In this week's roundtable, we discuss the first matchup since 2010 between teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll, project the Merrimack Valley Conference and Dual County League races, and examine the hidden talents of the Boston City League.
1. OUR FIRST NO. 1 VS. NO. 2 MATCHUP SINCE 2010 GOES DOWN SATURDAY AT EVERETT MEMORIAL STADIUM. WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST KEYS FOR NO. 2 ST. JOHN'S PREP TO TAKE DOWN EVERETT?
Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: We can all thank Dallas Cowboys legend "Bullet" Bob Hayes for inspiring the advent of the zone defense in the 1970's, and we can thank Everett's Jakarrie Washington and Jalen Felix for kick-starting what is sure to be a challenging season for even the most creative defensive coordinators.
In week one, Leominster was able to keep Felix in check, and Washington came up with two back-breaking scores, a 32-yard fade and a 57-yard sweep. Last week at Springfield Central, the Eagles keyed Washington (or so it seemed) and Felix went off to the tune of 211 yards from scrimmage.
It's like watching the Tide's record-breaking 2010 duo of Matt Costello and Manny Asprilla all over again. How do you stop this lethal combination? Great question, because based on the first two weeks there don't seem to be many answers.
The number one thing, I would say, is that Prep has to play ball-control and dictate tempo. With their smash-mouth run-oriented attack, and arguably the state's best Class of 2014 prospect in running back Jonathan Thomas, physicality is not an issue. If they went to make a difference, they're going to have to get into the teeth of the Crimson Tide early and be physical with Everett's receivers. Let these skill guys hang in space, and with the time already being bought by the state's hefitest line, you can buy quarterback Gilly De Souza enough time to look like John Elway back there.
Prep has the sword. The trick will be swinging it.
Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: It all comes down to this much-hyped Prep defense.
Can the state's potential No. 1 defensive unit keep the Crimson Tide in check? Or at least under 30 (that could give them a chance)? That's a tall task and I'm looking at the Eagles' defensive ends as vital to their game plan on Saturday. The key for Prep will de Tucker Mather and Anthony Bongiorno setting the edges on the defensive line, and they have a tall task against Everett's line. But if the Tide start rolling in the ground game, gaining the outside, it could turn into a long day for the state's Top D.
Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent: There are two main things St. John's Prep must do to take down the king. For one, the Prep's defense has to limit big plays from the Everett offense. The Crimson Tide have been held down at times this season only to find a seam with one of their many speedsters and, before you know it, it's six. The Prep has to force the Tide to sustain drives and make Everett chip away rather than get large chunks.
Second, the Prep offense has to loosen up the Everett defense with the pass. The Eagles have some excellent backs in Alex Moore and Jonathan Thomas, but don't expect them to just run roughshod over the Tide's defense by gashing the middle of the defense right away. Quarterback Jack Sharrio is an effective passer and he needs to loosen up the Everett defense early on to open lanes for the running game to take off.
If the Prep can do those things, there is no reason to believe that the Eagles can't end Everett's 27-game winning streak.
Bruce Lerch, ESPN Boston correspondent: The Prep displayed a pretty dominating defensive effort last week against Central Catholic but Everett is whole other animal to try and contain. SJP is one of the few teams in the state with size, a huge key when facing the Tide's mammoth offensive line. The big question is - do they have the speed to hang with Jakarrie Washington, Jalen Felix and Gilly DeSouza? Not many do, so the Prep will have to find ways to keep those speedsters contained as best they can and take their chances in the trenches. When the Prep has the ball, they have a true weapon in Johnathan Thomas. If Kenny Calaj is sidelined for yet another game, that means Everett is once again playing without its best linebacker and top tackle and Thomas has the type of gamebreaking ability to exploit that. Also, quarterback Jack Sharrio has continued to progress steadily and if he is allowed to open things up a bit through the air, it coul really throw Everett off balance.
Ryan Kilian, founder, New England Prep Stars: It will certainly be a challenge for Prep as Everett has so much team speed and skilled position players. St. John's Prep has a fast and tough defense that has nearly shut out two MVC teams (Dracut and Central Catholic). Offensively they will need to mix up their play calls and avoid the vanilla between the tackles focus. If they can get Jonathan Thomas in space, Alex Moore consistently moving the chains and mix in some Jack Sharrio in and out of the pocket they should compete and possibly take over No. 1.
2. ST. JOSEPH REGIONAL (N.J.) 62, XAVERIAN 0. DISCUSS.
Hall: Can I throw an Officer Barbrady line here, or is our audience too young to appreciate the halcyon days of South Park? "Move along people, nothing to see here."
I mentioned in last week's roundtable that St. Joe's wideout Ricky Jeune was going to be a load to handle. But it sounds like even the backup placekick holder was a load for the Hawks to handle, as Xaverian trailed 55-0 at the half and couldn't even score on SJR's freshman reserves. By all accounts, this sounds like arguably the most talented New Jersey team that the Hawks have ever faced, and one that is in talks as being on par with some of the Garden State powers that compete nationally such as Don Bosco Prep.
I was expecting more out of of a defense that has multiple Division 1 talents, but I guess that was too much. Back in the Bay State, I'm not going to look at this as much more than a severe humbling, and a great lesson in what football is all about in other parts of the country.
Barboza: All that can be gleaned is the discrepancy between the two state's football scenes. St. Joe's is among the best the Garden State has to offer and an eye-opener to the level of competition there. For the Hawks, the good news is, despite the points, it counts only as one loss and last time I checked, St. Joe's hasn't joined the Catholic Conference, so they'll be just fine. Albeit with a little bruised ego in the interim.
Kurkjian: I was in attendance for the first two games between Xaverian and SJR in 2006 and 2007. Both were very competitive games where the Hawks led at halftime each time. I expected SJR to win again this one, but I have to say I was shocked at how much the Green Knights had their way with the X.
Coming into this season, people in New Jersey were hailing this SJR team as the program's best since 2004, when current Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty played for the Green Knights. Well, it looks like they may be right and, at this point, the big parochial powers in New Jersey are way ahead of the top teams in Massachusetts.
As far as Xaverian is concerned, the Hawks simply need to forget about this loss and move on. There isn't another team on their schedule that can do that to them and all of their goals are still achievable.
Lerch: There's really nothing to discuss other than to credit the Hawks for scheduling such a top flight opponent. The score is what it is. Both teams had their starters out of the game during the second quarter, so it really means nothing in the overall scope of things. The best thing it can do for Xaverian is make them hungry to get back on the winning track, which is bad news for Brockton
3. THE MVC AND DCL ARE PERCEIVED TO BE DOWN THIS YEAR. BUT HAVE ANY TEAMS ASSERTED THEMSELVES AS LEAD DOGS AFTER TWO WEEKS?
Hall: The MVC Large is looking like a buzzsaw again, with three teams standing at 2-0 headed into league play, but if there's any team that separated itself it might be Andover. The Golden Warriors blew away rival North Andover in the second half for an impressive 50-35 comeback victory, and last week made easy work of a once-mighty Gloucester squad that appears to still be on the rebound. I expect them to take down Methuen this week, and I expect them to put up big offensive numbers again throughout 2012. Speed is king in the MVC, and the Warriors have three terrific horses to carry that wagon in quarterback C.J. Scarpa and receivers Will Heikkinen and Cam Farnham (Buddy's cousin).
The DCL is shaping up to be an interesting race in both the Large and Small divisions. Lincoln-Sudbury is the prohibitive favorite in the Large, and I initially pegged them as champs during the preseason, but keep an eye on Westford. In spite of its loss to Chelmsford in Week 1, this is another explosive offensive team, led by Justin Mount at quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior runs a 4.6 40-yard dash, and ran for 19 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards last season. Last week against Catholic Memorial, he ran for 214 yards on 10 carries, came up with a goal-line interception, and recovered a fumble.
In the Small division of the DCL, Wayland was the trendy preseason pick, and still are even after the loss to Nauset last week, what with their burly senior class and experienced defense. But keep an eye on Bedford, which currently sits at 2-0 with shootout wins over Westwood (34-18) and Belmont (35-29). I got the chance to watch them over the summer in 7-on-7's, and there is some promise coming through the ranks.
Barboza: I think coming out of the Gillette Stadium 7v7 Championship, Andover's been on my radar as the forerunner in the MVC Large. C.J. Scarpa is a solid quarterback in command of a legitimate offense. And, of course, as we know from looking at MVC scores in the last couple of years, scoring points is something most of its teams do well; Andover can do it with the best of them. I still like Lowell an awful lot though and think it could have a say in the division crown. I'm still sticking with my preseason take that Haverhill will the surprise playoff entrant of the MVC Small, with Tommy Morgan and Chance Brady charging the offense.
In the DCL Large, L-S is simply the cream of the crop. Anything short of another playoff appearance for the Warriors would be a disappointment. In the small, I'm still throwing my weight behind Wayland with tackling machine Matt Devlin leading the defense.
Kurkjian: In the MVC Large, the picture is still a little muddled. Lowell, Andover and Chelmsford have all come out of the gates strong and while Central Catholic did not fare well this past weekend, the Prep will do that to a lot of teams.
In the MVC Small, the best teams right now seem to be Tewksbury, Haverhill and North Andover. All three have a loss but it wouldn't be a shock to see any one of them emerge with the division's playoff berth.
Right now, Lincoln-Sudbury seems poised to repeat in the DCL Large. The Warriors' win over Tewksbury looks a lot more impressive than it did a week ago. Still, you have to keep an eye on Acton-Boxboro and Westford Academy there.
In the DCL Small, Wayland probably has the inside track at this point despite a loss to Nauset over the weekend.
Lerch: If we're talking solely about the Large school division, then the MVC doesn't seem down to me. Three teams stand at 2-0 and Central Catholic's only loss is to the consensus No. 2 team in the state. I think Andover and Chelmsford are probably at the head of the pack but counting out Lowell or Central is something neither of those teams would consider doing. Including the Small, obviously Dracut and Methuen aren't where they have been the last several years but such is life with public school programs. Both teams have tremendous coaches and shouldn't be counted out. Anyone want to bet against North Andover as Casey Walsh continues to gain experience?
Over in the DCL, Div. 1A Super Bowl finalist Lincoln-Sudbury is 2-0, and both Acton-Boxborough and Westford Academy ran into a Chelmsford team that ios off to a terrific start. In the Small, again I find two unbeaten teams, and the preseason division favorite Wayland with a loss to a larger division school in Nauset. And while Concord-Carlisle won't be ripping off another undefeated season, no one wants to see them at the end of the schedule with a possible playoff spot on the line. Seems a little early to me to be writing eiother of these two leagues off just yet.
Kilian: I think there is more balance in the MVC and DCL this year than any year in recent past. I would say that Andover has the edge from the first couple of games in the MVC D1 but Central Catholic and Chelmsford will be right there competing for the league. Nobody does a better job than Tewksbury of surprising teams and media year in and year out. It is time that head coach Brian Aylward gets more credit and attention with the program that he is running over there. He has a smaller team in size and numbers year in and year out and they get the kids to play hard and tough. Their win over Haverhill proves that they should be at the top again in the MVC D2. Keep an eye on newcomer North Andover as well as the season develops.
The DCL Large leader right now is Lincoln-Sudbury but Westford Academy could be there team to beat when all is said and done if they can keep Justin Mount healthy and running hard all season. The Thanksgiving game between L-S and Westford could be the determining factor this season. The DCL Small race is also a tight one as Concord-Carlisle has a lot to overcome with graduation and critical injuries. As their young players get more experience they should be there again at the end with a fight from Boston Latin, Weston and even a veteran Bedford team.
4. LET THE HYPE BUILD NOW. SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL FACES LONGMEADOW ON OCTOBER 12 IN ARGUABLY THE BATTLE OF THE YEAR IN WESTERN MASS. BASED ON HOW EACH TEAM PLAYED LAST WEEKEND OUTSIDE THE REGION, WHO SHOULD BE THE FAVORITE?
Hall: My understanding is that Central was a couple of dropped passes away from making its game with Everett even more interesting. Cody Williams has grown up a lot since he last faced the Eagles, and in my book 20-of-31 for 227 yards against the Tide might as well be 25-of-30 for 350 against about 90 percent of the state.
Longmeadow, meanwhile, did not look so convincing in the loss to St. John's of Shrewsbury. The Lancers had the far bigger team, and typically excel at confusing the defense at the point of attack with all of their backfield motion and dive handoffs. But the Pioneers' front four fired off the ball quicker, and most of the time were able to decipher the direction of the play quickly. I know the Wing-T by nature doesn't exactly lend itself to an exotic passing game, but the Lancers did not fare well through the air. Then again, they're playing with a running back under center right now, too.
I'm going to give Central a one-point edge right now just based on the early returns. The Eagles fought off a very tough Putnam squad, and gave the No. 1 team in the state everything it could handle. The Lancers have one blowout win over Chicopee Comp and an uninspiring loss. This will still be a slugfest come October.
Kurkjian: Purely based on this past weekend, Central might be a slight favorite. From what some of the Everett folks said, Central quarterback Cody Williams has made some big strides and the Crimson Tide had their hands full for a half. Central also should have the confidence that it can beat Longmeadow after taking down the Lancers last regular season.
Still, this should be a close game either way.
Jay King, Sports Producer, MassLive.com: Longmeadow is the favorite in WMass, mostly because Longmeadow is always the favorite in WMass. But I think the past weekend dispelled any pre-existing notion that the Lancers should be considered a clear favorite to win the regional Super Bowl. Central’s Cody Williams has progressed significantly since his sophomore season, adding five inches, 35 pounds and a knowledge of the quarterback position that makes him one of the least mistake-prone signal-callers around. Williams finished 20 for 31 for 227 yards and one touchdown even while running for his life from Everett’s line, which averages more than 300 pounds. His lone interception came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. The Golden Eagles are athletic and deep, but it’s Williams’ progression that makes them especially dangerous.
While Williams was electric in a loss to Everett, Longmeadow was less so against St. John’s. The Lancers’ defense looked a step slow, failing to force a punt until the fourth quarter while allowing 432 yards of total offense. Granted, that was against a St. John’s offense with weapons galore and a quarterback, Andrew Smiley, who didn’t seem to miss a single throw. But Longmeadow looked vulnerable against speed, an issue that could potentially be the Lancers’ downfall against Central, especially if the Golden Eagles continue to air it out like they did against Everett.
Longmeadow is still the favorite, with a deep senior class studded with experience, talent and size. But Central’s not far behind, if it is behind at all.
5. THERE MAY NOT BE A RON STONE OR A JERMAINE WIGGINS COMING OUT OF THE BOSTON CITY LEAGUE THIS YEAR. BUT ARE THERE ANY HIDDEN TALENTS?
Hall: The perception about football talent in the Boston area is that it is dictated from the suburbs in, rather than the city out like practically every other major metropolitan area in the United States.
Noting that axiom, my sentiment is that the trend of hoopstars-turned-NFLers like Julius Peppers, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham will continue (the Raiders drafted a shooting guard from Cal State-Fullerton last spring, for instance), and at the high school level that will have a trickle-down effect within city limits. Boston City League basketball players already get a ton of exposure -- and will probably get even more now, with the newly-aligned "City A" division expected to be the state's most competitive this winter -- but in college basketball you are recruiting for 12 scholarships, as opposed to 85 in Division 1 FBS football.
With these things in mind, you might see more basketball players giving the gridiron a shot. One example is Brighton's Prince Unaegbu, a power forward on the Bengals' basketball team that made its first MIAA Division 2 state final appearance in school history last March. Unaegbu goes about 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and plays the edge on defense -- who doesn't at least keep loose tracks on a kid like that?
But my sleeper pick here, as it pertains to the question, is New Mission's Isshiah Coleman. He is 6-foot-5 with long arms, and plays power forward on the Titans' basketball squad, where he has already won two state titles. Head basketball coach Cory McCarthy has nicknamed him "Plastic Man", and last winter a City League coach told me he watched Coleman jump over someone's head to block a shot.
In his first varsity action in Mission's first-ever varsity game two weeks ago, a 36-0 loss to Dorchester, Coleman had 12 tackles and a sack, alternating between safety and defensive end. Offensively, coach Mike Pittman has coleman playing mostly wide receiver. And with a reported 38-inch vertical leap -- again, who wouldn't want to at least monitor him loosely?
Barboza; Unaegbu is the one worth watching. If the NFL has taught us anything recently (Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul, et al), it that there will be a place for long and lean defensive ends with monster (wait for it here, BHall) WINGSPAN (Jay Bilas just went crazy). With college and pro offensive tackles getting taller and taller, emphasis has been placed on the defensive ends' ability to hold and then shake their blocker. If Unaegbu's keeps growing upward, he might grow himself out of the game. But if he were to hang some weight on his frame, college coaches might want to keep the name in the back of their minds.
Kurkjian: Early on, there may not be a more valuable player to his team than Latin Academy's Kyle Dance. In two games, both close wins, including an overtime decision over South Boston the first week, Dance has combined for three touchdown runs and three scoring passes. Only a junior, Dance is a player worthy of keeping an eye on.
Lerch: While numbers seem to be dwindling across the board in the city, there are still athletes and we're bound to see a few stars rise up between now and December. On defense, you have to like Brighton's Prince Unaegbu, a 6-6, 240-pound terror off the end. New Mission may struggle in its inaugural season but what football coach wouldn't jump at the chance to see what he could with a 6-foot-6 receiver like Nate Anderson?
6. BARNSTABLE CURRENTLY LEADS THE STATE IN POINTS PER GAME (55). WHERE DO THEY RANK ON YOUR LIST OF MOST EFFICIENT OFFENSES?
Hall: Obviously scoring 110 points in eight quarters is nothing to be ashamed of, but consider the oppoents they came against. Durfee has forever been a doormat in the South Coast region, and Dennis-Yarmouth is down after graduating its most talented senior class in school history. Sandwich traditonally gives the Red Raiders a hard time, but I want to see the Week 4 tussle with Everett before I anoint anyone king.
That said, the Raiders are up there with the best of them. They dial up some terrific play-calling designed to get Dylan Morris, Tedaro France and Hayden Murphy in space -- Morris, in particular, runs some crisp routes and is one of the smarter receivers around. It also doesn't hurt to have Nick Peabody, a legitimiate Division 1 talent, leading the way at quarterback.
Any discussion about offense right now has to obviously include the aforementioned Everett, but take a look at Natick and Weymouth in the Bay State Conference. Natick sophomore Brian Dunlap led the league in receiving as a freshman last year, and is off to another great start, while David Harrison has emerged as a big-play threat for Weymouth. Also don't forget about Minnechaug, which has tweaked its "Air Raid" principles after graduating one of its most talented quarterbacks ever, but blew out Silver Lake in Week 1 and is averaging nearly 45 points per game.
Barboza: I don't know if efficient is so much the term as is methodical. I know Dennis-Yarmouth isn't quite what it was a year ago, but the Dolphins still had plenty at stake with their backyard rivals on Friday, and the Red Raiders threw it into overdrive -- again. Yeah, the competition hasn't been the best, but this team will put up points every week with ease. Peabody's only improved in his play week-to-week, beginning when he took over for D.J. Crook against New Bedford last year. The X-factor to me is Hayden Murphy, who can bring a power running element to their run-and-shoot and can also operate out of some Wildcat looks.
Kurkjian: Hard to argue against Barnstable right now, although a few other teams deserve mention. Duxbury looks like it will be able to score a lot of points again this year and probably would have had more against Bridgewater-Raynham the first week if not for some self-inflicted errors. North Attleboro has moved the ball seemingly at will against two quality opponents to start the season. However, if there is one team that probably has the best case right now, you might have to go with Andover. The Golden Warriors are looking dominant through the air right now. Don't look for their offense to slow down anytime soon.