1. HOW DOES THE SEASON-ENDING KNEE INJURY TO ALL-STATE SENIOR RUNNING BACK JOHNNY THOMAS CHANGE THE DYNAMIC FOR ST. JOHN'S PREP?
Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: Akin to Vince Wilfork of the Patriots, you cannot simply replace a player who brings so much to the table. All you can hope to do is adapt. Now, it was a small sample size, but Cody Harwood ran with some authority in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to Everett in Thomas’ absence. You cannot replicate Thomas’ home-run-potential in the running game, but if Harwood can at least pick up some of the slack, perhaps the Eagles can take greater advantage of the play-action passing game, with top targets Jake Burt and Owen Rockett becoming a featured part of the offense, supplementing the ground game. Also, as Eagles head coach Jim O’Leary pointed out Saturday, they can ill-afford untimely offensive penalties, including the slew of false start infractions which stunted several promising drives against Everett. With Prep’s ball-control-oriented offense, the burden of playing perfect will be paramount without Thomas.
Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: No disrespect to anyone else in the Prep backfield, but when you lose a player as gifted as "Johnny Guapo", it's not simply a matter of "next man up". When the Minnesota Vikings lost Adrian Peterson to a knee injury in 2011, it was not simply "next man up" for Toby Gerhart, try as he might. No, what the Prep needs to do is adapt and survive to advance. When the Patriots lost Vince Wilfork on Sunday night, they didn't try to replace his irreplaceable two-gap responsibility -- they diversified their fronts, including sub packages heavy on speed personnel.
If the Eagles are to maintain their preseason expectations minus one of the Bay State's most gifted backs of this generation, they cannot simply throw another body in at tailback -- good as he may be -- and expect the same results. They must change on the fly, much of which has to involve junior perimeter threats Owen Rocket and Jake Burt. In particular, Burt is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. Even as the passing game struggled in the season's early-goings, Burt was practically uncoverable for good stretches. For Burt, it is time to unleash the beast within that everyone has been anxiously waiting for.
Josh Perry, ESPN Boston correspondent: Obviously, this is a huge blow to Prep’s run at back-to-back Super Bowl titles, but this may become a moment for the team to rally together. There are few more powerful motivators than “nobody believes in us” and I think the Prep players may feel that they’re being dismissed without their star teammate. If the team can pull together and several players can raise their games, such as Cody Harwood, who took over after Thomas went down against Everett, then there is till the talent to win games. Any team that overlooks Prep now that Thomas is out, does so at their peril.
John McGuirk, ESPN Boston correspondent: The loss of Thomas is no doubt a big blow for the Eagles. But this is St. John's Prep. A program, including this season, with a plethora of talent throughout its roster. Prep has depth and, with Thomas out, may have to adjust its offensive play calling schemes a bit. If they start to become more pass-savvy, then expect opposing defenses to changed their strategies at well. But you know they have someone waiting in the wings who can carry the rock. We shall see.
2. WITH THOMAS' HIGH SCHOOL CAREER OVER, WHERE DOES HE RANK ALL-TIME AMONG THE RUNNING BACKS YOU'VE SEEN IN MASSACHUSETTS?
Barboza: I think he’s the best. In the history of our venture with ESPN Boston, the only player who vaguely presented what Thomas did in terms of commanding attention each and every carry is someone he briefly played with – former Prep running back Tyler Coppola. Obviously, Thomas’ ceiling as a collegiate player is much higher than most Massachusetts athletes in recent memory, but Coppola also created that kind of buzz with each carry –- the ability to score a touchdown on any given touch from anywhere on the field. That’s what Thomas also brought and it most certainly will be missed.
Hall: I'm a 2003 graduate of Oakmont Regional High School, in Ashburnham, and if you look into our program you'll find us Spartans have a long history of being run roughshod over by some of the best backs this state has ever produced, from Ayer's fabled Morris brothers to St. Peter-Marian's Jerry Azumah to Holyoke's Cedric Washington and arguably the best of the what-could-have-been's, Fitchburg's Will Earley.
Over my decade as a writer, the only comparables I can think of are Everett's Isaac Johnson and Dartmouth's Jordan Todman. The drawback with Johnson is we perhaps didn't get to see the full arsenal because of the Tide's offense at the time (double wing), and that he was a better cornerback anyways. Todman -- who appears to have finally solidified an NFL roster spot, on the Jacksonville Jaguars -- demonstrated that same breakaway speed that earned Thomas SEC scholarship offers this past spring before settling on Maryland. But while Todman was more of a finesse back, Thomas is the total package, as demonstrated by clips like these:
And, as a parting shot, I'd just like to say Johnny Thomas is one of the most sincere, appreciative, humble high school athletes I've had the pleasure of covering. There's a reason many opposing coaches and players around the region have expressed such deep sympathy publicly since the season-ending injury -- you couldn't be any nicer than Johnny.
Perry: I didn’t see either back more than a handful of times combined, but the two best that I’ve seen were Thomas and Jordan Todman of Dartmouth. If I have to choose one, I’m going with Todman based on his performance for the Indians in the 2007 Super Bowl against Everett. It was one of the most dynamic games that I’ve seen by a running back and he almost single-handedly took home the title for Dartmouth. If I had seen Thomas play live, I may have a different impression, but I give the nod to Todman by a small margin.
McGuirk: Thomas has been one of the more dynamic running backs of this decade. But there are some other former Massachusetts backs who I believe were better. You need to look no further than Joe, Mike and Jamie Morris (Ayer), Cedric Washington (Holyoke), Brian Picucci (Leominster), Jerry Azumah (St. Peter-Marian), Alex Scyocurka (Longmeadow) and Zack McCall (Fitchburg) -- all of whom were some of the greatest this state has ever produced.
Mike Abelson, ESPN Boston correspondent: He's probably in my top five. Number one would be Everett's Omar Easy, followed by Dartmouth's Jordan Todman, Thomas, Everett's Isaac Johnson, and Billerica's James McCluskey.
3. WITH THOMAS ON THE SHELF, WHO ARE THE FAVORITES NOW FOR ESPN BOSTON'S PRESTIGIOUS 'MR. FOOTBALL' AWARD?
Barboza: In no particular order, I’d group quarterbacks Troy Flutie (Natick), Neil O’Connor (Leominster), Drew Smiley (St. John’s of Shrewsbury) and Cody Williams (Central) in the hunt. I think Plymouth South’s Dylan Oxsen is now the leader in the clubhouse among the running backs and Lowell wide receiver Jack Galvin should garner consideration. But, just maybe, this opens the door for our first ever lineman to take the award, which could be Millis/Hopedale’s Jon Baker. Or how about a safety in Leominster’s Jarell Addo?
Hall: Any discussion post-Thomas has to start with Natick quarterback Troy Flutie. The Redhawks lost one of the most gifted Bay State receivers in some time, Brian Dunlap, for the year, after just one preseason game. Then they lost the next best thing, Alex Hilger, last week to a shoulder injury. Yet as the injuries to the receiving corps continue to pile up, Flutie just continues to put up video game numbers. Last week against Wellesley might have been his best performance to date. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 236 yards and five touchdowns, and added 170 rushing yards on the ground. Through three games, minus his two best receivers, he has 1,076 yards of offense and 14 touchdowns.
Other names to consider currently are Springfield Central quarterback Cody Williams, Plymouth South running back Dylan Oxsen, and Leominster quarterback Neil O'Connor.
Perry: I wonder how many people will still lean towards Thomas just because of how good he was prior to the injury? Troy Flutie continues to pile up stats and keeps Natick rolling, despite losing his top receiver and has to be among the favorites. Brendan Hill has been a beast for no. 1 Mansfield on both sides of the ball and Mike Panepinto is carrying the load again for a resurgent Needham team. The one great thing about the playoff system is that some of these players may get the chance to go head-to-head and the awards may come down to which player’s team ends up holding the trophy at Gillette.
McGuirk: Springfield Central quarterback Cody Williams. He is the best dual-threat signal-caller in the state. Having led Central to the Division 1 Western Mass. Super Bowl title a year ago, Williams and the Golden Eagles are eyeing a bigger prize -- a Division 2 state championship -- this time around.
Abelson: I'd say Troy Flutie takes over at the top with Brendan Hill and Dylan Oxsen in the discussion as well. Throw in Hayden Murphy and Mike Panepinto to round out my top five.
4. MIKE MCGILLICUDDY'S WALK-OFF KICK RETURN FOR ST. JOHN'S OF SHREWSBURY IS ONE OF THE BEST ENDINGS YOU'LL SEE IN HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL FOR YEARS. WHAT'S THE BEST ENDING TO A HIGH SCHOOL GAME YOU'VE COVERED?
Barboza: I think it will pain Mr. McGillicuddy to bring up this sour memory, but at Pioneer field just about one year ago, with archrival Leominster visiting, Neil O’Connor officially made a name for himself. Trailing 34-29, the Blue Devils went into their two-minute drill and masterfully, behind quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, set up O’Connor’s game-winning touchdowns with four seconds remaining. The best part of the ending is that Blue Devils head coach Dave Palazzi actually left the play call on the game’s penultimate snap to his quarterback and then receiver (now turned QB). It was a tremendous ending to a great back-and-forth game on a perfect mid-fall day; one I’ll always remember.
Hall: I simply go back to last year's wild ending at Plymouth South, in which the host Panthers used a last-second hook-and-ladder to beat Nauset 13-12 and clinch their first postseason berth in school history. The visiting Warriors went ahead with 40 seconds left on a one-yard goal line dive, only to watch their lead evaporate in the final seconds. Dylan Oxsen had been bottled up pretty nicely the whole game, until these final eight seconds. This is where I think he established himself as one of the state's premier running backs:
Perry: In 2008, I started covering Attleboro High for the local cable station and they had a really strong team that was in its next-to-last season in the OCL. They challenged a really strong Dartmouth team (that included Arthur Lynch of Georgia and Sean Sylvia of Boston College) right to the end, but it was an early-season win over Bridgewater-Raynham that allowed it to happen. Trailing with less than a minute to go, Attleboro needed a miracle and got it when B-R sent a snap over the head of the punter and Matt Campbell chased down the loose ball for a touchdown. That wasn’t the end of the game as a shaky pass interference call gave the Trojans one more chance at the end zone, but Nate Robitaille knocked it down in the corner of the end zone. Tozier-Cassidy was rocking; it was the loudest that I've ever heard the Attleboro fans.
McGuirk: Gardner kicker Donny Lemieux booted a 40-plus yard field goal with no time left to beat St. John's of Shrewsbury back in 2003 in a huge upset victory. Lemieux later went on to a fine career at Holy Cross.
Abelson: Hands down for me it was Brooks-Nobles Halloween 2008. A mediocre Brooks team lead by Jason Buco traded touchdowns with a McCallum Foote-led Nobles team for 48 minutes. Buco had a 98-yard interception return to tie the game at 21, and the whole game had a bigger than life feel even though there was only about 150 people watching.
Brooks' Joe Napolitano scored from a yard out with 20 seconds left to make it 28-27 Nobles. Instead of pushing for overtime Alex Konovalchik went for the win. The conversion called for Buco to roll left and throw to Napolitano on a short cross in the corner, but Buco sailed the throw a touch and Foote picked it off right in front of me and went 100 yards for the safety to ice a 30-27 win. For me no game I've covered has come close to that one.
5. WHICH PLAYERS HAVE HAD THE BIGGEST BREAKOUT IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE SEASON?
Barboza: He’s somebody that’s been on our radar for some time, but King Philip’s Joe Johnston is playing in beast mode through the quarter point of the season. Johnston’s rushed for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns in three games. Coupled with Christian Flaherty, Johnston’s created one prong of one of the state’s most feared backfield duos. Of course, like many of the Warriors’ recent greats, he plays both ways as well, and comprises one of the state’s best linebacking corps alongside preseason All-State Brett McEvoy.
Hall: It all starts with Barnstable's Derek Estes. The Red Raiders had a lion's share of work to do after getting embarrassed by rival Dennis-Yarmouth opening weekend, and nobody has answered the bell better than the senior receiver/cornerback. As a split end, he has home-run capabilities, able to release deep and stretch the defense vertically. But where he truly makes his mark is on the defensive side of the ball, where his superior conditioning allows him to effortlessly mark an opponent's top target all night. The Raiders don't put together back-to-back wins over Catholic Conference opponents, including then-No. 1 Xaverian, without Estes' coverage ability.
Perry: Needham’s Mike Elcock has developed a great relationship with quarterback Ryan Charter and has been scoring touchdowns for fun in the opening three games. He scored a pair apiece in the loss to Westwood and victory over Walpole. Mike Panepinto rightly draws a lot of press for the Rockets, but on both sides of the ball Elcock has been outstanding. His ability to stretch the defense is critical to keep people from loading the box against the run and gives the Rockets much-needed balance on offense. He was also a star in the secondary against the Rebels, making a couple of big plays that ended Rebel drives.
McGuirk: Westfield's dynamic duo of running back Ben Geschwind and quarterback Jake Toomey. The two have combined for 11 scores and are the catalysts in why the Bombers have run out to 3-0 and expected to be in the hunt for a shot at the Division 2 state championship.
6. WHO ARE THE BEST RISING SMALL-SCHOOL PROSPECTS WE'VE YET TO HEAR MUCH ABOUT?
Barboza: I think you can look up and down Boston Cathedral’s roster and find some young gems, but how about freshman running back Byron Martin? He ran for 228 yards and four scores two weeks ago against Matignon – a glimpse at what should be a very promising future. With Abington’s running back depth depleted, sophomore Shawn Donovan has really answered the bell, shouldering a larger load for the Green Wave early on.
Also, we had a question from one of our loyal CMass readers last weekend during our Sunday night chat about Maynard football, so how about a tip of the cap to sophomore running back Sean Peterson who has six touchdowns through three games for the Tigers’ machine, which is averaging more than 42 points per game.
Hall: Last weekend, following Boston Cathedral's win over Pope John Paul II, I made two bold statements on Twitter: the next Quron Wright is at Cathedral, and the next Cody Williams is at Pope John Paul. The silence in the lack of response was nearly deafening. That Wright and Williams themselves were the only ones to chime in out of curiosity says either A) My statement is not as outlandish as I initially thought (unless you're one of my readers from the Grafton Hill or Vernon Hill areas of Worcester), or B) We have lost our readership. Just maybe, 7,500 Twitter followers (and counting) suggest the former.
In 5-foot-3 freshman Byron Martin, Cathedral has a Lilliputian scatback with the same home-run capability that made Wright, the pint-sized former Holy Name star and Mr. Football finalist, a household name across Massachusetts last fall. One of the Panthers' favorite things to do is line Martin in the slot and motion him across the formation for an end-around; when quarterback Jermal Brevard-Jackson is able to sell the inside dive off of it, it is one of their most dynamic plays. Best yet, we've got three more years of this.
Across the sideline, Pope John Paul II junior quarterback Ryan Barabe turned in a stellar performance for the Lions in the loss, completing nearly 75 percent of his passes for 279 yards and three scores, putting him in the top five statewide for passing yardage (776) and near the top in efficiency (68 percent completions). At 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, he has a throwing ability -- and build -- similar to Williams, able to huck 50-yard fades effortlessly but also time his throws nicely in the short game, zipping the ball into tight windows.
McGuirk: Ricardo Edwards (Brighton), Ben Reiffarth (Blackstone Valley Tech), DeWayne Kirton (Scituate), Sean Peterson (Maynard), Dylan Kiernan (Quabbin Regional), Mike Whitsett (Chicopee Comp) are some of the names that come to mind in the first half of this season.
Abelson: He had the hype and Ian Kessel has delivered thus far for Haverhill in a big way. You have to count Natick's receiving corps as a whole, for constantly stepping up as first Dunlap and now Hilger went down. Will Weinhold at Methuen is another guy who has stepped up. His numbers haven't been spectacular, but he's a major reason why Methuen is perched at the top of D1 North.