- Scott Barboza, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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St. John’s Prep senior running Johnny Thomas is a little upset about the way last year ended.
Sure, the Eagles ran over Brockton to win the Eastern Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl, but the Maryland commit wanted more.
“I really wish we could’ve played Everett,” he said reflecting on last year’s team.
Well, Thomas and the Eagles might get that wish this season, as both No. 1 Prep and the No. 2 Crimson Tide will compete in Division 1 North this year, a result of the MIAA’s new playoff alignment.
But Thomas stopped himself before going too far, looking forward to a potential playoff showdown with Everett. He acknowledged the momentous expectations that are placed on the top team in ESPN Boston’s preseason Top 25 poll, but also saw a trap.
“We need to avoid all the ESPN headlines, that we’re ranked No. 1 and all of that.”
He trailed off, “I appreciate that, we really do, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Most of the time, that can go to your head. So you just have to have the right mindset to deal with that.”
Of course, there are weighty expectations on Thomas, himself, as well.
An ESPN Boston All-State first teamer as a junior last year, the Salem resident ran for 1,794 yards on 220 carries with 15 touchdowns. But he also did so sharing part of the load with 2012 Mr. Football Alex Moore, who added 857 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season.
This year, Thomas will be the Eagles’ feature back, and – without Moore beside him — he’s solely in the spotlight.
“I think that with Alex leaving the program, teams are going to be keying on me,” Thomas said. “And you know that can actually be good for the team because we have some guys who are under the radar and who are going to make big plays.”
That could come in the passing game. While Prep head coach Jim O’Leary traditionally has featured a streamlined playbook that is comprised of running plays, almost exclusively, the Eagles have the wherewithal to air it out. Behind senior quarterback Mike Geaslen, junior Jake Burt and Owen Rockett provide intriguing options in the passing game.
But make no mistake, the Eagles will maintain the same identity.
“I’m not saying we’re going to be balanced, run versus the pass,” Thomas said, “but I think teams need to pay attention to us throwing on them.”
That means a healthy dose of Thomas running out of the backfield. With additional reps, a 2,000-yard season seems well in grasp for Thomas.
To prepare for that, Thomas and his Eagles teammates have laid the preseason groundwork for the grueling challenge ahead: the Division 1 title defense.
“Everything that we do in the offseason, it makes you a well-rounded player,” Thomas said. “It’s not work specifically in one area, it’s everything. We do speed training, yoga to strengthen the whole body. Everything we do at the Prep, it’s going to help you at the next level.”
ST. JOHN’S PREP AT A GLANCE
Coach: Jim O’Leary (30th season, 200-106-2)
2012: 11-1, won Eastern Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl
Key Returnees: Johnny Thomas, Sr. RB; Jake Burt, Jr. TE/DB; Owen Rockett, Jr. Ath./DB; Michael Fawahinmi, Sr. RB/DB; Mike Geaslen, Sr. QB; Brendan Kahari, Jr. RB/LB; Kent Blaeser, Sr. G/DT; Sean Hoey, Sr. OT/DT.
Strengths: Skill players, defensive secondary.
Weaknesses: Depth at linebacker, offensive line.
Outlook: Prep’s defense was dealt a blow in early going when preseason All-State linebacker Sean Smerczynski withdrew from the school. That will challenge the second tier of the Eagles defense, which already lost several players to graduation of the 2012 squad. Prep’s offensive line, which returns all but one starter from last year (center Sean Lovett is the lone new face). The O-line should become a strength by season end, with preseason All-Stater Kent Blaeser bolstering the group.
Prep has a serious challenge out of the gate, opening with Div. 1 South power Bridgewater-Raynham on Saturday. “They like to pound the ball down the middle,” Thomas said of the Trojans.”They like to play tough-guy football. They’re not like Oregon, passing the ball all over the place. They want to run it down your threat.”