Wednesday, August 20, 2014

CMass Football Preview: The 2014 Doherty Highlanders

Star senior guard Sean Moran will lead one of the region's best offensive lines, and could start at middle linebacker as well.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The Doherty Highlanders were as good a story as there was in the Commonwealth last year, capturing the inaugural Division 4 Massachusetts state football championship.

The run of those Highlanders ended a 33-year playoff and Super Bowl drought for the program, and established Doherty as a name that merits consideration statewide.

But, as you might expect, that special squad was led by a special group of seniors who have all since graduated, with many taking their games to the next level. Star receiver/safety Isaac Yiadom is now playing defense in Chestnut Hill as an up-and-coming defensive back for Boston College, while receiver Alfred Adarkwah is hoping to earn his keep as a red-zone threat at UMass. Quarterback Luke Brennan is now pitching for Franklin Pierce, and numerous other key players are lost to graduation as well, including defensive back/receiver Shawn Jackson, linebacker Pete Franco and two-way lineman Matt Smalls.

But the cupboard is far from bare on Highland Street in Worcester. Doherty returns five starters on both sides of the ball, and the spots with little experience are loaded with athleticism. Here's what to expect foam the 2014 Highlanders.


Experienced Returnees: Eric Vecsey, SR

Breakout Potential: ?

Doherty isn't even a week into camp yet, so it's hard to know what the quarterback situation will look like beyond Vecsey, a guy that has paid his dues and waited patiently behind Brennan the last two years. In 2012, with Brennan lost to injury, Vecsey started the first game of Doherty's season and threw touchdown passes on his first three attempts (two going for over 50 yards) against North Middlesex.

Coach Sean Mulcahy maintains that there will be an open competition for every position, but given Vecsey's comfort with the system, experience, and obvious talent, it will be tough for anybody to beat him out. Plus, the only other guy that has worked at QB, senior Javon Watkins, will most likely be needed elsewhere on both sides of the ball.

It's never easy to replace a talented multi-year starter at quarterback, but Doherty couldn't have asked for a more potentially seamless transition.

"(Eric's) been patiently waiting," coach Sean Mulcahy said. "He just needs to be himself and not worry about being Luke. He needs to make the plays he can make, and if he works hard enough to win that job, we're confident enough in him, or anybody else, that we'll find a way to get things done."

Running Back

Experienced Returnees: Jahkari Carpenter, SR, Javon Watkins, SR

Breakout Potential: Tavian Vassar, JR, Rickey Webster, JR

Carpenter was Doherty's X-factor last season, breaking off highlight reel runs and serving as a lethal check down and screen option in the spread Highlander attack. This season, look for entire offense to be built around his versatility and speed. The undersized but explosive Carpenter has said he is aiming for 2,000 yards and has the talent to reach that lofty goal.

While Carpenter is the lightning of Doherty's attack, Vassar will look to serve as the thunder. The 230 lb. Vassar also starts at nose tackle for the Highlanders, and should be the perfect brutal complement to Carpenter's speed.

Doherty will look for depth to develop behind these two throughout camp, with Watkins being a talented and somewhat experienced choice. With Carpenter and Vassar the Highlanders could have one of the best 1-2 punches in the state, but Watkins' hands and speed shouldn't be overlooked.

Finally you have Webster, a guy that showed tremendous speed and promise in mop up duty as a sophomore. He's certainly one of the more impressive athletes in the region, and if he gets enough carries is capable of big things.

"We're still going to pass, but hopefully run a little more (this year)," Carpenter said. "A lot of I (formation)… We'll be good."

Offensive Line

Experienced Returnees: Sean Moran (G), SR, Fitzroy Spencer (G), SR, Manny Obisui (T), SR

Breakout Potential: Shamus Coonan (C), JR

Both starting guards and the starting left tackle return for what should be an excellent Highlander line. Moran's speed and balance make him an ideal pulling guard and pass protector, while Spencer and Obisui both possess long arms and excellent strength.

The wild card will be Coonan, who saw some action last season as a sophomore. If he's able to hit the ground running, this line could rival Shepherd Hill and Auburn's as one of the best in Central Mass. For his part, coach Mulcahy believes the rest of his offense will lean on the big guys up front, at least in the beginning.

"We thought our one Achilles heal going into (2013) might be the youth of our offensive line," Mulcahy said. "But they played well, and now they've been working hard in the weight room, getting stronger, and we're hoping they can carry us a little bit early as we look to replace some skill guys."

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Experienced Returnees: James Shaughnessy, SR, Aaron Adu, JR, Tariq Massenberg, JR, Jack McGrail (TE), SR

Breakout Potential: Luis Figueroa, SR, Matt Lyons, SR, Yousef Plant, JR

No position on the team is undergoing the overhaul this group is. With Yiadom and Adarkwah gone, the Highlanders lose what was, in my opinion, the best receiver tandem in the state, but they also lose the wildly underrated Mitch Celaj as well. After going back and re-watching all the film I have on Doherty from last season, I was struck by how many clutch catches and big downfield blocks Celaj made, particularly against Shepherd Hill in the D4 Central Final.

Basically, this group has to replace a ton of talent, leadership and toughness, but they have the potential to do it. Shaughnessy is a speedy linebacker coming off injury, but coaches believe he could see action as a possession guy, and the junior combo of Massenberg and Adu both have speed to burn.

McGrail is more a blocking tight end, but he has soft hands as well, and his drive blocking abilities may fit in better with Doherty's shift toward running the ball a bit more this year.

Vicsey mentioned Figueroa and Lyons as guys he thought were catching the ball well, and Plant could find his way onto the field this year in the slot.

"A lot of our receivers, you guys probably haven't heard of," Vicsey said. "But I think they're going to step up and become big-time players for us."

Defensive Line

Experienced Returnees: Tavian Vassar (DT/DE), JR, Fitzory Spencer (DT), SR, Jack McGrail (DE), SR

Breakout Potential: Manny Obisui (DT), SR

The versatile Vassar is a great place to start building a defensive line, but powerful senior Fitzroy Spencer will be just as important. With the two of them pushing the pile up front, teams will have little room to work on the ground, and each has the burst to rush the passer as well.

McGrail returns as a solid run stuffer on the outside, and the potential moving of Vassar all around the line should open up some playing time for Obisui to eat up blockers at the nose.

"Vassar is a special kid," Defensive coordinator and Associate Head Coach Steve Bucciatlia said. "He's the sweetest kid off the field, but between the lines he has the perfect mentality for football. His speed and tenacity just make him so hard for a center to handle, and there's some talk about moving him around (to end), so he's going to be big for us this year."

"I think Tavian and I are gonna tear up the middle," Fitzroy Spencer said. "Our ends are really good getting upfield, so we're gonna be able to contain. We're gonna be a pretty good line."


Experienced Returnees: James Shaughnessy (WLB), SR, Rhakim Williams (SLB), JR

Breakout Potential: Sean Moran (MLB), SR, Manny Brown (OLB), JR

Shaughnessy returns from injury as maybe the most athletic player in this rebuilt linebacker group, and both Rhakim Williams and Manny Brown return with experience on the outside. The wild card will be Moran, a converted offensive guard and defensive tackle.

Far faster than you would expect for a kid that weighs 240, Moran could step in and start right away in the middle of Doherty's defense. He and Williams both pack a ton of whallop, while Brown and Shaughnessy cover ground quickly on the field side.

The Highlanders are hoping that combination of power and athleticism can make up for a lack of experience, especially with all three of last year's starters now graduated.

"Sean is a tough kid who plays the way you're supposed to play," Bucciatlia said. "But all those guys do. Rhakim Williams I think is gonna have a big year. Jimmy Shaughnessy has waited his turn and can make plays for us, and junior Manny Brown I have a lot of faith in too. So we have options."


Experienced Returnees: Jahkari Carpenter (CB), SR, Tariq Massenberg (CB), JR, Javon Watkins (CB), SR

Breakout Potential: Dom Lee (S), SR,
Luis Figueroa, SR, Rickey Webster (CB), JR, Aaron Adu, JR

Carpenter is the lone returning full-time starter from this group, but Massenberg started a few games at the beginning of last season when Alfred Adarkwah was nicked up and only playing offense.

Beyond that, Watkins saw time as a reserve last season and filled in capably. Coaches are hoping a year of seeing live bullets, even in a limited capacity, will help the young secondary progress. Lee returns as the only player with much game experience at safety, but has big shoes to fill with Isaac Yiadom and Shawn Jackson departed.

Coaches aren't quite sure where Figueroa will fit in yet, but the speedy senior will likely see the field somewhere in this rebuilt secondary. As with his status at running back, Webster has the athleticism to wreak some havoc. He played a bit last year, and classmate Aaron Adu should find a niche as well. Basically, the Highlanders are loaded with speed, but short on experience.

"We'll probably play a lot of zone to start the year and ease the younger guys in," Bucciatlia said. "But we've always got athletes, so when in doubt, we can just man people up across the field and let our guys run."


Doherty must replace an immense amount of talent and leadership, but this year's senior class appears up for the challenge. The road won't be easy, as Division 4 Central boasts state title favorite Shepherd Hill, along with contenders Holy Name, Grafton, St. Peter-Marian, Groton-Dunstable and Hudson.

Still, Doherty should once again be one of, if not the most athletic team in their class. If Vicsey hits the ground running, as coaches think he will, and some young receivers are able to take the pressure off Carpenter and the running game, the Highlanders should again boast an explosive offense.

The front four on defense will be absolutely crucial after the loss of three linebackers and Yiadom at safety. Doherty is an aggressive, blitzing team, so losing so much on the back end could hurt. But, with some speed and potential coming back, the Highlander secondary should round into shape, and the linebackers appear to be ahead of schedule.

Many will quickly say a repeat as Division 4 state champions is out of the question, but don't tell that to these kids. They're looking to defend their title. The talent and will are certainly there for them to do it.

They won't be quite as talented or experienced as last year's team, but the Highlanders should make another deep playoff run.

In Their Own Words

You've heard enough from me. Here is coach Sean Mulcahy and his senior captains discussing the upcoming season.

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