SHREWSBURY -– The Leominster Blue Devils’ Super Bowl championship over rival St. John’s of Shrewsbury last December at Gillette Stadium has kicked off a sort of football revival in the Pioneer Plastics City.
Long considered one of the state’s richest traditions, the Blue Devils had gone a decade without a Super Bowl title before first-year coach Dave Palazzi breathed some new life into the program last fall. Once again, Blue Devil football is all the rage.
Just ask St. John’s wide receiver John Giacoppe, a Leominster resident who has to listen to it every day.
“Leominster is a football town, no doubt about it,” said Giacoppe, a senior co-captain. “But it just makes me want to work harder. I haven’t beaten them yet, freshman, JV, varsity, so I just want to beat them.”
Or ask his buddy, quarterback Connor Kurtz, a resident of neighboring Lunenburg. In addition to passing leagues and various camps this summer, often the two would call each other up and go throw on the FieldTurf at Lunenburg High.
“We just sneak on, I guess,” Kurtz chuckled.
The difference in last year’s fateful ending at Gillette was speed, with the Blue Devils exploiting the perimeters and stretching the field. This year, the Pioneers seem to have a good amount of speed returning, conditioned enough that head coach John Andreoli is opting for a no-huddle “blur” offense, similar to the style you see in college programs such as Oregon.
In evaluating the fitness level of his skill players, Andreoli was pleased with the 40-yard dash times of some of this most integral returning varsity -– including running back Shadrach Abrokwah, who reportedly has run a 4.5 hand-timed 40 -– prompting his decision.
“I think it’s familiarity with the offense, the ability to use multiple personnel groups, and just being able to run this offense on the fly,” Andreoli said. “It’s keeping it simple, but being able to execute it, hoping you catch the defense tired, one or two guys that miss a play. If we can take advantage of that, hopefully we can score.”
We’ll have a better idea of the offense after tomorrow morning’s annual scrimmage with Brockton, but the possibilities of this offense are intriguing, In the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Abrokwah –- who is expected to take the lead role after spelling Sean Wilson a year ago –- the Pioneers have a unique blend of speed, above-average leg strength, body lean and a low center of gravity that could be difficult to wrap up cleanly.
“He turns the corner and he’s just got powerful legs,” Andreoli said. “He is a kid who’s just going to be very exciting this year in the running game, because he’s just a powerful runner that has a great instinct for where the holes are going to be. In our zone scheme, we give him leeway to run the ball where he gets an opening, and when he hits the opening and gets those shoulders upfield, he just has an explosive step that just kinda of puts him into another gear.
“If he has contact, it’s going to have to be a pretty good shot, because he’s got that low center of gravity and powerful legs that just keep going.”
At quarterback, the 5-foot-11 Kurtz is the assumed incumbent, but could get a challenge this preseason from Andrew Smiley, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior with some quick feet. The two are splitting snaps under center, a competition not unlike the one in 2009 when Griffin Murphy and future Fordham quarterback Dan Light were dueling it out.
One of the most intriguing developments, at least in the long-term will be that of sophomore Davon Jones. He got a load of time at free safety last season as a freshman; both he and fellow 2015 Taquar Stewart (who has since moved to Georgia) are the only freshmen to ever get time with the varsity under Andreoli.
“I can’t wait to see how he turns out as a senior,” Kurtz said.
Jones, also one of the MIAA’s top young combo guards in basketball, will see additional duty as a slot receiver this year. The ceiling is set high for him, with Andreoli going so far as to say “If he continues to develop the way he develops, the way he’s playing now, he’s got the ability to play at the highest level” of college football.
“If you look at where he was a year ago, when we plugged him into the Brockton scrimmage as a 14-year-old freshman…you could tell he was a 14-year-old kid playing against some pretty strong kids,” Andreoli said. “But now, when you look at where he’s come in the last 12 months, he’s as mature a player and as physical a guy as anyone that’s been playing for four years.
“He’s made tremendous strides, he’s a special kid, he’s a great athlete, he’s physical, he’s got a good nose for the ball and he’s a competitor. He’s going to be an impact player this year.”
ST. JOHN’S AT A GLANCE
2011: 8-5, Lost in Division 1 Central Super Bowl
Coach: John Andreoli (9th year, 74-23)
Key Returnees: Shadrach Abrokwah, Sr. RB/LB, 5-8, 205 lbs.; Connor Kurtz, Sr. QB, 5-11, 180 lbs.; John Giacoppe, Sr. WR, 6-2, 190 lbs.; Barron Dandridge, Sr. LB, 6-1, 195 lbs.; Davon Jones, Soph. WR/S, 6-0, 180 lbs.; Jim Andreoli, Sr. WR/LB, 6-1, 196 lbs.; Kyle Roy, Sr. OLB, 5-11, 185 lbs.; Andrew Sullivan Sr. DT/DE, 6-2, 235 lbs.; Micah Cummins, Sr. WR, 5-11, 170 lbs.; Mike Griffin, Sr. C, 6-2, 200 lbs.; Andrew Smiley, Jr. QB, 6-4, 195 lbs.
Strengths: Conditioning, team speed, skill positions, depth at quarterback.
Outlook: In evaluating his personnel at the skill positions, Andreoli determined the best way to utilize his talent is with a no-huddle “Blur” offense, most famously used by Chip Kelly’s Oregon Ducks. The Pioneers went with some no-huddle in their 2010 Super Bowl championship year, but nothing like this. “As a defensive coach, I know it presents problems for you,” Andreoli said. “We want to take advantage of that, with the kids that we have and the shape that we think we need to be in to play the schedule we play.” Taking over for Sean Wilson as the feature back will be Abrokwah, a unique blend of speed and lower-body strength who could be difficult to square up on. There is an interesting battle at quarterback right now, with the incumbent Kurtz getting competition from Smiley, and the guess here is one of them could move to the slot. Buzz is beginning to build around Jones, who started at free safety as a freshman and will be another able slot receiver, with Andreoli saying he has potential to play "at the highest level" of college ball. Defensively, the 4-3 mentality remains unchanged, but they must replace key pieces in the front seven. The secondary, as usual, should be among the best out west of I-495.