LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Yesterday afternoon at Doyle Field, No. 7 Leominster hosted No. 17 Auburn in a preseason scrimmage. Both varsity's scored once, with Leominster connecting on a touchdown pass while the visiting Rockets ran back an interception.
Some notes and observations from yesterday's scrimmage:
O'Connor takes the reigns: For now it looks like Leominster's jack-of-all-trades Neil O'Connor -- a Preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection, as an offensive athlete -- will stick at quarterback, moving over from wide receiver a year ago. This move has been rumored for some time; Blue Devils head coach Dave Palazzi had even hinted at it at the end of last season, after they won their second straight MIAA Division 1 Central Super Bowl behind quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie.
"He's been in the huddle for two years and he's been listening to the plays," Palazzi said. "He kinda knew to watch Garrett last year and learn the plays, so it's not like I'm teaching him new plays. He just doing them from a different position. I was confident and comfortable with what I saw."
The early returns have been positive so far. O'Connor aced the Blue Devils' pitching staff last spring, when they reached the D1 Central Final before losing to state runner-up Nashoba, and that throwing ability has translated well. He hooked up with another Preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection, athlete Jarell Addo, for a 40-yard touchdown pass in the first series. He also makes plays on the run, throwing balls into tight pockets and exploiting zone holes down the sidelines.
O'Connor also adds an element of elusiveness out of the backfield, his running ability making him a classic dual-threat quarterback that isn't afraid to take off downfield when given a running lane. On one play in the second series, he had everybody fooled on a play action fake, cradling the ball under his armpit with his back turned as he sold the handoff fake.
Defensively, O'Connor set the tone from the safety position. The secondary operates in a "red light, green light" sort of function that allows O'Connor and Addo to play aggressively and fly upfield, which gives way to hits like the one O'Connor made late in the scrimmage. Reading a high, wobbly pass to the left flat, O'Connor lowered his shoulder textbook-style and crashed into his midsection, flattening the receiver cold before he could get a good grip on the ball.
Multi-pronged mismatch: To put it bluntly, Addo is going to line up everywhere on both sides of the ball this season, what with his gifted athleticism (42-inch vertical leap) and his unrelenting downhill pursuit in run support.
Yesterday, the UMass-bound athlete made two of the Blue Devils' most highlight reel-worthy plays. On the Devils' touchdown in the first series, they came out in a two-by-two formation and Palazzi dialed up a post-wheel route combination on the left side, with Addo running the wheel out of the slot. O'Connor found Addo in a zone hole roughly 20 yards down the left sideline, and the 6-foot-2 specimen effortlessly shook an arm tackle to march the final 15 yards untouched.
In one of the final varsity series, Addo lined up as a tight end in a three-point stance, came off the line and released to the right flat after feigning a reach block; after hauling in the catch near the sideline, Addo slipped out of an arm tackle at his hips and made two more cuts for a 15-yard gain.
"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.
The Rockets primarily operate out of the I-Formation with "22" personnel (two running backs, two tight ends), which for a 3-4 front like Leominster can lead to mismatches at the point of attack. To counter, the Devils toyed with Addo at defensive end for several plays, and Palazzi said he's not against using the strategy in the future.
"They run power stuff, so we're outnumbered up front, so we've got to do some different things on the line for that particular defense," Palazzi said. "If teams run that, we may do that, or O'Connor may be up there. We do so many different things on defense, but it's really just looking at what teams do to us. We have a three-man front, so if they start running Power I, you do the math. We do a lot of support with our safeties on the run in the 3-4, so if we need to bring a safety down before they snap the ball, we might do that."
New blood, same big bodies: After Everett, Auburn could lay claim to the state's best offensive line that year, a unit that averaged 280 pounds across and was led by ESPN Boston All-State selection Aaron Dyke (now playing at Southern Connecticut State). The Rockets lost four starters and a ton of size from that unit, one of its best in school history, but the one holdover -- 6-foot-4, 300-pound Preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection Will Greelish -- was joined by some bodies that are sizeable.
Defensively, the Rockets deployed 3-5-3 and 3-3-5 Stack looks, and newbies like Domenic Pappas and Dylan Russo held their own. One of the more impressive of the bunch might have been Steve Sisko, who made a few explosive rushes up the interior gaps to draw holding penalties from the Devils line.
From the back, safety Matt Morrissey made the play of the day for Auburn's defense, picking off a pass deep downfield and breaking free down the right sideline, for a 70-yard interception return touchdown.
The Wright Stuff: It's unclear who will be Auburn's feature back this season, but Mark Wright had a solid outing yesterday. His first two carries of the day, a sweep then a zone play up the left side, totaled 45 yards. He also excelled running a lead draw play up the middle, for some good yardage.
Two years ago the Rockets featured one of Central Mass.'s most elusive athletes out of the backfield, Fred Taylor, gifted with loose hips and quick acceleration. And while nobody is going to start throwing around such comparisons yet, Wright is of the same type of skill, a finesse back that can squeeze extra yards out of his carries with some nimble cutbacks.
Rockets coach Jeff Cormier, known for his affinity against the hyperbole machine, was typically subdued when asked about Wright's role.
"Whoever's gaining yards is going to get the ball," Cormier said. "If that's going, he [Wright] is going to get it."
Keep it simple: The Devils offense showed a variety of looks -- some I, some two-by-two, and some pistol looks with two running backs -- but overall the gameplan was pretty vanilla yesterday. They only threw one screen, a tunnel off the backside of a zone read play, and have not installed the full passing game for the most part.
"It's early here, those types of things we haven't run yet, I wanted to get our run game set [today] and what we're doing up front," Palazzi said. "We'll start getting crazy, as I call it, as we move on to the next week, to kind of have everything in. It's tough."
There were some positives out of the run game, the biggest highlight a 40-yard counter trey by Eddie Rivera in the third series. With Rivera, Mayson Williams and James Gurley sharing the carries, Palazzi has high hopes for the running game.
"We've got three good backs that we've got confident with different sets of skills," Palazzi said. "We're comfortable with who we have back there at running back."
Young gun: Keep an eye on 5-foot-8 freshman quarterback Steve Saucier, who demonstrates advanced throwing ability for a player his age. The Rockets are typically run-heavy, but when called upon, he could add another threat.
"Our QB threw the ball real well the other day, I thought he had a couple good balls today that got dropped on him, so we'll get some guys that can catch him," Cormier said. "We'll throw the ball. He's a freshman, he gets the ball downfield, he rolls through both sides pretty well. We think we're going to be able to throw the ball.
"We're optimistic with him, [but] we've got a couple good guys behind him, so we need to figure out where we're at hopefully we're better tomorrow."