBRIDGE (10-2) vs. BISHOP FENWICK (12-0)
at Gillette Stadium, 8 p.m.


When Northbridge has the ball: It was once said that Rams head coach Ken LaChapelle -– he of 300-plus wins and counting, 10 Super Bowl titles and just three losing seasons since he took over in 1976 -– would like to just once coach a game in his career where he calls nothing but pass plays. The Rams’ affinity for the air, and the spread is well-documented -– LaChapelle was among the first coaches in Massachusetts to fully adopt and run-and-shoot scheme, and has found exponential success with it ever since.

The Rams have found plenty of success, however, on the ground with sophomore quarterback Koby Schofer (187 carries, 1,511 yards, 22 TD). When a running lane opens up in the tackle box, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Schofer is unafraid to take off downfield; and with some live hips, he is a bit underrated when it comes to shiftiness. One of the staples of the running game with Schofer has been the inverted veer play. Out of an empty formation, they will often motion either sophomores Jake Wood (140 carries, 717 yards, 10 TD) or Michael Quinn from the slot for a jet sweep look, and from there they read the defensive tackle for the mesh point.

But it wouldn’t be Northbridge football without a nifty passing game. LaChapelle is a sharp, innovative mind, and one of the best ever -– period –- when it comes to dialing up the right play calls. Schofer (131-of-221, 1,300 yards, 11 TD) has thrown some terrific balls in a garden variety of a passing game, which includes an array of slip screens, swing passes, slants, wheels and even double posts -– any of which may come under center or in the shotgun. Look for sophomore leading receiver Chandler Brooks (43 catches, 518 yards, 5 TD) to be active in the air.

When Bishop Fenwick has the ball: In particular, when Rufus Rushins has the ball in his hands, you can almost knowingly expect a run up the middle. With his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame, Rushins (1,296 yards, 20 TD) is a north-south runner. While looks might be deceiving, with the Crusaders typically lined up in spread formations, they carry the mentality of a power-I team. However, what makes Fenwick’s rushing attack that much more difficult to diagnose is senior quarterback Nick Bona. The undersized signal-caller is an ideal spread option quarterback, who runs the Crusaders' inside zone reads with Rushins to near perfection. Once Bona’s in the clear, he’s an elusive runner as well.

What really makes Fenwick’s ground game click is the right side of its line. Road-grading, 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior and three-year starter Charlie St. Pierre is among the best on the North Shore. Along with sparkplug Tyler Kaufman (5-foot-9, 180 pounds), the Crusaders use the pair interchangeably at the right guard and tackle positions to great success.

But, also, let’s not discount Fenwick’s vertical passing game. Once establishing the run, the Crusaders like to take chances downfield, employing a stable of wide receivers, including senior speedster Charlie Maistrellis.

When Northbridge is on defense: The Rams have seen a lot of different looks this fall, and have usually been pretty consistent in the back end, especially when it comes to the pass. Wood (3 INTs) and junior Robert Fraser (3) have been a solid tandem at the free and strong safety positions, respectively, while senior Jurrell Cromwell (3 INTs) is the team’s top option at cornerback, saddled with taking their top man.

How these guys match up with Fenwick in the trenches, especially with the Crusaders’ bullish Rufus Rushins returning to the backfield, will be one of the key storylines to this game. I feel the Rams can do some damage in this area, with seniors Tom Tabur (6-3, 285) and Connor Gatto (6-1, 290) controlling the interior gaps. Both are relentless, one-gap pluggers who can blow guys back with a bit of momentum. Both have received varying degrees of Division 1 FCS interest, while Gatto has impressive upper-body strength, putting up 34 bench press reps at 185 pounds in last May’s annual Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association combine.

Sometimes Tabur and Gatto will pinch down inside the A-gaps, lined up over opposite shades of the center, seemingly taking the middle of the field by brute force. That seems to serve as a quality compliment to speed rushers Damion McFetridge and Derek Chace off the edges.

When Bishop Fenwick is on defense: The mainstays of Fenwick’s offense also figure prominently in its defensive game schemes. With Rushins at defensive end and Bona at inside linebacker, they bring physicality to the Crusaders’ front seven. They will be the keys to shutting down Schofer in the ground game out of Fenwick’s varying 3- and 4-man fronts.

Kaufman is an intriguing player to watch in this matchup. He’s played anywhere from a 1-technique defensive tackle to a weak side defensive end. But from whichever angle he’s played, Kaufman has a motor that simply has no quit, evidenced by his many tackles in pursuit.

But make no bones about it, Fenwick’s chances for victory will likely rest with its secondary. The group comprised Tommy Parsons, Eric Razney and Maistrallis, among others, is capable of making plays, but doesn’t often see prodigious spread offenses in the rush-heavy Catholic Central portion of the team’s schedule. They will be the difference-makers.

Recap: No. 18 St. John's (S) 35, No. 6 'Meadow 14

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
8:11
PM ET


SHREWSBURY, Mass. -– St. John’s quarterback Andrew Smiley noticed receiver Micah Cummins putting on a red basketball-like compression sleeve on his left arm before this afternoon’s visit from Longmeadow, and kept things real –- “You drop a pass, I’m gonna be all over you about it,” Smiley cracked to him.

Done and done.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Smiley, Micah Cummings
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comQuarterback Andrew Smiley (12) and receiver Micah Cummins (88) connected for two touchdowns to lead St. John's to a 35-14 win over Longmeadow.
Not only did Cummins refrain from a drop, but the 5-foot-11 wideout came up with two pivotal touchdown catches in the first half that put the No. 18 Pioneers ahead for good. The defense did the rest in the second half, forcing the No. 6 Lancers into three straight turnovers on downs en route to a 35-14 win at Pioneer Field.

After a dazzling debut in his first varsity start last week against Holy Name (353 yards, 4 TD), Smiley once again went over the 300-yard mark in total offense. He was 16-of-18 passing for 246 yards, and carried the ball 15 times for 96 yards, with four touchdowns total.

Meanwhile Cummins finished with four catches for 74 yards for St. John’s (2-0), but earned most of his yardage after the catch with some slippery moves. At 160 pounds, Cummins is not the biggest or most intimidating target for the Pioneers – but he may have the best body control.

That was perhaps best explicated on Cummins’ second touchdown catch, a 30-yard snag at the two-minute warning of the first half that put the Pioneers ahead 21-14. The play called for Cummins to run a “jerk” route to the left sideline, in which the receiver fakes like he will sit in a zone hole before continuing his shallow crossing route. He hauled in Smiley’s short dart with a few feet of real estate left, then planted upfield, spun through one defender, juked to the right of another, and marched the final 25 yards untouched.

That was preceded by a 47-yard strike to Cummins towards the end of the first quarter that put the Pioneers up 14-7. Cummins ran a post route up the left sideline, facing man coverage with a safety shaded to his side, and was sprung free by a pick from John Giacoppe (5 catches, 62 yards) to make the grab behind the safety and glide into the end zone.

“He’s so shifty, hard to tackle,” Smiley said. “He’s not the strongest kid out there, but he’s quick. He’s just hard to tackle.”

Smiley came up with two more scores in the third quarter to put this one away, first calling his number for a seven-yard scamper, then finding Davon Jones on a seam deep downfield for a 30-yard pass.

Improved defense: The Pioneers came away with the win last week against Holy Name, but were not satisfied with the run defense, giving up 463 yards and five scores on the ground to the Naps’ vaunted Double Wing scheme (282 coming from Quron Wright). This week, they split that number in half, allowing 233 yards and two scores against the Lancers’ modified Wing-T scheme (which today also showed elements of the “Flexbone” formation, with heavy personnel groupings).

Give credit to the front four for that marked improvement. Against a Longmeadow’s senior-laden offensive line that is considered one of the state’s best -- averaging over 260 pounds across, and led by road graders Rob McClure and Lou Calabrese -- the Pioneers held their own. Led by juniors Jeff DeMango and Connor Gatto, and sophomore Sam Norton, they were able to stuff the interior gaps ably.

The hallmark of today’s defensive effort was the aforementioned second-half effort, in which the Lancers ended three straight drives with a turnover on downs in Pioneer territory.

“They’ve gotten some confidence every week, and they’re getting better,” St. John’s head coach John Andreoli said. “We’ve played some tough teams all along – Brockton, New Bedford, Shepherd Hill [all three were scrimmages], Holy Name, I mean those are great teams. And our kids stepped up and played disciplined.

“We stayed in a lot of base fronts today, they trusted their reads, and ran to the football. That’s what they did, and that’s what they’ve been doing all year.”

Longmeadow quarterback Frankie Elder led the Lancers with 86 yards and a score on 16 carries, but a had a forgettable day through the air with 74 yards on 5-of-17 passing, with two picks. Fullback Austin Sierra also had 14 carries for 68 yards.

Dejection, but praise: Some Lancers felt their hearts sink to their knees in the moments following the game. Elder, for one, sat on the grass, helmet still buckled and lay motionless with a thousand-yard stare.

With legendary former head coach Alex Rotsko leaving behind arguably one of the Lancers’ most talented senior classes in a while, there have been high hopes for this year’s squad, with a No. 6 preseason ranking in ESPNBoston.com’s statewide MIAA poll. A win today would have satisfied Longmeadow’s wishes to be taken seriously as one of the state’s elite programs.

But in the eyes of many, they already are, and have been for some time.

“It’s a respectable win [today], because Longmeadow is a very good program,” Cummins said. “I think in a couple articles, they said they wanted to get themselves into the elite of Massachusetts football, and I think they already are elite. I look back at the stats, and they’re one of the top programs in the state year in and year out.

“They’re well-coached, and I have all the respect in the world for them.”

One aspect of the Lancers’ gameplan that worked particularly well today was their defense of St. John’s running back Shadrach Abrokwah. Coming off a 205-yard, three-touchdown performance last week over Holy Name, the Worcester resident was held to 36 yards on seven carries, but did have a nice 40-yard reception off a swing pass.

But as the stats indicate from today’s game. Keying Abrokwah on the zone read opened the field once again for Smiley and the air attack.

“They’re just athletic,” Longmeadow head coach Nick St. George said. “They’re good athletes, they have good receivers, they get the ball out to their guys in space and they force you to make tackles. We missed a lot of tackles today.”

Flash cards? One of the most interesting nuggets from today’s post-game interviews was the suggestion from Smiley that the Pioneers may begin to utilize flash cards from the sideline to speed up what has already been a turbo-charged playcalling system.

But not just any ol’ flash cards. One of the main storylines with the Pioneers’ early season is how they have adopted the “Blur offense” tempo popularized by the University of Oregon under coach Chip Kelly. In recent years, Kelly’s assistants have used posterboard-sized placards consisting of four panels with seemingly any sort of picture on it –- a number, a color, a school logo, a mascot, characters from Caddyshack, hosts from ESPN College Gameday, and so forth.

Even among the increasingly-innovative college coaching ranks, Oregon’s method of calling in plays is considered radical. The only thing that’s come close so far in the MIAA in recent years might be Duxbury, which dresses five JV players in bright orange hats (nicknamed “The Amigos”) and gives them color-coded cards to hold up.

“Oh, we might be bringing those out,” Smiley said when a reporter asked about replicating the “Blur” tempo and referenced the Ducks’ flash cards.

Have they been working on it?

“Yeah, a little bit,” Smiley said.

It could be an innocent comment, and ultimately nothing could come of this. But given the progression of this offense, it could also be the next natural step.

ST. JOHN’S 35, LONGMEADOW 14

LHS 7 7 0 0 --- 14
SJS 14 7 14 0 --- 35


First Quarter
L – Frankie Elder 3 run (Eric Barsalou kick) 6:36
S – Andrew Smiley 8 run (Pat Lehane kick) 6:16
S – Micah Cummins 47 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 1:50

Second Quarter
L - Joe Lee 1 run (Barsalou kick) 6:51
S – Cummins 30 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 2:00

Third Quarter
S – Smiley 7 run (Lehane kick) 8:02
S – Davon Jones 30 pass from Smiley (Lehane kick) 1:52

Scrimmage Slants: Brockton vs. St. John's (S)

August, 25, 2012
8/25/12
4:36
PM ET
St. John's defenseBrendan Hall/ESPNBoston.com St. John's defense showed plenty of pop this morning in its annual preseason scrimmage with Brockton.
SHREWSBURY –- Thoughts and observations from this morning’s annual preseason scrimmage between Brockton and St. John’s of Shrewsbury, on the grass at Pioneer Field:

Blurring the lines: In three series of starters against starters, each team scored once. But overall, I would say St. John’s was the aggressor for most of the morning, given the efficiency of their “Blur” offense, a very uptempo no-huddle look with spread principles, and the way they exploited the perimeters for multiple first downs.

One particular sequence that stands out is in the Pioneers’ first offensive series. Tailback Shadrach Abrokwah took an inside dive handoff and just before he hit the hole, cut back to his left and followed a big seam 15 yards down the left side. The Pioneers, with the ball now at the 10, went straight into the hurry-up. Before Brockton’s defense could get settled, Andrew Smiley hit Davon Jones in the right flat on a flare route, and the sophomore did the rest, diving over the pylon for the Pioneers’ only score.

“It really comes down to conditioning, staying focused, and making sure that we can execute our assignments,” head coach John Andreoli said. “It’s ball security and it’s playing penalty-free, because you really cannot stop that offense for reasons that you cause yourself. You’ve gotta make the defense make a mistake.

“You can’t make a mistake to stop that offense, you have to make sure it’s moving and you’re executing. That’s why I thought it was a good day for us today.”

Key injuries: Scary moment for the Pioneers on their second play from scrimmage, when incumbent starting quarterback Connor Kurtz went down with an injury to his left knee after getting his leg tangled in the pile while getting dropped for a loss. A diagnosis on the severity of the injury, or to what extent, was unknown after the scrimmage ended. Kurtz had to be helped off the field, and was seen on crutches on the sideline.

Kurtz’s backup, Smiley, took over duties for the rest of the afternoon. The 6-foot-4 junior looked sharp at times, tossing a 40-yard fade to Jones in the third offensive series, and making a few plays with his feet after getting flushed out of the pocket.

Meanwhile Brockton lost defensive back Micah Morel, a preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection, in the third series with an injury to his left shoulder. Morel will be re-evaluated on Monday, but having him out for an extended period of time could be a bad blow to the Boxers’ defense.

Shadrach reads and reacts: When you hear the term “blur offense”, it’s usually in reference to the no-huddle spread scheme run by Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks, who often try to snap the ball in 15 to 20 seconds. After evaluating his skill personnel, Andreoli felt his offense was up to the task, and as previously mentioned they looked crisp at times.

One of the foundations of this offense is the “Inside Zone Read”, a dive play out of shotgun that typically involves zone blocking principles up front, and a sharp cutback from the tailback. The play made a Heisman candidate out of LaMichael James last year; here in Shrewsbury, the play could lead to a breakout senior season for Abrokwah.

At 5-foot-7 and 205 pounds, and blessed with both speed and a powerful lower body, Abrokwah is essentially a sprinter in a hockey player’s body. His low center of gravity makes it difficult to get a clean shot, and today he used that to his advantage, repeatedly cutting back to the weak side on these zone plays to run off multiple gains of 10 yards or more.

“It’s all in the zone play,” Abrokwah said. “Once the offense flows one way, most likely the cutback is going to be on the other side, so I read my blockers, was patient, and just hit the hole.”

How quickly does he decide where he’s going to go on a zone play?

“It’s all instinct,” he smiled. “You have to feel the offense, and that’s what I did.”

New-look backfield: Devoid of a pure fullback, Brockton didn’t run its trademark Pro formation today, instead opting for a modified spread triple option popularized by college programs such as Georgia Tech and Navy.

The change was made to better utilize senior quarterback Augie Roberts’ dual-threat capabilities, and things started well in the first series. Roberts is a runner first, and on the second play from scrimmage he demonstrated his running ability, slipping outside a crack back block from Jeff Celeste for a 25-yard gain. But he also has a quality arm, connecting with Lorenzo Lovesy on a fly route for a 50-yard touchdown pass that was negated by a block in the back (an excessive celebration penalty was tacked on for good measure, too).

The Boxers rotated Morel and Aaron LeClair at one wingback position, Louis Jimenez and Moise Edouard at the other, and senior Ricardo Calixte at the fullback spot. Pat Healy is also in the mix at wingback, a baseball outfielder who is back in football after taking the year off.

“I just think it takes advantage of Austin’s skills,” head coach Peter Colombo said. “You didn’t see the whole package obviously today, and he’s not limited to that, but I just think it gives us a good opportunity for him to take advantage of his skills. We’ll see, we’ll adjust as it needs.”

The Boxers were good at times, but some of the problems that plagued them in last year’s disappointing 5-6 campaign –- namely, red zone struggles –- reared their heads. Jimenez did score from 10 yards out on the Boxers’ second drive, but on the first drive they were halted at the Pioneers’ five yard line. First, Matt Murphy made a stuff of the ballcarrier at the line of scrimmage. Then on the next play, fourth and goal from the five, Roberts was sacked by Andrew Sullivan.

It was a cycle that flashed in and out all afternoon, with the Pioneers bringing the heat in the front seven behind Connor Gatto, Sam Norton and Barron Dandridge.

Jones brings the wood, and the flash: I’m going to try my best to avoid the hyperbole highway this season with Davon Jones –- he is just a sophomore, after all, and he did fumble a ball away -– but it’s hard not to be impressed every time he comes to play.

Roaming around at free safety, Jones covers a lot of ground in the secondary, and played the bump well in the slot when the Pioneers went to a man press in the red zone. He showed off his live hips on offense, plugging himself into the slot and making defenders miss with multiple jukes.

But the trait that probably sticks out most at this point is his physicality. As the last line of defense against the run, Jones brings considerable pop for someone that’s 6-foot and 180 pounds, and it is certainly loud.

Earlier in the week, Andreoli told ESPNBoston.com of Jones, “If he continues to develop the way he develops, the way he’s playing now, he’s got the ability to play at the highest level” of college football.

“He’s a football player,” Andreoli said. “He doesn’t want to come off the field, he doesn’t care how tired he is, he’ll take a sip and get back on the field. He loves to play the game. And he plays hard, and he plays it the right way. He’s just got to continue to feel comfortable in our scheme, get good at reading receivers.”

Referring to Jones’ success so far as a guard for the Pioneers’ state semifinalist basketball team, Andreoli continued, “The thing too about him is, he’s played in a lot of big games –- basketball-wise, and in football. So he’s used to competing on the big stage here at the varsity level, so he can just basically play the game and get in the flow of the game.”

Jones says he’s learned a lot in the last 12 months, and has become more vocal in the secondary, calling out checks. Asked about those progressions he’s made in the mental side, Jones chalked it up to “muscle memory”.

“The coaches just pound it into my head – pass first, run second,” he said. “So I see it, and I just come up running fast.”

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