Wednesday, August 22, 2018

From Preps to the Pros: Your 2018 Massachusetts Football Primer

With two of state's best linemen returning up front and a star dual-threat QB, Lincoln-Sudbury will host my most interesting Week 1 matchup against Western Mass power Springfield Central.

 By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Do you feel that? That chill in the air?

Ok, so maybe it was just mostly in the 80s instead of the 90s this week, but after the summer we've had here in Massachusetts, I'm taking what I can get.

But, believe it or not, fall is fast approaching, and that means it is football season, and, as editor Matt Feld said, there are plenty of storylines to watch across the Commonwealth. SuiteSports will again have you covered for all your MIAA high school football needs, but I will be taking a much more passive role.

The aforementioned Mr. Feld will be your point guy for coverage this fall, and he kicked things off Monday with our Preseason All-State team. As I head back to school to pursue my goal of becoming a teacher, and continue to work outside of journalism, I'm pretty much going to be an involved fan this year.

So, I figured since I'm basically just a fan, I'd write a fan's blog about what I'm excited to watch in Massachusetts football this year, starting at the high school level, and going all the way up to the college and pro dudes.

Here's what I got for ya.

Familiar Faces in New Places

Coaches and players change schools every season, but it seems like things have picked up the last few years, and we had some major moves this offseason.

The biggest one is obviously legendary coach John DiBiaso leaving Everett, after back-to-back Division 1 state titles, and heading to Catholic Memorial. Dibs' legacy as a coach is unparalleled around these parts, and he inherits a CM squad that returns plenty of studs, including star defensive lineman Lucas Folan and lockdown corner Khari Johnson from last year's run to the D1 South title game. Expectations will be sky-high nearly immediately, as CM brings back a plethora of talent and speed on defense, but it remains to be seen if Dibs can get the Knights past the rest of the D1 field.

Speaking of the rest of D1, his boys back at Everett certainly aren't going to be relinquishing their status as the state's bullies without a fight. Despite losing an immense amount of talent to graduation, as well as the transfers of national recruit Lewis Cine to Texas and star quarterback Jake Willcox to Milton Academy, Everett still returns the state's most electric playmaker in Virginia Tech commit Mike Sainristil, and brings in a key transfer in the form of running back Isaac Seide. After emerging as an All-State back last season during Melrose's run to a D4 state championship, Seide could become the focal point of the Crimson Tide attack this fall, running behind what should be another brutally effective Everett offensive line.

But, as far as players go, no transfer brings more name recognition than Kevin Pyne. After sitting out 2017 with an injury at Millis, Pyne returns home to Milford, where he attended middle school, to suit up for Milford High. Many expected the uber-recruit to emerge at some prep school, or perhaps a Catholic Conference power, but the 6-foot-8 junior with offers from nearly all of college football's blue bloods will instead try to help new head coach Anthony Vizakis take the Scarlet Hawks to new heights.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt that former Millis head coach Dana Olson is also joining Milford as Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator. Yeah, that program just got an influx of talent on the field and on the sideline.  

MIAA Dudes I Wanna Watch

As I said before, we've already got our All-State team out, so we don't need to run through every star player in the state. So note that the guys below aren't my picks for the five best players in the state (though they're all up there), this is simply the five guys I hope to get out and see this year because I love their games.

Xavier Gonsalves, DL, Mashpee: Once again Mashpee is flushed with talent, and Gonsalves is as entertaining as any player on this dynasty. A dominant lineman who can stuff the run and rush the passer, Gonsalves is often a grown man playing against boys, simply imposing his will against the unfortunate offensive lineman across from him.

With a hand full of college offers, Gonsalves is a favorite to once again make our All-State team and lead Mashpee back to Gillette.

Eamonn Dennis, Jr. ATH, St. John's (S): A Swiss Army Knife type weapon who can be split out wide, used in the slot and come out of the backfield, Dennis is also one of the state's best kick and punt returners. I seriously have no idea why opposing teams kept kicking to him last year, but just for entertainment's sake, I hope they keep kicking the ball to No. 5 in 2018.

As explosive and exciting as any player in Massachusetts, expect Dennis to start garnering some serious D1 college interest this season.

Matt Smith, Sr. TE/WR, Needham: At 6-foot-5 and over 220 lbs, Smith is one of the biggest and most reliable targets in the state. The Duke commit also showed off his versatility last year, hauling in tough catches over the middle, and stretching defenses vertically for big plays down the field. His phenomenal body control and hands combine with his size to make him one of the toughest covers around, and another year in the weight room should make Smith even more difficult for opposing defenses to deal with this season.

Tajon Vassar, Sr. ATH, Doherty: The state's resident Mighty Mouse, Vassar has been proving people wrong since he emerged as a star running back and defensive back two years ago. Now a seasoned veteran, Vassar leads a talented Doherty squad that is ready to contend in what should be a loaded, but also wide-open Division 3 Central. If the Highlanders can stay healthy, Vassar just might lead the sleeper team of the 2018 season.

Scott Elliott, Sr. OL, Holliston: Elliott has been as good as any offensive lineman in the state the past few years, and the Holliston star enters his senior season with big expectations. After committing to Harvard this past June, Elliott knows the next step is getting Holliston back to Gillette Stadium, and he certainly packs the kind of whallop that has propelled past Panther teams to titles.

Other positions are more glamorous, but a versatile lineman on an offense that can run the ball in a plethora of ways is truly valuable.

East Meets West on Opening Weekend

Opening weekend is getting bigger and bigger at all levels of football, as the NFL's Thursday Night Kickoff is always a massive event, college teams are scheduling better and better out of conference matchups to start the season, and every local high school team seems intent on scheduling itself into the Game of the Week.

That title will very much be for debate this year, as Massachusetts will be treated to a tasty slate of games the weekend of September 7-8 (Everett at Xaverian, Mansfield at BC High and CM vs St. John's of Shrewsbury, to name a few), but the one I'm most looking forward to is Springfield Central traveling to face Lincoln-Sudbury in a measuring stick game for both programs.

Each of these teams is coming off deep playoff runs, with Central reaching the Division 3 state semifinal before falling to eventual state champion St. John's (Shrewsbury), and L-S getting all the way to Gillette before coming up just short against King Philip in the D2 state championship.

Each team also returns a boat load of talent, and several players who will be playing on Saturdays in the near future, led by L-S linemen Mike Ciaffoni and Cal Kenney, and Central defensive backs Elijah Ayers and Keshaun Dancy Jr. Plus, if you're looking for some excitement, Central WR/KR Myles Bradley is scintillating with the ball in his hands, and L-S quarterback Braden O'Connell looks to be one of the best true dual-threats in the entire state.

Other games come with more hype, but this is where I want to spend that first Friday night under the lights.

A Loaded ISL

The Independent School League (ISL) has seen its teams get better and better, with more and more top-level Division 1 talent in recent seasons. This has been especially true in the ISL 7 division, where Lawrence Academy is riding a historic wave, but must replace several D1 players to graduation, and head coach Paul Zukauskas, who led the Spartans to a share of four straight ISL league titles and three NEPSAC bowls wins.

Lawrence Academy now turns to Jason Swepson, a former NFL assistant and BC alum, to keep things going, but he will still have a ton of talent at his disposal. Most notably, sophomore sensation Tony Muse looks to be the next great LA back, following in the footsteps of A.J. Dillon after putting on a show in LA's Fleming Bowl victory last November. With a Michigan offer already in hand, Muse will now turn his sights toward becoming one of the best ISL backs in recent memory.

Standing in LA's way, though, is a suddenly loaded Milton Academy team. Led by national recruit Kalel Mullings, Milton has added former Everett quarterback Jake Willcox, and has as much talent as anybody in the league from top to bottom. And you can never look past Buckingham Browne & Nichols, which loses do-it-all star Jay Symonds, but returns one of the most highly-touted freshmen in the country in linebacker Tyler Martin, who played last season as an 8th grader and already holds a scholarship offer from Michigan.

Martin will play next to Brown commit Tommy Maloney, and in front of the dynamic corner duo of Anthony LaMonica and Sammy Malignaggi, forming what should be one of the ISL's most formidable defenses.

With elite talent scattered throughout the league in the form of players like St. Sebastian's receiver Alex Cherry, Governor's running back Quin Stott and Nobles TE/LB Cam Large, every week in the ISL is sure to bring fireworks.

Local Talent Powering Boston College

It's been an up-and-down couple of years for Boston College fans, with the Eagles starting slow the past two seasons, only to find their stride and finish hot down the stretch. This year's BC team comes in with a bit of national hype, mostly due to the return of phenom running back A.J. Dillon, a Connecticut native who starred at Lawrence Academy before heading to The Heights.

While Dillon enters 2018 as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate with 2,000 rushing yards in his sights, he isn't the only former Massachusetts high school or prep star that will play a major role for the Eagles. In fact, Dillon's success could largely hinge on a trio of Bay State-bred linemen who return up front for what should be one of the nation's best offensive lines.

The most talked about of the bunch, and rightfully so, is former Shepherd Hill star Chris Lindstrom, who has played multiple spots across the front, but projects as a very attractive NFL guard due to his quick feet and ability to pull. Lindstrom will likely hold down the right tackle spot this season for the Eagles. In the middle, former Millis-Hopedale star Jon Baker returns at center after a year lost to injury, while Brockton alum Aaron Monteiro is back for his senior season at left tackle.

Tight end Chris Garrison is another out-of-stater who attended Lawrence Academy before heading to BC, and he projects as a unique weapon in both the passing and running game when the Eagles go double-tight.

Defensively, the Eagles lose Doherty alum Isaac Yiadom to the NFL, but a trio of Mass natives will have a major impact on just how good this unit can be. None will be more important than preseason All-American safety Lukas Denis, who has emerged as one of the nation's premier ball-hawks after a fantastic career at Everett.

Helping Denis in the secondary will be Amherst grad Taj-Amir Torres, who is expected to enter the starting lineup at cornerback after playing the Nickel last year, and coming up with a huge Pick-6 against UConn at Fenway Park to secure a bowl game for BC. Finally, Catholic Memorial alum Kevin Bletzer will return at linebacker, where he stepped in last year and played well down the stretch.

Perhaps BC's most interesting local product is former St. John's (Shrewsbury) star Davon Jones, who was a key contributor at running back in 2016 before moving to linebacker in 2017. In 2018, he's going to play… Both, it looks like. Jones has been working with both the offense and defense throughout camp, and could see significant snaps as a throwback, two-way player for the Eagles.

BC comes in with some palpable hype and, after years of just fighting to keep the fan base happy, coach Steve Addazio has a team capable of truly contending in the ACC. Plus, if this year's Eagle squad is to take that next step and get to a major bowl game, it will take some major contributions from Bay State natives.

If you're a football fan in Massachusetts and you haven't been on the BC bandwagon lately, now is a great time to jump on, with an improving team and local talent galore.

The Progress of UMass

Speaking of local teams improving, there is some real hope in Amherst that UMass could take the next step and finally get to a bowl game this year. With perhaps his best offense since returning to UMass after the Minutemen moved up to the FBS level, Mark Whipple has slowly built UMass back up, and this may be the year it all comes together.

After winning an FCS national title with UMass and bouncing around the NFL and Power Conference college football, Whipple returned to UMass to find his old team stuck in a rut, playing its conference schedule mostly in the midwest as a member of the MAC, and sitting at 2-22 in its first two seasons of FBS play.

After a pair of 3-9 campaigns treading water in the MAC, UMass was thrown another wrench, and had to go independent, complicating Whipple's job further, as the Minutemen found themselves scheduling major conference teams looking for home wins for a large portion of their schedule.

Despite all that, UMass gave its fans a great deal of hope last season. An 0-6 start would normally have killed any enthusiasm, but near upsets of Hawaii, Ohio and Tennessee showed that UMass wasn't simply getting blown off the field.

Then a 4-2 finish that saw UMass defeat BYU and play with 21st ranked Mississippi State showed fans that the Minutemen can put it all together and win games. With a Week 0 matchup against FCS Duquesne, the Minutemen almost need to win before a three-game road trip takes them to BC, Georgia Southern and Florida International.

Look for the Minutemen to not only be competitive, but also one of college football's most exciting teams, with a high-flying passing game led by senior quarterback Andrew Ford and senior receiver Andy Isabella. Defensively, the cornerback duo of Isaiah Rodgers and Lee Moses should again give UMass a solid secondary, and Leominster native Jarrell Addo returns at linebacker to help lead a rebuilt front-seven.

While there are some question marks, UMass returns practically its entire offense and most of its back-seven on defense. 2018 has "breakout" written all over it for the Minutemen, and it can't be stressed enough how important this year is for an independent team hoping to look more attractive to an expansion-minded conference.

Massachusetts Kids Across College Football

Across the rest of college football, there are definitely some Massachusetts natives I'm going to keep my eye on, now that I'll be on the couch with my remote instead of eating the press box food at Alumni Stadium. The first one that comes to mind is Springfield native Christian Wilkins, who returns to Clemson for another run at a national title and All-American status. Wilkins likely could have been a first round pick in the NFL Draft if he had come out, but he now returns as one of the top defensive linemen in college football, and a graduate student after finishing his undergrad work in just two-and-a-half years.

Speaking of beastly Bay State defensive linemen, Xaverian alum Joe Gaziano broke out to lead the Big Ten with nine sacks last season at Northwestern. Now a fourth-year junior, Gaziano returns as one of the best pass rushers in a loaded conference, and will certainly be a guy NFL scouts will watch closely.

Working alongside Gaziano will be St. Sebastian's alum Blake Gallagher, who enters 2018 battling for a starting spot at outside linebacker for the Wildcats.

Coming back to New England, the UConn Huskies will again be powered on the ground by former Holy Name and Shepherd Hill star Kevin Mensah. The Worcester native exploded onto the scene for the Huskies last year, grabbing the starting running back spot and making huge plays down the stretch. Now with a full year under his belt, expect even bigger things from Mensah in 2018.

Tight end could be a big position to watch for Massachusetts alums in 2018, with Shepherd Hill alum Sean McKeon poised for another stellar season at Michigan, and Leominster alum Noah Gray looking to break through at Duke.

Milton Academy grad Justin Yoon returns for his senior season kicking at Notre Dame, and don't be surprised to see Grafton alum Ifeatu Melifonwu make an impact somewhere in the Syracuse secondary during his redshirt freshman campaign. If FCS is more your speed, All-American wide receiver and Leominster alum Neil O'Connor is looking to improve on his 97 receptions from a year ago, and could hold every relevant New Hampshire receiving mark when all is said and done. 

Mass Natives in the NFL

As I mentioned WAAAAAYYY up in the BC section of this meandering blog, Doherty alum Isaac Yiadom is currently with the Denver Broncos, and should have a chance to make an impact at corner this season. Yiadom has impressed so far this preseason, and is currently listed on Denver's depth chart as the primary understudy for All-Pro corner Chris Harris Jr.

I also just mentioned Ifeatu Melifonwu, but most casual fans are probably more familiar with his older brother Obi, who starred at Grafton and UConn before being drafted by the Raiders.

Unfortunately for the elder Melifonwu, injuries have slowed his young NFL career, as he missed 11 games last season, and a camp injury has kept him out of action for most of this preseason. Elsewhere on the Raiders defense, Xaverian alum Maurice Hurst is enjoying a solid rookie camp. Despite getting drafted out of Michigan in the 5th round due to health concerns, it's clear that Hurst has 1st round talent. The big DT picked up his first sack of the preseason earlier this week against the Rams, and has been praised by coach Jon Gruden for bringing the heat throughout camp.

St. John's (Shrewsbury) alum Richard Rodgers has a new team, as the versatile tight end joined the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent this offseason. Unfortunately, Rodgers too has been nicked up, suffering a knee injury against the Patriots in a preseason game last week.

Does it seem like Central Mass produces an inordinate amount of NFL talent compared to the rest of the state? Well, that's because it does. Despite Eastern Mass' team dominance at the state level, Yiadom, Melifonwu and Rodgers are joined in the NFL by Wachusett alum Tyler Catalina, who caught on with the Redskins after going undrafted out of Georgia and playing three years at Rhode Island. And how about current Ravens fullback Pat Ricard, who starred at David Prouty before starring as a defensive lineman at UMaine?

Those guys are likely to soon be joined by Chris Lindstrom out of BC, which would give Central Mass a half-dozen NFL players in just the past several seasons. Not too shabby.

Of course, if you need a reliable Mass native to watch, you can always just check out veteran kicker and Needham alum Stephen Hauschka. Despite never actually playing for the Rockets' football team (Hauschka was a star soccer player), he found his way onto the football team at Middlebury College (after getting cut from their soccer team). That led to a graduate year kicking at NC State, and a now decade-long NFL career.

Currently kicking for the Buffalo Bills, Hauschka is most known for his time in Seattle, where he won a Super Bowl, and his NFL-record 13 consecutive field goals made from beyond 50 yards.

The Patriots

Yeah, they're gonna be good.

What? You don't come to me for Patriots analysis, but I ain't wrong.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe - You forgot to mention the recent uptick Massachusetts kids who will be playing for Harvard this Fall. Dunlap, Gilmore, Graves, Reagan, Burke, Silva and recent additions Aicardi and Abraham.