AUBURN -– As a unit, they were among the state's most efficient, paving the way to more than 4,200 rushing yards, and among the biggest, averaging nearly 260 pounds across. Paired with a blend of power and finesse between four change-of-pace backs, it was a lethal combination that led to an unprecedented fourth straight Super Bowl championship for the Auburn Rockets.
All five starting offensive linemen return, now averaging nearly 280 pounds across, and the unit is comprised primarily of seniors with two or three years of varsity experience. And yet, true to the Belichickian mantra professed by head coach Jeff Cormier, it's as if they're right back at square one.
"We've got a ways to go," says senior Aaron Dyke, arguably the best of the bunch, and a preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection. "The whole team's got a long way to go. But we take it day by day."
If you've been to one Auburn practice in August, you've been to them all. Humility and brevity are the operative themes, and you can't argue with the method's success given the program's track record under Cormier. The only difference in 2012 is the absence of questions about their win streak, which was snapped at 41 last year to rival Shepherd Hill.
"Once we lost, we blew out every team," Dyke said. "But I know every team's coming back with more studs than they had last year. We bring back 27, but I know Holliston, Shrewsbury, Northbridge, they bring back everybody."
Says senior tackle Steve Domenick, "It's not really about going undefeated, it's about taking it one game at a time. We never focused on the whole streak thing, we just wanted to go out there every game and play some good football."
The Rockets graduated one of the state's most dynamic rushing tandems in the fleet-footed speedster Fred Taylor, now playing defensive back at Dean College, and Dan Flink, an ESPNBoston All-State selection now suiting up for Mass. Maritime Academy. Eric Desjardins is the only back returning with experience, and figures to take the lead role, but it should be a competitive training camp with Zach Clifford and Mark Wright.
Ideally, it would be a smooth transition. The Rockets consistently outweighed opponents at the point of attack in 2011, utilizing tight splits and combo blocks to nullify their opponents' top threats in the front seven. They were especially efficient on the right side with Dyke (6-foot-4, 295 pounds) and junior Will Greelish (6-foot-4, 325 pounds). Both have been receiving varied interest from an assortment Division 1 schools across the Northeast, including Boston College, UMass, UConn and Buffalo.
"I expect them to be very physical at the point of attack," Cormier said. "People know we're gonna run the football, which makes it that much more difficult to run the football. Those guys are gonna be under stress. There's going to be some pressure on those guys, with some young guys back there, they're gonna have to hold their blocks a little longer, move people a bit further. We're gonna have to compensate for our lack of experience at the running positions."
Defensively, where the Rockets have used odd fronts in the past, they will likely stay in a four-man front, given their size and depth in the trenches. As an added ripple, one of those key defensive linemen -- end Steve St. Jean -- will take on a new role this year as tight end.
St. Jean is an imposing figure at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, and is gaining interest from the MAC conference for track and field -- last spring, he finished third in New England in the shot put. It's still a work in progress, but if he adapts quickly he could leave Cormier with a favorable amount of options in the passing game for returning starting quarterback Drew Goodrich.
"He's trying to feel that out," Cormier said. "He didn't play tight end a year ago, so it's really square one, just trying to load him up with blocking assignments, kinda settle hiim in. But I think that he's pretty athletic as far as flexibility, and the possibility of options."
AUBURN AT A GLANCE
2011: 12-1, Won Division 3 Central Mass. Super Bowl
Coach: Jeff Cormier (14th season, 115-40)
Key Returnees: Aaron Dyke, Sr. OG/DL, 6-4, 295; Will Greelish, Jr. OT/DL, 6-4, 325 lbs.; Jordan Giampa, Sr. C, 6-2, 285 lbs.; Steve Domenick, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 250 lbs.; Matt Ramirez, Sr., OL/DL, 5-10, 240 lbs.; Steve St. Jean, Sr. TE/DE, 6-4, 245 lbs.; Tyler Simmons, Sr. TE/DL, 6-1, 220 lbs.; Avery Sweet, Sr. TE/DL, 6-2, 250 lbs.
Strengths: Size, experience at offensive and defensive lines
Weaknesses: Experience at skill positions
Outlook: The Rockets made headlines last season when their win streak, third-longest active in the nation, was snapped by Shepherd Hill. Then they made headlines again with their imposing line comprised entirely of underclassmen, led by Dyke and Greelish on the right side. As a unit, they are one of the state’s heaviest across, and with the graduation of its top two backs (Dan Flink, Fred Taylor) and wide receiver (Connor Fuller) that unit will be taking on an even bigger role. St. Jean brings a unique skill set to the offense this year, his first as tight end, with his athleticism allowing him to play in space in addition to supporting the run, and that has to be pleasing to Goodrich. If the line continues on last year’s success, when the Rockets ran for over 4,000 yards, then it should be a smooth transition for the new blood in the backfield.