LAWRENCE, Mass.- The road to a state championship begins in a place like this, a turf football field behind a school under the sweltering, unforgiving sun on the first day of September. On Tuesday morning, the defending Division 1 champion and No. 2-ranked Xaverian football team traveled north to scrimmage No. 9 Central Catholic. It is just under two weeks until the regular season begins, so starting spots that were up for grabs at the start of camps are being sorted out and players are emerging for future roles.
Here are a few takeaways from the morning scrimmage:
Who's under center?: Coming into camp, both teams had an open quarterback competition having graduated prolific seniors last year. Central junior Matt Morgan and sophomore Brett Edwards were competing to take over under center for Mike Milano, while Xaverian was looking to fill the spot vacated by Jake Farrell.
Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopolous made it known to his team that Edwards has emerged and grabbed the reins of the quarterback position. He came into Tuesday curious how his new quarterback would do against the stout Xaverian defensive line. On multiple occasions, Edwards was under duress in the pocket and was required to take a hit.
On one particular play towards the end of the two-hour session, he dropped back to pass and Cal Flanders and Dan Gioioso broke through the middle of the offensive line. In a regular season game, the play would have resulted in a large loss of yardage, but in a scrimmage setting, Edwards just got back up and went to the next play.
“One thing I like when we scrimmage Xaverian is kids are going to get tested,” said Adamopolous. “Any time you have a sophomore quarterback, the big thing is how is he going to respond when he gets whacked around a little bit? He got whacked around a little bit today and what I liked was he bounced up and kept his composure. I thought that was a good thing.”
Mike Pina took snaps under center with the first team Xaverian offense Tuesday. It is difficult to make any strong judgements on players in a controlled scrimmage environment, but Pina did show off his athleticism and arm strength on the first two offensive series. His play-action bootleg out of the I-formation resulted in a 16-yard gain after he got in a footrace with Central Catholic defensive backs heading up the right sideline.
Two series later, he showed off his arm strength down with a throw down the right sideline. There were two receivers in the area of the pass, but there seemed to be a miscommunication between the two as the ball dropped in between them.
Filling in the holes: Xaverian was without six starters in Tuesday’s scrimmage, including Coby Tippett, Peter Thorbahn, John Dean, and Langston Puller. The only starter in the secondary was Mekhi Henderson. Still, it was the defensive front seven that made its presence felt. On the second play of Central’s first offensive possession, Flanders and Gioioso stuffed a shotgun running back dive up the middle. Later, Devon Piccinin read and reacted to a running back middle screen and made the tackle for a minimal gain.
Central showed an added dimension to its shotgun offense when it put a wide receiver in motion and he took a handoff up the right sideline for a 20-yard gain. Eventually, the drive stalled and Xaverian went back on offense.
“I thought all three sets we had defensively did pretty good, just a couple of breakdowns, but I thought we did very well defensively,” said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson. “We’re a little beat up, but it was good for our younger guys to get a taste. It was a good opportunity for six guys who don’t usually play for us to get out on the field and play. We’ll see where we go from here.”
One of Central’s biggest question marks heading into camp was its need to replace its starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. The O-line is a work in progress, but it got arguably its biggest test to date trying to open holes against the bulk on the Xaverian D-line.
“Reading (which Central scrimmaged on Saturday) had a very experienced line and they were big,” said Adamopolous. “These guys are really well-coached on the line. I want my guys tested. We’re seeing some things and we’ll go against Mansfield on Friday (in another scrimmage), who is a pretty good team, too. We’re still mixing and matching. I think by the end of the three scrimmages, whoever we come up with, the kid’s can’t say they didn’t get a chance because they all got chances against three pretty good teams. I thought we took some steps in the right direction.”
Evenly matched: The only touchdown of the session was set up by a Giani Mitchell took a pitch down the left sideline for a big gain. The Central defense broke contain when Pina looked to be running off left tackle. Each Xaverian quarterback showed off their running ability at some point during the afternoon, so the defensive back collapsed down on Pina expecting him to keep the ball, which allowed Mitchell to catch the pitch and head down the sideline for a big gain.
He got in the end zone a few plays later on a dive up the middle.
Central’s defensive breakdowns continued later in the drive when Craig Crossley ran a deep post down the middle of the field and got behind a safety. Crossley was unable to bring the pass in, but if he did it would’ve been a footrace to the end zone.
It was a play that was emblematic of the afternoon. It showed both teams still have room to grow with the first game of the regular season 10 days away.
“We saw some good things, we saw a lot of bad things,” said Adamopolous. “I thought we took a step in the right direction. They’re obviously a great opponent. We try to scrimmage good teams to expose our mistakes and work on them. We had some responsibility breakdowns, we kind of broke down defensively. But I saw some good things. They’re a great team and they’ll be a great team.”
Stevenson left the Central Catholic field with a better idea of where his team is at with the first game approaching, but he was still not looking forward to the long trek home.
“I thought we played OK, all things considered,” said Stevenson. “Driving up in rush hour traffic wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing to do, but we do that every Friday night somewhere, so it is what it is.”