Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools editor
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Isaac Yiadom, Sr. WR/DB, Doherty -Caught some eyes with his commitment to BC in March, and the hype is warranted. Expect the versatile athlete to fill multiple roles as the Highlanders seek a D4 Central title.
Tom Rodrick, Sr. FB/LB, Leicester -Turned in a volcanic campaign last fall for the Wolverines, leading the team in tackles (92) and sacks (14). At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, this kid is a specimen.
Jarell Addo, Sr. TE/FS, Leominster - Reportedly recorded a 42-inch vertical leap at a combine in New York back in April. The athletic potential with the lanky 6-foot-2 safety is high, and he is a violent downhill pursuant in run support – just watch some of his highlights from last year’s game against Everett.
Rory Donovan, Sr. TE/FS, Cardinal Spellman -A unique matchup problem for his size and versatility, expect the 6-foot-6 Donovan to fill multiple roles even in a system as conservative as Ron St. George’s Wing-T.
Cody Williams, Sr. QB, Springfield Central -More than the natural gifts, more than the impressive arm strength and accuracy, it’s the winning poise (20-3 as a starter) and the ornery chip on his shoulder (in a good way, of course) that inspires colorful narrative with this kid.
STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. Pistol packed: One of the most remarkable transformations for 2012 happened at Plymouth South, which switched to a pistol scheme with Wing-T principles and produced their first playoff appearance in school history. Running back Dylan Oxsen went from a meddling backup in 2011 to the state’s leader in rushing touchdowns (40) last fall, earning a spot on ESPN Boston’s All-State Team in the process.
A decade ago, the success of spread-based college teams like Texas Tech, Florida and West Virginia had a dramatic trickle-down effect to the high schools. As we sat last year and watched quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III achieve NFL superstardom running the pistol, I wonder now how many high school teams will install elements of the system over the next few years. Nevada has run it at the college level for over a decade, with consistent success. Plymouth South proved last year it can make you an instant contender if executed right.
2. Heightened activity at The Heights - If there were one word to describe Steve Addazio’s stint so far as head coach of Boston College, it would be this: energy. The man hit the ground running when he took the job in December, and he hasn’t stopped since, already stockpiling a Top 25 recruiting class for 2014. That includes an eye-popping seven commitments from Massachusetts – a state that typically produces 10-12 Division 1 FBS signees a year – and he may not be done, with several of the state’s top prospects still on the board.
Addazio’s energy, in turn, has created a frenzy. By Bay State standards, this is has been one of the most active offseasons of recruiting in some time, with the three New England FBS programs (BC, UConn, UMass) scavenging the state thoroughly to unearth previously-unseen talent. Couple that with the ACC, which is seeing more of its schools checking out Massachusetts prospects; Syracuse, long a steady miner of the area, digging in again; and the Big Ten, which is starting to pop up more frequently following the sudden recruitment of Everett’s Jakarrie Washington to Wisconsin; and you have a much wider cornucopia of suitors than even as little as five years ago.
Last fall, after the MIAA general assembly passed a landmark state championship proposal that radically altered the landscape, I mused that this could lead to more kids from Massachusetts earning scholarships. As it turns out, there is no correlation between the two; plain and simple, college programs seem to have become stronger in their convictions that there is talent to be found up here.
3. Can the Pioneers rebound? St. John’s of Shrewsbury took the state by storm last season with its “Blur” offense, modeled after the one Chip Kelly ran at Oregon. Quarterback Andrew Smiley, thrust into the starting role due to injury, dazzled in his first year under center (4,146 total yards, 35 TD), directing an offense that led the state in yards per game (442.2) to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors. And just as the Ducks’ offense evolved under Kelly, adding new ripples each week, one has to figure the Pioneers will too.
But as good as the offense was, the defense was somewhat forgettable. Four times the Pioneers surrendered 39 points or more to the opposition, including a 51-46 loss to cross-town rival Shrewsbury. Really, there is no place to go but up for them, and the good news is they have one of the state’s best defensive backs in junior free safety Davon Jones (96 tackles, five interceptions, five forced fumbles).
Looming over all of it is the Leominster machine, which St. John’s can’t seem to get around. Since Dave Palazzi took over in 2011, the Blue Devils are 4-0 against the Pioneers, including two Super Bowl matchups. If St. John’s is to get over the hump – they’ll open the season in Leominster – the defense is going to need to make a significant improvement.
4. Diamonds in the rough: Last year, local Division 1 colleges dipped into the Cape & Islands region to complete their recruiting classes. UMass plucked mammoth tight end Terrel Correia out of remote Nantucket High, while a number of other products from Barnstable, Dennis-Yarmouth, Mashpee and Nauset went to FCS and FBS schools as either scholarship athletes or walk-ons. What region of the state, if any, could be this year’s answer to the Cape?
One area to consider is Worcester County. Doherty’s Isaac Yiadom was one of BC’s first commits for the 2014 class, and now stock seems to be taking off for Leicester’s Tom Rodrick; plus, a number of Leominster athletes could see themselves filling spots on FBS or FCS rosters. Another area to consider is the city of Springfield, which is seeing activity pick up for a number of Central recruits, while several Putnam and Commerce products may still intrigue others.
5. Not Done Yet: Graduation has taken a toll on proud programs such as Barnstable – or has it? Barnstable graduated a huge class from one of its best squads ever, a team that sat for seven weeks as the No. 1 team the state and lost a 20-19 thriller to Everett in the D1A Super Bowl. But athlete Hayden Murphy, an All-State contender, returns, with his set position still unsettled. The Red Raiders also added Catholic Conference powers BC High and Xaverian to their schedule, which suggests that perhaps head coach Chris Whidden has some up-and-coming talent we don’t know about.
Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Isaiah Douglas, Sr. RB, Bishop Feehan – A key cog to the Shamrocks’ Division 3A Super Bowl victory last year, expect the shifty runner to put up monster numbers this year.
Jack Galvin, Sr. WR/OLB, Lowell – Galvin was among the statewide touchdown receptions leaders last year with eight.
C.J. Parvelus, Sr. LB, Everett – Might have been the Crimson Tide’s defensive MVP in the second half of 2012, highlighted by Parvelus’ three-sack performance in a win over Xaverian.
Andrew Smiley, Sr. QB, St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – In his season as a starter, Smiley just so happened to set a Central Mass. record with 3,123 passing yards. Who knows what the U.S. Naval Academy lacrosse commit will accomplish this year?
Shawn Whitaker, Sr. T, Bridgewater-Raynham – The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tackle is just the latest in a long line of terrific road-grading run blockers with the Trojans.
STORYLINES TO WATCH
- Who’s the Catholic Conference challenger? I think all of us pundits have anointed St. John’s Prep as the preseason favorite in the Catholic Conference — perhaps, overall in the state as well — in the preseason. But the rest of the conference also finished with sub-.500 records in 2012 while the Eagles ran away with the title en route to the Division 1 Super Bowl championship. Can Catholic Memorial’s defense led by BC commit Kevin Bletzer slow down the pack? Will BC High be able to fill the multiple skill position voids from graduation? To what extent will Xaverian’s talented group of rising underclassmen be able to contribute?
-An added benefit to realignment? While detractors have implied that the new playoff system will belittle the meaning of Thanksgiving Day rivalries, let’s pause to look at the flip side and what can develop from the new deal. In addition to maintaining traditional rivalries, we’re also going to be introduced to new must-see matchups. Consider Division 2 South, which figures to be one of the most competitive sections in the state during the upcoming season. Mix in elements from the Bay State, Hockomock, Old Colony and the Patriot, and you’re bound to watch a few new traditions grow from a the current mix of potential postseason showdowns. Not only will league games maintain importance – with the ability to fight for the bragging rights that come with league championships – each and every week counts in the postseason hunt. And, once we get to the postseason, we’re in store for games worthy of being played year and year again.
Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Bo ston correspondent
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Charlie Aylward, Catholic Memorial - Overshadowed a bit by BC commit and teammate Kevin Bletzer, this Catholic Conference All-Star is an underrated talent at middle linebacker.
Kyle Dance, Latin Academy - This isn't just the best player in the Boston City League. Dance, a quarterback and defensive back, would be a standout anywhere.
Ryan Martin, Bridgewater-Raynham - It isn't often that B-R has a player with wheels like this wide receiver and kick returner, but Martin, a senior, can really fly.
Alex Quintero, Lowell - A disruptive force at defensive end, Quintero was an all-MVC selection last year and is part of one of the more athletic defenses in the state.
Terrence Thorpe, Brockton - This 6-foot-3, 250-pound lineman with great feet didn't start last year for the Boxers but he would have on a lot of teams. Expect a big year.
STORYLINES TO WATCH
- How the new playoff format takes hold. It has both its legitimate pluses and legitimate concerns. How it all plays out will be intriguing, to say the least.
- Will BC High and Xaverian bounce back? Both had uncharacteristic losing seasons last year and lost a fair amount of talent. The thought here though is each program will find its footing again.
- The Waltham resurgence. After falling off a bit in previous years, the Hawks finished strong last season and return some real nice pieces along the line of scrimmage.
- Mansfield's trip to Dunbar (Md.). If you get excited for out-of-state games, this is the one to keep an eye on. The Hornets will have their hands full with Dunbar's team speed, but Mike Redding always seems to have his charges well-prepped for a good road trip.
- A way-too-early prediction on your six champions:
D1 - St. John's Prep
D2 - Reading
D3 - Walpole
D4 - Doherty
D5 - Auburn
D6 - Millis/Hopedale
John Botelho, ESPN Boston coreespondent
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Dylan Oxsen, Plymouth South - His junior campaign was something that seemed out of a movie, and might be hard for him to improve on. After being banged up his sophomore year, he produced just three scores. Then he matched that total in a season-opening win over East Bridgewater, and never looked back as he erupted for 40 scores. The junior led the Panthers to their first ACL crown, their first playoff appearance, and nearly led them past Natick in the playoffs. He's still uncommitted, but has garnered pretty strong interest since last season ended. Picking up a scholarship offer and/or leading the Panthers to the promised land could certainly send him out in a way that would surpass what he did a season ago.
2. David Harrison, Weymouth - The Wildcats have had an explosive offense the last few years, and Harrison was one of the biggest reasons why a year ago, serving as a do-everything weapon for the Bay State champs. With Ozzy Colarsusso gone, his role will be even bigger this year. It will be interesting to see how many ways Kevin Mackin can use him, since he saw time as a quarterback, receiver, running back, defensive back, and return-man a season ago.
3. Matt Kilmain, Abington - As the Green Wave rolled to their first every undefeated Super Bowl season a year ago, Kilmain was part of a lethal three-headed backfield with seniors Babila Fonkem and Jack Malafronte. The trio rushed for nearly 3,000 yards while sharing the workload. The Green Wave also graduated star quarterback Brandon Cawley, meaning Kilmain will be the focal point this season. Kilmain erupted in the playoffs, totaling more than 400 yards and four scores. All four scores showed how deadly he could be if got into space, as the shortest score was from 42 yards out.
4. Aaron Leclair, Brockton - Was a big part of everything the Boxers did last season -- he was a top running back, a skilled defensive player and their leading return man. He is a special athlete who could add his name to Brockton lore if he steps into a leadership role left vacant by the graduation of guys like Austin Roberts or Micah Morel. Morel was a Swiss Army Knife for the Boxers last season, and while LeClair will have a hard time matching his presence in the secondary on defense, he is a more dynamic offensive player.
5. Sean McCarthy, Duxbury - As a junior quarterback he helped the Dragons rattle off an unbeaten regular season, rushing for seven scores and throwing eight more. With Jon Hurvitz graduated, the offense will depend on what McCarthy is capable of this season. A 6-1, 185-pounder, who is equal parts thrower and runner, McCarthy gives coach Dave Maimaron an important front line piece toward building another impressive offense.
STORYLINE TO WATCH
I think the story we're all excitedly looking forward to is the new playoffs. For a long time, people have complained about everything that was wrong with the previous system, and we'll finally get state wide champs, we'll finally get the very best match-ups in the title game and we'll finally get to see more teams play in the playoffs. This season might be the most important one in state history in terms of football, because it could start to dictate the landscape of football as we know it going forward.