NEWTON, Mass. -- After their first winning season in nearly 20 years, there are plenty of reasons for the Newton South Lions to be optimistic.
With several talented skill position players returning under head coach Ted Dalicandro and notable offensive coordinator Darren Flutie, the Lions may be able to take the proverbial next step by competing for the Dual County League title, and making a run in the statewide Division 2 playoff bracket.
Yet perhaps the greatest factor in determining the outcome of Newton South’s season will be the continued improvement of quarterback Austin Burton.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior turned heads last year when he threw for 3,327 yards, 39 touchdowns, and ran for 5 more scores while leading the Lions to a 6-5 record and a second place finish in the Dual County League's Large Division.
His father, Steve, starred at quarterback while attending Northwestern University, and Austin’s grandfather, Ron, was the Boston Patriots' very first draft pick back in 1960, so it comes as little surprise that the third-generation ball player was able to make an immediate impact for Newton South.
Burton was thrust into the spotlight in Week 6 of his freshman season when the Lions’ starting quarterback was injured, and ran away with the starting job as a sophomore.
“The talent [Burton] showcased early on was something I’d never seen as a coach,” Dalicandro said about the young quarterback’s performance. “Sure, he had some ups and downs, but he never got down on himself. He’s got a great ability to just move on to the next play, and that helped him become increasingly successful.”
When Dalicandro hired former Boston College great and spread offense-guru Darren Flutie as his offensive coordinator prior to the 2014 season, the entire Lions offense was able to take a dramatic step forward. Both Burton and Flutie seem to feel that last year’s success was merely a sign of things to come.
A Perfect Fit: Flutie is from football royalty; his older brother Doug won the Heisman Trophy as Boston College's quarterback in 1984, before going on to NFL and Canadian Football League fame. Darren played for the San Diego Chargers in 1988 before joining Doug in the CFL, where he posted several record-setting seasons. He eventually returned to Natick High to coach his son, Troy, as the Redhawks' offensive coordinator.
Troy Flutie set state records for career passing yards (9,014) and passing touchdowns (112) at Natick, and won ESPNBoston's "Mr. Football" award as the state's top player in 2013, executing his father’s fast-paced offensive scheme to near-perfection.
When Dalicandro hired Flutie as Newton South’s offensive coordinator prior to the 2014 season, the local legend was pleased to see the talent that the Lions had in place on the offensive side of the ball.
“They looked like a spread team,” Flutie recollected about his initial impressions of his new squad. “And my passion is to spread it out, throw the ball, and enjoy the game. I thought the combination of all the things that Austin [Burton] could do fit the spread style, so I really thought it was the perfect fit.”
The coach concluded that his system is quite complex, which means “Without a quarterback that’s smart, who can make adjustments on the fly, you can’t run it.”
Luckily for Newton South, they had a young quarterback with plenty of football experience, who also excelled in the classroom, and was able to pick up the new system with relative ease.
“You had to learn [the no-huddle offense] quickly during the preseason, because if you couldn’t, you were out,” Burton recalled. “We struggled at first, but after a few games, we really knew what we were doing.”
The Lions certainly hit the ground running to start the 2014 season, as they scored an average of 30.8 points per game to win five of their first seven contests, and earn a first round matchup with Haverhill in the Regional Quarterfinals of the Division 2 bracket.
Burton was a consistent force throughout that run, but his personal highlight came when he led Newton South to a 32-28 win over Acton-Boxboro on October 2nd, 2014. The sophomore quarterback completed 24 of 42 passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns that evening to lead the Lions to their first win over the Colonials in over 25 years.
Standout wide receiver Anthony DeNitto accounted for 201 yards and four touchdowns in that contest, and would go on to log 650 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns over the Lions first five games before his season was lost due to injury.
Looking back on his initial impressions of his quarterback, DeNitto said, “I knew [Burton] was a great player, but I was still a little surprised about his performance on the field. Some of the throws he made were unbelievable, and I realized I’ve started to take his accuracy for granted.”
Working Towards Greatness: While Burton’s football acumen helped him succeed at an early age, it wasn’t always easy for the gifted athlete.
“Coming into high school, I felt like I knew more than the average kid because I grew up with a football background, and I was coached at an early age,” Burton explained, but when asked about starting his first few games as freshman, he admitted, “It was definitely a learning experience. I knew the plays and everything, so I was ready, but it was a whole different situation from [junior varsity]. Once I adapted to the level of play, I was ready to go.”
Now he has a full year of experience under his belt, but according to his head coach, Burton’s work ethic remains exemplary.
Dalicandro said, “Not a lot of kids are in the gym working out before school, but at 6 a.m. I’ll arrive and see [Burton] out on the gym floor, working on his drops. Sometimes he’s with his dad, and he’s always putting in the extra effort. That’s what an athlete has to do to go from being good to great.”
He elaborated, “You can outwork people while you’re all working, but when everyone else is resting, that’s when you really separate yourself from the pack. That type of drive, combined with his familiarity with the game, is something not a lot of kids have. It helped [Burton] and Darren [Flutie] get on the same page really quickly.”
Having already received interest from several Division 1 schools including UMass, Duke, Boston College, and Northwestern, Burton is aggressively pursuing his dream to play quarterback at the next level.
In order to achieve that goal, he worked all summer on throwing harder, with a quicker release, which he said, “gives the defense less time to react on the ball. Most NFL or college quarterbacks have quick releases, and I’ve improved a lot since freshman year, but I know that’s something I have to keep working on down the road if I want to succeed at the next level.”
He’s also put in plenty of mental reps, as he continues to grasp the nuances of Flutie’s offensive system. Burton led Newton South to victory at the Under Armour Northeast 7-on-7 South Regional competition at Oliver Ames High this summer, and maintained his rapport with DeNitto and the rest of his receivers by throwing with them four or five times a week throughout the offseason.
While basketball was once a huge passion for Burton, he said he “always knew that football would be my main sport once I got to high school. It’s the ultimate team sport,” he explained. “In basketball, a superstar can really carry a team, but in football you need everyone to be on the same page in order to be great. I’ve got some of the best receivers in the state, and we were able to learn a lot last year, so hopefully this year we can put it all together and be even better.“
Flutie also recognized the importance of those 7-on-7 competitions, and executing during passing drills at training camp, as he attempts to increase the complexity of his spread system during his second season as Lions offensive coordinator.
“Last year was so new for everyone,” said Flutie. “We put in a new offense, and I was just getting to know Austin [Burton] and the receivers. Now we’re able to pick up where we left off and add to it. We were pretty basic last season, but there’s a whole higher level to running a spread offense that we’re going to get into.”
Taking The Next Step: Possibly in an attempt to throw water on his players’ high expectations for the upcoming season, Dalicandro simply said, “The goal is to take the next step this season. While success last year doesn’t guarantee anything this year, I think this group has a chance to be special. Team’s aren’t going to see Newton South as an easy win anymore.”
With an all-conference talent in DeNitto on the outside, two superb tight ends in Sasha Hoban and Frankie Barros, and explosive tailback Jamyre Soberanis returning, the Lions certainly will not be an easy matchup for any defense.
It’s not just their depth at the skill positions, but the Lions ability to make in-game adjustments that could give opposing defenses fits during the 2015 season.
Like Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles, Newton South’s offensive players simply look to the sideline for signals from the coaching staff that will indicate which play they should run. After that, it’s on Burton to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage if he sees something he doesn’t like.
“I would say I audible at least 10 to 12 times a game,” Burton nodded. “I could call one play, but then I see a safety rolling down or single coverage on the outside and I’m able to check into something, and my receivers know what to do.”
DeNitto’s chemistry with Burton has grown so strong that he said “Sometimes we don’t even have to say anything to check, we just know what each other’s going to do.”
The senior wide receiver continued, “There’s really not much opposing defenses can do. If we play our game, and check when we’re supposed to check, it’s pretty hard to stop us when you have a quarterback like [Burton] and an offensive coordinator like Darren [Flutie].”
For Flutie, Newton South’s success this season will have a lot to do with Burton’s ability to read defenses before the snap and make the proper adjustments.
“We saw a lot of strange defenses last year, and I think that Austin [Burton]’s ability to read those coverages on the go is going to make or break our season, so there’s no pressure on him,” the coach sarcastically quipped.
Despite the implied pressure on Burton -- who is hoping to become the fifth member of his family to play Division 1 sports at the collegiate level -- the young athlete said that he relishes the challenges of the upcoming season.
“I would rather play football than do anything else, and this is the best time of the year,” said Burton. “I love our system, and I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else in the state.”