1. AFTER PUTTING UP EXPLOSIVE NUMBERS AGAINST TOP 10 OPPONENTS IN BACK-TO-BACK WEEKS, IS THERE ANY DEFENSE THAT CAN STOP ST. JOHN'S PREP RUNNING BACK JOHNATHAN THOMAS?
Brendan Hall: The gut reaction is, in short, no. But pay attention two Saturdays from now, when No. 5 Everett comes to Cronin Stadium for their annual showdown with Prep. In the B-R game, there were times where Trojan linebackers got a great jump off the snap and were able to stuff Thomas either for a loss or short yardage. Against Everett, the Eagles will have to gameplan for the unique skill set of defensive tackle Josh Palmer. The 5-foot-10 Palmer provides a unique matchup not seen often -- built like a running back, low to the ground, shooting interior gaps with speed rush moves.
It will be interesting to see how they attack Palmer -- maybe a chip, a double or even submarine him with a cut block -- and if Everett can control the interior gaps, they can make things uncomfortable. Plus, I don't know what Everett coach John DiBiaso's record is in games coming off a bye week, but it's got to be Belichick-like.
Scott Barboza: In not so many words, no. It’s no indictment on any of the opposing groups, but let’s just call it like it is and say that Thomas is a special talent primed for a ridiculous kind of season. I would say, if any of the teams on Prep’s schedule are equipped to do so, I think Everett and Xaverian would be best suited. I like the Crimson Tide’s C.J. Parvelus in run support; he plays a physical game and has the size to try to take Thomas down. Also, I think Xaverian’s ends -– Nick Colantuoni and Joe Gaziano -– are big and rugged enough off the edge to contain Thomas. But flat out stopping? I don’t think that’s about to happen.
Chris Bradley: There is no stopping Johnny Thomas, the best thing that opposing defenses can hope to do is contain him as well as possible and hope that they can frustrate him or wear him down. He’s rated as one of the nation’s best running backs for a reason: not only does he carry the ball like he was shot out of a cannon, he’s also crafty and possesses the strength to shake off most any tackler he’ll see in the MIAA.
Mike Abelson: I don't think there is a defense that can stop Thomas, but B-R showed that slowing him down might be the best possible outcome. He's going to get his touches, and he's going to get his yards; it's just a matter of if those rushes go for 5 and 6 or 15 and 25.
John Botelho: Bridgewater-Raynham has flashed arguably the best defense in the state through the first two weeks, and Johnathan Thomas ran wild on them despite Prep's loss in that one. He's very clearly the best player in the state, and keeping right around the century mark for yards would be a huge win for any team at this point. Everett might have the best shot at containing him a bit because of their athletic linebacking corps, but realistically, there's not a defense out there that can completely take him out. If you count B-R among the state's best -- and keeping Duxbury's offense out of the endzone for the first time in a decade should warrant that -- then what will Thomas be capable of against less elite opposition? Simply put, expect video game numbers from him every week.
2. WHICH TEAMS CAN LEAST AFFORD AN 0-2 START?
Hall: After Friday's battle with Weymouth, Brockton's final five opponents are Catholic Memorial, BC High, Xaverian, New Bedford and Durfee. At least two of those look like guaranteed victories, and the Boxers have a realistic shot in all five of those games. This a team that was going to take a bit to get going, with a promising-looking finished product, so they simply need to do enough to get in. Attleboro and Franklin's hot starts have made the D1 South bracket a bit steeper than anticipated, but the Boxers will be fine.
It gets interesting with Barnstable. After this weekend's clash with BC High, they face Xaverian, Marshfield, New Bedford, Bridgewater-Raynham and Dartmouth. Like Brockton, there's a lot of winnable games on that slate, but I'm not as confident in the Red Raiders as I am in the Boxers. Their front seven got exposed in the season-opening blowout loss to Dennis-Yarmouth, and their offense remains a work in progress.
Plus, they're in a D2 South field with Natick, Mansfield, Taunton, King Philip, Duxbury and Needham. Making this field -- already the toughest in the state -- even stiffer is the emergence of Braintree and Quincy in the season's earlygoings. If the Raiders don't win on Friday, they've got a lot of ground to make up.
Barboza: First and foremost is Needham. For a team that began the season in our Top 25 poll, the Rockets could quickly find themselves in dire straits in a deep Division 2 South if they lose to Bay State rival No. 12 Walpole. Also, a couple of teams in Division 2 North in North Andover and Waltham, will hope to avoid a winless start. Both received a decent amount of buzz in the preseason as dark horses in the division.
Bradley: I’d say St. John’s of Shrewsbury, especially one week after a heartbreaking loss to archrival Leominster. The Pioneers, for playoff points’ sake, really could use a win over Catholic Memorial this weekend before they start their slate of Central Mass. games. With a loss this weekend, the Pioneers would have to win outright in order to ensure a good playoff seed. They’ll see plenty of CMass teams going for their neck the rest of the way: Fitchburg, Nashoba, Shrewsbury, Wachusett, and Marlborough.
Abelson: Beverly's already 0-2, but if they go to 0-3 after Friday's North Andover game there's no room for error the rest of the season. The loss to Haverhill was tough because much of it was due to unforced errors. The loss to Danvers was a headscratcher. Giving up 300-plus yards on the ground isn't typical Beverly. They'll need to find the mojo under the lights against NA this weekend.
John McGuirk: I think St. John's of Shrewsbury can ill-afford to open the year at 0-2. They travel to Catholic Memorial Friday night. Last year the Pioneers went to West Roxbury and struggled against the Knights before coming away with a tight 21-6 victory. The biggest concern once again is lies on the defense. Against Leominster last week, the Pioneers front line had difficulty containing the run, especially around the edge, and the secondary surrendered several big gains through the air _ many coming on third and fourth down. That was the same issue they endured last year. Another concern was St. John's offensive line which had problems picking up the blitz and thus forcing quarterback Drew Smiley to scramble out of the pocket all night long.
Botelho: I think Weymouth is going to want to avoid the 2-0 start more than anyone, but they'll have no easy task this week against Brockton. In the uber-competitive Bay State Conference, one off night is generally enough to not win the league, so these teams need to pile up as many wins for power ranking purposes as possible.
3. WHICH TEAM MADE THE BIGGEST STATEMENT IN THESE FIRST TWO WEEKS?
Hall: Here's my case for Mansfield, which knocked off Baltimore public power Dunbar in the opening weekend of the season. Last season, Xaverian and BC High went down to New Jersey to take on two of the Garden State's premier parochial powers, got embarrassed, and had some wondering how legitimate the competition in Massachusetts really is. The state of Maryland is a hotbed of high-major football talent, producing four times as many Division 1 FBS signees per year than Massachusetts; schools from the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten routinely battle it out for the top recruits in the Old Line State. You're not going to find a quarterback in New England as talented as Dunbar's four-star West Virginia-bound William Crest, and the Hornets held him to 8 of 19 passing for 146 yards, a touchdown and two picks. You're not going to find a bigger statement than that, this year or next.
Barboza: I don’t see how this could be any team but Bridgewater-Raynham. All the Trojans have done, while overtaking the No. 1 position in our poll, is gone on the road and beaten two Top 25, state championship-caliber teams in St. John’s Prep and Duxbury. They get style points, too, (if there were such a thing) for holding Johnny Thomas in check (just enough) and pitching a defensive shutout against the Dragons, marking the first time one of Dave Maimaron’s offenses has even been blanked. I’d also give a nod to Westfield after its 60-14 dismantling of Amherst in Week 1. Hudson’s 33-0 thrashing of previously ranked Auburn was an eye-opener as well.
Bradley: There was no question coming into the season that St. John’s Prep and Bridgewater-Raynham had loaded the schedule in their first few weeks, and seeing as the Trojans picked up the win over Prep in week one, I’ll go with B-R here. A borderline top 10 team coming into the year, they’ve jumped all the way up to No. 1 in the top 25 poll. They’ll take on a loaded Xaverian squad on Saturday with yet another opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the MIAA.
Abelson: Two teams that have made statements are Bridgewater-Raynham and Methuen. Man-type wins over St. John's Prep and Duxbury showed that the Trojans are for real and will be playing meaningful games deep into November. Methuen is interesting because they're 2-0 in D1 but only play one more D1 team the rest of the year. Tom Ryan does have them believing in themselves after two tough wins; it'll be interesting to see how they handle a Cambridge offense that is averaging more than 30 points a game.
McGuirk: Teams that have made the biggest impact thus far this year? I have two. Bridgewater-Raynham, who knocked off St. John's Prep in Week One and came back to clip Duxbury last weekend. We expect B-R to be good but I don't feel anyone thought they would be this good. Let's see how the Trojans handle themselves on Saturday at Xaverian, who is coming off its big triumph over Everett. The other team has to be Agawam. The past few seasons, the Brownies have been mediocre at best, but with a plethora of seniors, including five on the offensive line, it appears they are ready to make a legitimate push for a postseason berth this year having started out the year at 2-0 with impressive wins over Longmeadow and Holyoke.
Botelho: Bridgewater-Raynham obviously launched into the spotlight by knocking off defending Div. 1 champ St. John's Prep, and following it up with an impressive defensive performance against a very good Duxbury team. The Trojans are very much for real, and don't have an obvious weakness. Brandon Gallagher is among the better running backs in the state, and the lumps B-R took a year ago seem to have helped this team grow up into a force to be reckoned with.
Turning attention to a team that picked up a good win on B-R's homefield last weekend, the East Bridgewater Vikings needed just one game to showcase they'll once again be among the most exciting small school teams out there. Owen Harrington score three times in a win over a very strong Millis/Hopedale squad, and all of them came from at least 61 yards away. Most impressive about the Vikings was how well they played against Boston College commit Jon Baker. The South Shore League Large also features defending Super Bowl champ Abington, and when these two teams meet on October 25th, it'll likely decide the league title.
4. WHICH PLAYERS LEFT OFF OUR PRESEASON ALL-STATE TEAM ARE MAKING THE BIGGEST CASE FOR INCLUSION?
(See the team HERE)
Hall: Many of us knew Amherst's Taj-Amir Torres was bound for a big junior season this fall, after all the offseason attention, including three FBS offers and the state's Gatorade Player of the Year honors in track and field. It was a simply a matter of production (24 catches for 260 yards in 2012) that kept him off the list, but he's off to a blistering pace. After missing Week 1's blowout loss to Westfield, Torres had seven catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns last Friday in a 28-14 loss to East Longmeadow. All the Hurricanes have to do now is win a ball game.
Barboza: Off the top, I’d include Natick wide receiver Alex Hilger, but we’ll get to him more in a little bit. How about another receiver for consideration in Watertown’s T.J. Hairston, who put up video game numbers in a win over Medway. Although he’s a sophomore, Billerica’s Jeff Trainor should also get a look as Jordan Bolarinho’s top target. On the defensive side, I think Tewksbury’s Eddie Motavu could easily slide into a linebacker position. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound, two-way player has been a huge element to the Redmen’s early success and has reportedly generated FCS and FBS interest.
Bob McGovern: It's still early, but I think Plymouth South defensive tackle Shaun Duncombe is a real quality player. While his contributions don't always show up on the stat sheet, Duncombe nearly always occupies two blockers and has horizontal quickness that you don't normally see with high school kids of his size. Against Marshfield, Dylan Oxsen was the story, but Duncombe was equally dominant on both sides of the line. He has good feet, and you can see his wrestling background come through at the point of attack. Bryant got itself a good football player, and I think he's likely one of the better defensive linemen in the state.
McGuirk: Players to keep an eye on who have already made an impact include Putnam's Jaleel Kyles, who rushed for 277 yards and a pair of scores in the Beavers' "Backyard Brawl" win over Commerce last week. Putnam will rely heavily on Kyles this season to help bring them to the forefront of the AA Division. East Longmeadow RB Mike Maggipinto has flown under the radar but is a key reason why the Spartans have jumped out to 2-0. It will be interesting to see what he can do against a vaunted Springfield Central defense Friday night. Others to watch are Lowell's Jack Galvin who has 4 TDs already for the 2-0 Red Raiders. He will certainly be tested when Leominster comes to town Friday evening. Lastly, don't fall asleep on Agawam back Stephen Comee, who already has 255 yards on the ground and 3 TDs for the surprising 2-0 Brownies.
Botelho: Brockton's Aaron LeClair had a pretty strong showing against the Prep last week, registering a team high seven tackles while going for nearly 160 all purpose yards and a score. He's going to be the featured guy in Peter Colombo's offense, and should find the end zone a lot this season for the Boxers. Throw in his electric kick return ability and his pass coverage on defense, and he has a chance to make the team at a couple of positions, or with an athlete designation.
5. SANS BRIAN DUNLAP, NATICK'S ALEX HILGER LOOKED COMFORTABLE AS THE REDHAWKS' NEW TOP OPTION, CATCHING 14 PASSES FOR 188 YARDS AND TWO SCORES. WILL THIS CLIP KEEP UP?
Hall: If Natick is to stay afloat, he's going to have to. His production may vary depending on how he's covered -- I can't imagine he'll ever be left on an island by himself -- and he saw a decent amount of zone coverage against Weymouth. Quarterback Troy Flutie demonstrated great timing with this receivers, and his gift for extending plays with his feet can mean big production for his top target. Either way, with his sprinter's speed, lacrosse-like agility, heavy kicking foot and visage that resembles Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Hilger is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Natick.
Barboza: No, but not that far off. I think Hilger’s Week 1 performance against Weymouth was an opening statement to what should be an All-State-caliber (see previous comments) season. What will be interesting to watch is how opposing defenses treat him going forward. Will he now receive the Brian Dunlap honorary bracketed coverage? And, if so, what will that do for the rest of Natick’s receivers, primarily Justin Robinson? Robinson saw increasing success in the second half of the Weymouth game, as the Wildcats coverage increasingly adjusted to Hilger’s side of the field.
Bradley: Hilger will continue to be Troy Flutie’s go-to guy, but I wouldn’t predict that he catches 14 balls many more times this season—especially now that opposing teams know that Flutie will be looking Hilger’s way on pretty much every play.
McGovern: I don't see any reason why Hilger can't continue to put up big numbers. Behind Natick's tough offensive line, Troy Flutie is pretty dangerous. He can hang out in the pocket or run horizontally to extend plays. While this backfield tango is happening, Hilger has the ability to get open against almost any cornerback in the Bay State Conference. With Brian Dunlap out for the year, Hilger is going to be the No. 1 target for the Redhawks, and I think he's comfortable with that role. After Natick's opening win over Weymouth, Hilger said that he and Flutie have known each other for year and have pretty good chemistry. That was pretty obvious to those in attendance.
McGuirk: Alex Hilger is highly capable of putting up more yardage like this as the season progresses. He has the ability to find open spaces against opposing defenses. He is smart, fast and elusive.
Botelho: There's no reason to think Hilger can't keep it up. He torched a strong Weymouth team and Troy Flutie is going to keep looking his way. Hilger likely becomes the focus of defenses going forward, but with someone throwing the ball as well as Flutie does he's going to keep pulling down catches.