LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Thoughts and observations from this afternoon's scrimmage at Doyle Field between host No. 7 Leominster and No. 13 Natick:
Air Raid: In three series of varsity on varsity, each offense reached the end zone three times, all of them coming through the air, giving the scrimmage an almost Arena League feel at times. Five of the scores were of 45 yards or more; the other score, a 25-yard strike from Natick's Troy Flutie to Brian Dunlap, was preceded by a 45-yard bomb to Miguel Rodriguez, in which the receiver was wide open through broken coverage but had to stop and get beneath the underthrown ball.
Where to start? There are a few things to take out of this aerial assault.
First, it should be noted that five regular Natick starters were out to injury, including junior wideout Alex Hilger, and the Red Hawks showed some rust early as a result. They'll be going to a no-huddle, four-receiver look once again, using trips and double-slot formations designed to get their top playmakers in space and open up the zone read game with Flutie and returning 1,000-yard rusher Nick Lee. Making it all flow evenly is Dunlap, only a sophomore but already considered one of the state's best route-runners.
Dunlap scored twice for the Red Hawks, once on the aforementioned 25-yard strike to the near left pylon, and again on a 70-yard bubble screen. Although Flutie gave Dunlap a good lead on his throw, Natick's perimeter blocking wasn't crisp in setting up the screen -- but Dunlap blew by everyone anyways.
As a freshman last season, the 6-foot Dunlap caught 69 balls for 1,172 yards and 14 touchdowns, all best in the Bay State Conference. With plays like that, he could be in for another big season.
"He's just so precise on his routes," Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli said. "He seems to always make the right cuts. His work ethic is unbelievable. He steadily improves just because of how hard he works. He can't help but get better really."
At the other end, the connection between Leominster quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie and junior receiver Neil O'Connor will be worth paying attention to, as the pair clicked for two scores. The first came on a middle screen, in which O'Connor followed the screen up the right hashmark then cut back to the middle for a 58-yard scamper. On the second touchdown, O'Connor ran a post down the left seam, and took advantage after a cornerback crashed on a wheel route the other way for a 45-yard strike.
The Blue Devils present a more traditional offensive look, alternating between the I Formation and shotgun formations with three or four-receiver sets, but O'Connor will be a centerpiece of this look.
"We're working him at some receiver," Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi said. "They [Natick] had some breakdowns [in coverage], so he was wide open, but he had good run after the catch, and that's what we want out of him."
Growing Pains: Leominster graduated nine starters on defense, returning just O'Connor and junior linebacker Jason Valera from last year's Division 1 Super Bowl Champion squad. The pass coverage is still working out the kinks -- they gave up gains of 50, 65 and 70, two of them for scores -- but there were also some positives. On Natick's third play from scrimmage, junior James Gurley broke for the left sideline and jumped a downfield route for a diving interception. In Natick's next offensive series, O'Connor closed on a wide-open receiver and used his fingertips to break up a would-be touchdown strike over the deep middle.
On the offensive line, Leominster figures to average about 210 pounds across, lighter in comparison to some of the state's other top squads, and they were beaten at times in pass protection.
"We haven't gone over a lot of our pass schemes, as far as passes are concerned," Palazzi said. "So that stuff we'll go over more and more tomorrow and Friday. But you've got to block people. It was 'run for your life' last year for Garrett against Everett [in Week 1], it really was, and we can't have that. We've got to fix that."
Applying pressure: On the other side of that, Mortarelli was pleased with how his front seven set the edge defensively. Mike Dunlap and Justin Montgomery brought pressure from the outside linebacker spots, while defensive end Ross Braymon gave the Leominster's line a good run in the third series, beating the left tackle for a sack and a hurry in consecutive plays.
"We tackled better than we have, so I'm excited about that," Mortarelli said. "But still, the big plays, that's what sticks with me, is how we gave up those three big plays."