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#RoadToGillette: 2016 MIAA High School Football Primer

Can Xaverian three-peat as Division 1 state champs? Jon Mahoney for ESPNBoston.com

(Video by Greg Story)

The first practice days of the 2016 MIAA football season are just days away. Everyone's favorite time of year is upon us.

Later this week, look for our first statewide Top 25 poll and Preseason All-State Team. For now, here's a quick primer to whet your appetite for the upcoming season.

For now, let the #RoadToGillette begin.

Brendan C. Hall

ESPNBoston High Schools Editor

Hall's Top 10

1. Xaverian - Among all the uncertainty that typifies any preseason ranking, this much is at least clear: The Hawks, who haven't lost a game in nearly three years, are a leviathan. And it is going to take a perfect effort from a supremely talented team to derail their plans for a third straight D1 state title. The pool of teams up for the challenge is thin -- good luck, everyone.

2. Everett - Despite reaching the D1 North Final, nobody in Crimson Land is happy about 2015. The Tide were out-classed for most of September, and a stunning loss to rival Malden put a bow on an abysmal regular season before they turned it around in the playoffs. UConn-bound quarterback Jordan McAfee is the most notable returnee on an offense that should have better pass protection in 2016.

3. Duxbury - The "Airmaron" offense, led by quarterback Bobby Maimaron and hulking receiver Ryan Reagan, should put up wild numbers again in 2016. The Dragons under head coach Dave Maimaron rarely have down seasons to begin with, but even by their high standards this might be their most explosive offensive attack in five years.

4. Central Catholic - Preseason talk is going to be somewhat quarterback-heavy, and rightfully so. But how about some love for junior Bret Edwards? He was a quiet assassin in his first year under center last fall, as the Raiders reached the D1 state final at Gillette Stadium.

5. Billerica - The Indians have gotten good in a hurry under Duane Sigsbury, and this will be their most talented team yet, with 17 returning starters led by All-State defensive end Scott Murphy and UMass lacrosse-bound receiver Dean Brooks. They'll travel to Everett in Week 4, for what should be one of the most anticipated regular season matchups of 2016.

6. St. John's Prep - The Eagles might be unsettled at quarterback when they break for preseason camp, but they will be stacked on defense, particularly in the front seven.

7. Andover - This is one of the strongest years for Merrimack Valley Conference football in a while, and the Golden Warriors should be right in the thick of things, between Brown-bound receiver Dan Gemmell and record-setting All-State quarterback E.J. Perry IV. Former ESPNBoston Mr. Football winner and current BC quarterback Troy Flutie shattered a few sacred passing records in his time at Natick High; could his future Eagles teammate take down a few?

8. Springfield Central - Between dual-threat quarterback Tank Walker and roadrunner Coreese Everett, this might be the fastest team outside of the I-495 loop. Not much figures to stand in the way of a third Western Mass. title in four seasons.

9. Leominster - The way the last two seasons ended have let a bitter taste linger in the Plastic City. Duke-bound quarterback Noah Gray is one of the most talented all-around athletes returning on this side of the state, and the Blue Devils could make some serious waves if they take down BC High to start the season.

10. Brockton - As usual, you can count on the Boxers going deep into the D1 South tournament.

Five players on the rise

Bobby Denaro, Sr. OL/DT, Nashoba

Mike Curtin got most of the attention on the Chieftains' imposing front four last fall, as they upset Reading for the D2 state title. But Denaro is a monolith at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, and isn't afraid to throw his frame around violently.

James LoChirco, Sr. RB/LB, Mystic Valley

As we wrote about earlier this offseason, the Everett native is the Eagles' first player in program history to receive a D1 offer. If they're to finally break through and win a district title, after coming ever so close the last two seasons, this is the horse they'll hitch their wagon to.

Jared Martino, Jr. QB, Malden

Equipped with some quiet feet in the pocket, and some innate playmaking ability when flushed out of the pocket, last year gave us a glimpse of what could come with this exciting field general. It's been a while since the Golden Tornadoes had a presence like this under center.

Zach Magdis, Jr. RB/S, and Brendan McKeon, Jr. RB/DB, Shepherd Hill

The Rams are expecting big things out of Magdis after an impressive sophomore campaign while McKeon, the younger brother of former two-time All-State selection Sean McKeon, now at Michigan, carries promising pedigree. Both reportedly run 40's in the 4.5 range. Behind what should be another strong Rams offensive line, led by Boston College commit Alec Lindstrom, these two could be in for big seasons.

Five teams to watch

Malden: After an historic run to the first Greater Boston League title, which included an unfathomable first win over juggernaut Everett in a quarter-century, the Golden Tornadoes turn over a new leaf with Bill Manchester taking the reins as head coach. The former Nantucket coach worked with some unique talent on the islands, to consistent success, so it should be fun to see him working with dual-threat junior quarterback Jared Martino, who is as slippery as they come.

Milton: The Wildcats lose a lot from last fall's historic first year of the "Demball" era, which culminated in the program's first league title in a half-century. And while 7-on-7 leagues aren't the most scientific barometer for projecting regular season success, I like the way they slung the ball around this summer. Keep an eye on Eddie Hassell -- you can't miss him with his Odell Beckham-esque flow

Oakmont: No apologies necessary if you had to look up my alma mater on Google. The Spartans haven't been major players since former Bengals and Jets tailback John Griffin was running around the school hallways a decade ago, but optimism is abound in year three of the Charlie Raff era. They face Leominster in Week 2, and if they can somehow upset the Blue Devils it would send shockwaves through the state.

South Boston: After a brief stint on the Everett sidelines, Brian Vaughan is heading back to the Boston City League as a head coach, and you can count me among those excited to see what his creative offensive mind has cooked up this fall. He won quickly at Boston English and Pope John XXIII with a wildly-entertaining spread scheme, and there's little reason to think he won't get it going in a hurry with the Knights.

Wellesley: Raiders head coach Jesse Davis is a dangerous poker player. He keeps his cards close to the chest, and can win with seemingly any hand, whether it's an air raid style attack he applied with current Boston College quarterback John Fadule, or the service academy style triple option attack they used last year. As always, there's enough talent that they should never be counted out.

Food for Thought

1. I'm not a big fan of expanding the landscape this fall -- eight divisions is too many, and waters down the playoffs even further -- but if it means we can get a Division 1 state final at Gillette on a Friday night at 8, I think I can deal. That said, I'm wondering if going forward the state could benefit from the abdication altogether of sectionals. Five classes would be ideal, in my opinion, with five being the highest and most exclusive. I would like to see five statewide classes seeeded one through 16 by a universal power ranking system; with first round games on the road; neutral sites the rest of the way, with travel reimbursement offered; and concluding with state finals at Gillette Stadium. There's a lot to tinker with, but I think the foundation of this idea is solid.

2. The huge crowds at Fenway last year proved that, in spite of turbulence at other ticket gates, the idea of Thanksgiving football still works for the state's strongest rivalries. Needham-Wellesley, BC High-Catholic Memorial, and St. John's Prep-Xaverian all drew over 10,000 fans for the event, and players and fans alike soaked in the festive atmosphere. It's hard work, but what Fenway underscored is that, for many of the state's Thanksgiving rivalries to survive a playoff system that isn't going away any time soon, the organizers involved are going to have to get creative with how they incentivize the games. The days of playing a Thanksgiving game as a means of simply completing a schedule are eroding.

3. Not going to lie, I've taken delight at watching the hand-wringing by national pundits and players alike over this new NFL rule, loosely identified as the "Josh Norman Rule", in which two unsportsmanlike penalties turns into an automatic ejection. Really? This has been a high school rule for a while, and I've yet to hear anyone complain about it.

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Nate Weitzer

ESPNBoston Editorial Assistant

Weitzer's Top 10

1. Xaverian – The back-to-back Division 1 state champs will return several key starters and reload while weakening one of their chief rivals, as they add former Everett linebacker Dexter Cumberlander to an elite defense.

2. Everett – It was a down year for the Crimson Tide in 2015, but top prospect Jordan McAfee is back at quarterback and that young defense should make a significant leap forward this fall.

3. Central Catholic – Always a threat to implement one of the best passing offenses in the state, the Raiders return a couple of key starters while other skill players should step up in the absence of graduated star Steven Jackson.

4. Duxbury – Without the services of stud wide receiver Ryan Reagan and running back Devin DeMeritt, the Dragons advanced all the way to the Division 3 Southwest Final last fall. With both players entering the season healthy and Bobby Maimaron under center, they should be considered the odds-on favorites in D2 South.

5. Andover – Air Perry is back for one more season and the senior will have plenty of weapons surrounding him as the Golden Warriors look to move one step further in the D1 North state tournament.

6. St. John’s Prep – The Eagles fell victim to a very tough draw by facing Everett in the first round of the D1 North bracket, which led to an early exit. Yet with Hayden Rockett and younger brother Wes Rockett returning at wide receiver, this renowned program will have a great offense to go along with its usually steady defense.

7. Billerica – Duxbury and Billerica may be on a collision course to meet in the D2 EMass Final. The Indians are returning 17 starters and are particularly strong up the middle on both sides of the ball.

8. Leominster – Senior quarterback Noah Gray will head to Duke University next year, but before that he’ll look to lead these Blue Devils to a Division 2 State Title. He has enough talent around him to potentially accomplish that goal.

9. Boston College High – Never lacking in terms of size up front, the BC High Eagles will hope to ride senior running back D.J. Abraham deep into the State Tournament this winter.

10. Nashoba - After stunning EMass champion Reading in the Division 2 Super Bowl last fall, the Chieftans move down to Division 2A, which should allow them to post a great regular season record and earn a top seed in an attempt to return to Gillette.

Five Players on the Rise

David Onyemem, Sr. WR/FS, Central Catholic

The Raiders will have a difficult time replacing incredible playmaker Steven Jackson, but Onyemem is a gifted young receiver that could fill the void. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior starred defensively for Central Catholic on the way to a Division 1 State Finals appearance, but he could break out on the other side of the ball this year.

Duane Binns, Jr. LB, Everett

Binns played somewhat sparingly last season with Dexter Cumberlander and senior Jackinson Joacine leading the linebacking corps. Yet with the former transferred to Xaverian and the latter graduated, it will fall on Binns and classmate Joe Gulla to anchor Everett’s defense as the Crimson Tide look to bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season.

Mark Clagg, Sr, QB, Foxborough

Clagg is the new mold of quarterback in that he’s somewhat undersized, but his quick feet can make up for any deficiencies as a passer by allowing him to get outside the pocket and make plays. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior will look to form chemistry with a couple of new weapons while potentially leading the Warriors deep into the Division 2A State Tournament.

Quin Murphy, Soph, OL/DL, Duxbury

The aforementioned Devin DeMeritt will lead the Dragons elite offense along with WR/TE Ryan Reagan, but paving the way for those seniors will be an elite offensive line. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 295 pounds, Murphy is clearly just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of his potential and many high-level colleges will be watching carefully to see how this road grater sets up lanes on the outside and protects Duxbury’s prized quarterback.

Wes Rockett, Soph, WR, St. John’s Prep

Yet another extremely talented athlete to attend the Prep from this family, the youngest Rockett broke out with 9 receptions for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns during the second half and overtime of a close loss to Bridgewater-Raynham last year. His older brother Hayden will continue to draw most of the attention from opposing defenses, but Wes - who stands at just 5-foot-7 and weighs under 140 pounds- is capable of torching unsuspecting defensive backs all season.

Teams on the Rise

Danvers

The Falcons made school history by winning not one, but two playoff games last year and they seem poised to take another step up this season. With a versatile offensive weapon and defensive quarterback at free safety returning in Matt Andreas, this team will be poised on both sides of the ball and ready to make noise in Division 2A North.

Mansfield

Hornets had a great 2015 season, but ran into a buzzsaw in the form of unstoppable Marshfield, resulting in a second round exact from the D2 South playoffs. With Marshfield looking significantly weaker on paper this season, Division 1A South is wide open and the Hornets have as good a chance as any team to emerge from that division. Junior wide receiver Hunter Ferreira is a playmaker to watch on the outside, as he should help Mansfield move the ball consistently this season.

Natick

The program had a down year by its lofty standards last season, yet that means that a lot of incoming juniors and seniors earned valuable experience in varsity games. Natick brings back a talented young squad that could contend in the newly minted Division 1A South.

Haverhill

With high expectations heading into last postseason, the Hilltoppers wound up playing a thrilling game against Austin Burton and a freewheeling Newton South offense. They came up short in the end, but return a talented class surrounding senior quarterback Broghean McGovern and have enough athleticism to compete in Division 1 North.

Braintree

It may be disappointing for the Wamps to compete in Division 1 South against the likes of Boston College High, Brockton and a dynastic Xaverian program, but this team is flush with talent and experience, as they return 16 starters. Running back Drew Caruso is healthy after missing most of last season and he’ll rush behind an experienced offensive line led by Bryant-bound tackle Greg Wood. Braintree might have the best corps of linebackers in the Bay State Conference and a team that is ready to play at a high level.

Food for Thought

1. The new divisional alignment means very little aside from changing the nomenclature involved in each group, but it might change how certain powerhouses in lower level divisions compete.

For example, Holliston is now in the fifth lowest division (D3) after earning back-to-back Division 4 State Titles and making three consecutive trips to Gillette. As a result, the Panthers regular season schedule should be much easier as they look to make it four straight Super Bowl appearances.

At the same time, the gap between large and small schools in different divisions is closing rapidly, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see some Division 2 and Division 2A teams pull off a few big upsets this fall.

Two Division 2 programs in Duxbury and Billerica appear to be as talented as any programs in the state, and both teams will try to prove that assertion when the Indians host Everett at the end of September and Duxbury opens the season at Bridgewater-Raynham.