Tuesday, September 10, 2013

CMass HS Football Game of the Week Preview: St. John's at Leominster

St. John's senior QB Andrew Smiley (left) and Leominster senior QB/S Neil O'Connor (right).
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

This week's Central Mass Game of the Week is a bit of a no-brainer, as ESPN Boston has named Leominster's home date with St. John's its game of the week for the entire state.

So, while I'd love to go against the grain and give you all the details on Auburn visiting Hudson, I'm not going to over think this one. I mean, I did rank these two teams No. 1 and 2 in my first CMass Power Rankings, so not picking this game would be silly and a bit of a contradiction.

Anyway, neither of these teams have played a game yet, but each has challenged itself in the preseason, scrimmaging against some of the best teams in Central Mass and beyond. While this game represents a rematch of the last two Central Mass Division 1 Super Bowls, both teams still have questions to answer: Leominster in the trenches and St. John's throughout its defense.

The Stakes

The winner of this game will get the obvious bragging rights, but also a major leg-up in power rankings for the newly realigned Division 2 Central (Where both teams now play) come playoff seeding time.

You could make the case that St. John's needs this win more, since the Pioneers have now lost four in a row to the Blue Devils, including the last two Super Bowls, but I wouldn't bet on Leominster being any less motivated to pick up a season-opening statement win.

When St. John's Has the Ball

The Pioneer offense is all about tempo, and with senior quarterback Andrew Smiley back after a record-setting 2012, look for St. John's to push it this season. Those not familiar with the "Blur" offense- a scheme that utilizes a no huddle and relies on spread passing and zone read option principles- can look at Chip Kelly's work at Oregon (Or Monday in Washington) as evidence that this fast-paced offense can wear down even the best of defenses.

Last season, St. John's blew teams off the field and, counting the playoffs, Smiley became the first player in CMass history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.  Receiver Davon Jones has spent some of the preseason lining up by himself at receiver on the weak side of the formation, creating one-on-one opportunities for the dynamic athlete. Add in running back Shane Combs, a physical junior transfer from St. Louis, and the Pioneer offense should be just as hard to stop in 2013 as it was in 2012.

Leominster will look to combat the St. John's tempo and speed with speed of its own, along with versatility and aggressiveness. Throughout the preseason, coach David Palazzi has tinkered with using UMass commit Jarell Addo all over the field defensively. While he usually lines up at safety with fellow versatile athlete Neil O'Connor, Addo has come down into the box to help Leominster's three-man line against the run, playing linebacker and, occasionally, stand-up defensive end.

With a tough and speedy front seven, combined with the versatility of his secondary, Palazzi hopes he can at least slow down St. John's.

When Leominster Has the Ball

As good as St. John's was on offense last season, they did surrender nearly 30 points per game on defense, including 79 in two games against the Blue Devils. While Leominster loses starting quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie from last year's championship team, O'Connor has made a seemingly smoothe transition from receiver to quarterback during training camp. A year after leading the Blue Devils in receiving, O'Connor looked sharp in a preseason scrimmage with CMass power Auburn, showing a live arm and a great deal of elusiveness on several zone read plays.

The Blue Devils also have as deep a stable of running backs as anybody in the state. The three-headed running back attack of Eddie Rivera, Mayson Williams and James Gurley, along with Addo when he lines up in the backfield, should give St. John's plenty to think about when the Blue Devils go to the ground.

While St. John's struggled mightily on defense last year, coach John Andreoli has been pleased with the unit's progress this preseason. One reason is Jones, who may be even more valuable as a safety than he is as a play maker on offense. From his safety spot, Jones has great range in downfield pass coverage, but as he showed in a scrimmage against a physical Brockton team, he isn't afraid to come up and lay the wood on somebody against the run.

A newcomer to watch for St. John's is sophomore nose tack Josh Angel. Andreoli says that youngster still has a lot to learn, but that he "does a great job of playing heavy in the middle." That should help against an undersized Leominster offensive line, but slowing down the Blue Devil attack will be a tall order.

Bottom Line

Expect some points.

Both of these teams have speed on offense, and the Pioneers run the "Blur" too well to not score points. Leominster once again has the edge on defense, but if the Pioneers are as improved as they looked in the preseason, particularly against the downfield pass and inside run, that advantage may not be as big as people think. St. John's looked a little vulnerable to off tackle and stretch runs, but Leominster looks like it may struggle against teams that can run it between the tackles.

This has the makings of another classic, and it will likely come down to the fourth quarter and which defense can make a timely play.

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