WORCESTER, Mass. -- In programs across all levels of football, there are certain uniform numbers that are kept sacred, only to be donned by the very best. Being given the number is a resounding vote of confidence that you can be that next great one.
At Holy Name, the No. 3 has been the generational heirloom passed down under coach Mike Pucko, and a garden variety of running backs in all shapes and sizes have been given the special privilege.
Its two most decorated backs to ever wear the number -- former Philadelphia Eagle Emil Igwenagu, and former ESPNBoston Mr. Football finalist Quron Wright -- come from complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Igwenagu was a cruiser tank, wide-bodied and punishing as a downhill runner; that’s in sharp contrast to Wright, a fleet-footed Lilliputian who often hid behind his blockers like they were the ninth earth, before hitting the rockets into daylight and leaving defenders befuddled.
Growing up down the street from Holy Name’s campus in Worcester’s Grafton Hill neighborhood, Kevin Mensah is all too familiar with the legacy on Granite Street. During the offseason, Pucko called him into his office to explain to him that he was going to be the next to don the number.
His response? “I thought it was cool,” he recalled, with a smile.
If you’ve gotten a chance to watch the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mensah -- who falls somewhat evenly between Igwenagu and Wright on the spectrum -- you’ve likely come away musing about his tempting potential. But the reason for the decision, Pucko said, had to do with his most natural gift -- his work ethic.
“Last year we didn’t even know he was going to be a starter,” Pucko said. “But during the summer for crossfit, and when we do the weight room in the winter, he’s also the first one there and the last one to leave. Always being aggressive with questions, watching film, trying to make himself better every single day. That type of work ethic is so rare now, that when a kid shows you that kind of interest and potential and does it on his own, he’s always pushing me to help him get better in all the different things we do.
“You know, it’s just the same mindset that I had with Emil and Quron.”
Less Is More: Holy Name is one of several programs playing in this weekend’s MIAA Sectional Finals that utilizes a “Double Wing” attack, a century-old offense characterized by extremely tight splits along the line of scrimmage, with two mirroring wingbacks angled towards the backfield. It’s a technique-intensive misdirection approach, with all of its precision double-teams, chips, traps and cut blocks, and one that is generally tough to scout.
For more than a decade, Pucko has made it work with all types of running backs in all shapes and sizes, and often with limited numbers. Heading into Saturday’s Division 4 Central Final, the Naps have less than three dozen players on their varsity.
“We just need tough kids that gotta be smart. Things open up different in the Double Wing than they do in other offenses, but you can’t be selfish,” Pucko said. “You gotta be able to block, you gotta be able to do all the other things when you’re not carrying the ball.
“You get some prima donnas that are great running backs that, once you put them on the other side and they’re blocking, and they don’t want to block well, that’s not part of our system. You get as many touches as you block in practice, and you block for your other teammates. And that’s why I think a lot of college coaches love what we do. Not so much because of the offense, but we teach kids to be full players.”
The magnum opus of this “the few, the proud” mentality under Pucko might have been in 2008, the Naps’ last MIAA Super Bowl-winning season and their third in a string of four years. Their Division 1 Central/West Super Bowl victory over Westfield, a team with three times as many bodies and some Division 1 FCS scholarship linemen, was something of legend.
The Naps dressed just 18 players that day, including two eighth-graders. Brandon Potvin, a future four-year starter at defensive end for UMass, played seven positions on offense (center, both guards, both tackles and both tight end spots) and switched his jersey number a half-dozen times. Devoid of a placekicker, they went for two after every score and had a lineman squib the ball 15-20 yards downfield on kickoffs. And yet they dominated from start to finish, winning 20-7.
Holy Name’s last state championship appearance was in 2012, the final year of the Super Bowl era, when Wright led the state in rushing yards (2,254) and yards from scrimmage (3,199). It was the eighth straight year they had qualified for postseason.
It’s never about what they’ve had at Holy Name, it’s about what they don’t have that makes them stronger – and which also makes them incredibly fun to watch in their peak years.
“Before we practice, we just look at each other. When we do our stretches we look at each other and we say, ‘Look around, this is ours’,” Mensah said from the corner of the Naps’ practice field (which only stretches 32 yards from sideline to sideline). “There’s only 32 people on the team. If you want to play, you come play.
“We’re really tough. From last year, with these amount of people, we’re really tough.”
Think Smarter, Run Harder: With a smooth, upright running style, occasionally sprinkled with a dash of scissor-kick action, Mensah sometimes looks as if he is gliding through the holes created, before shifting into fifth gear and accelerating into daylight. As a wingback in the Double Wing, Mensah is at his best coming off toss plays, making himself small through the point of attack before bursting suddenly behind a convoy of blockers.
One problem: Pucko doesn’t feel he has a true fullback or tight end, two positions essential to making the scheme run fluidly. And so Pucko, ever the historian, dug into Dutch Meyer’s playbook from his time at TCU in the first half of the 20th Century and came back with a “Triple Wing” scheme, which in lieu of a fullback places a third wingback on the perimeter, usually detached from the formation.
This new wrinkle to the offense has only created more chicanery for an attack that already deploys plenty of it. Mensah has benefited greatly from it; heading into Saturday, Mensah ranked second in Central Mass. for rushing (1,449 yards, 10.7 yards per carry, 13 TD). Only West Boylston’s Cole McCubrey, another Double Wing dynamo, has been more productive in the region.
“It’s what I expected out of him,” Pucko said. “He’s worked hard enough and pushed hard enough to capitalize.”
Equipped with speed in the 4.5 range and a 37-inch vertical leap, to go with solid core strength, Mensah truly is a balanced back. Take note of the sudden acceleration and breakaway speed in these two touchdown runs over Hudson from last month:
Like Pucko mentioned, Naps backs have to be able to block well to succeed in this system. From this same game, a high-watermark night from Mensah (263 rushing yards, 3 TD), he gets a chip on a taller, bigger Hudson defensive end and simply carries him 10 yards off the line of scrimmage before dumping him in the grass:
“I try to put myself and see myself as a lineman," Mensah said. "If he tells me to block somebody, I'm going to block that person, so some of these other backs can get some yards. Because, you know, we’re a family.”
Scholarship Caliber? The jury's still out on exactly where Mensah projects at the next level, but there's no denying the usual suspects are keeping tabs. Earlier this week, Mensah told ESPNBoston.com that Boston College had been in to see him. Syracuse has inquired as well, as have UConn and UMass.
Some like him as a running back, while others envision him transitioning to safety in college, even with his limited number of reps at the position thus far. Still others wonder if he can transition to a slot receiver position.
“It's all over the board," Pucko said. "Some people have very high interest. Some people look at him as a potential defensive back more than running back, because of what we are. Everybody's got different opinions."
It's still premature, and Mensah is still only scratching the surface. But based on the early returns, the suitors figure to be back for more.