CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- When he first accepted the head coaching job at Boston College two years ago, Steve Addazio vowed to “build a fence” around the state of Massachusetts, aiming to keep the Bay State’s top high school recruits close to home in Chestnut Hill.
Suffice it to say Addazio, a Connecticut native and former high school coach in his home state, has kept to his word. The Eagles announced 25 players in their 2015 class of recruits Wednesday afternoon, on the first day high school seniors can sign National Letters of Intent for football, with seven Bay State prospects among the group of two, three and four-star pledges.
Coupled with last year’s class, that gives the Eagles a whopping 15 Massachusetts recruits total over the last two signing days, an unusually high number for a state that on average produces anywhere up to a dozen Division 1 FBS signees in a given year.
Six of the top 10 Bay State prospects in ESPNU’s rankings were BC commits, which included several traditionally strong local pipelines: Everett defensive back Lukas Denis (No. 2), Brockton offensive lineman Aaron Monteiro (No. 3) and St. John’s Prep tight end Jake Burt (No. 9).
As it was last year, when Prep running back Johnny Thomas spurned the Eagles for Penn State, there was one big-time stud that got away. Xaverian defensive end Joe Gaziano, a Second Team USA Today All-American and the 2014 ESPN Boston Mr. Football recipient, committed to Northwestern last May despite aggressive recruitment from the Eagles, and stuck with it as he signed today.
Still, Addazio was satisfied with how he’s taken care of home the last two years.
“We don’t want to lose great players that can help us win at a high level that are in this five-hour radius. You need to win on those guys,” he said. “Now, we didn’t win on every one of them, but we won a lot, and that’s critically important to do. And if you don’t do that, history shows that you’ll struggle.”
Pass rush was a critical area Addazio wanted to address with this class, and he was exuberant about the abilities of two defensive ends: three-star Wyatt Ray of St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), and New Canaan (Conn.) product Zach Allen, the Gatorade Player of the Year for Connecticut.
“Zach Allen is a phenomenal football player,” Addazio said of the defensive end, who chose BC over Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse and UCLA. “Like, he is a big time football player, that is one of the very finest players in the country.”
He continued, “We’re really excited about the pass rush right now with Wyatt Ray and Zach Allen. These are two young guys that are big-time pass rushers. We’re really excited about both these guys being on opposite sides, getting after the quarterback. They’ve got the size, the speed, and the athleticism to create havoc in the pass rush.”
On the other side of the trenches, the Eagles are expected to be in for growing pains up front with all five starters graduating. Long-term, though, Addazio feels the unit will become a strength after signing another big class, led by Sarasota, Fla., product Wyatt Knopfke, the Eagles’ only four-star recruit and the No. 26 overall guard according to ESPNU.
Five offensive linemen in all dotted the class, which also included 2014 ESPN Boston Lineman of the Year Chris Lindstrom of Shepherd Hill Regional High. Addazio thinks he’s recruited an offensive line “reminiscent of years past here.”
“I’ve coached that position my entire career, and I’ll tell you I’m as excited about last year’s and this year’s offensive line class, which should be about eight guys, that I think are just gonna be absolute dominant front here as the years go by,” he said. “Now, with a young offensive line, it’s gonna be difficult to get them to immediately play at a high level. But that’s certainly one of the tallest orders we have in front of us. But in the future, we’ll be a dominant front.”
A Study Abroad
UMass signed three Bay Staters to its recruiting class, all of them offensive lineman: Xaverian’s Joe Parsons, Marblehead’s Derek Dumais and Cohasset native Michael Yerardi of Suffield Academy (Conn.). Beyond that, it’s been a much different approach to recruiting for the Minutemen, who have dug into head coach Mark Whipple’s familiar routes from Florida and Pennsylvania all the way out to his home state of Arizona.
Just how far do Whipple’s tabs stretch? Literally, the Minutemen have extended halfway around the world in their last two classes. A year ago, they signed offensive lineman Lukas Kolter from Cologne, Germany. Today, they signed 21-year-old, 6-foot-6, 230-pound tight end Travis Reynolds out of Brisbane, Australia, giving the Minutemen three internationals over their last three recruiting classes.
UMass has had a terrific run with tight ends the last two years. Leominster native Rob Blanchflower was drafted in the seventh round by the Pittsburgh Steelers last May; 26-year-old Juco transfer Jean Sifrin, who took the region by storm with several SportsCenter-worthy grabs this fall, is a late-round projection and the No. 14 ranked tight end in ESPN’s current NFL Draft forecast.
Whipple has high hopes for Reynolds, who also has a rugby background, and thinks can be an explosive addition to his multiple offense.
“His story is a little like Jean. The same digging under the cracks,” Whipple said at his afternoon press conference. “He’s played American football. There’s tape of him running down the field catching, just like Jean was. There about the same size. He caught the ball, turn and ran away from people. The nice thing is, is that Travis is 21 and five years young and I hope he’ll be here more than one year.”
The Colton Effect
UMass has traditionally had success with walk-on’s under Whipple, producing pros such as Rob Blanchflower, James Ihedigbo and Kole Ayi. And there’s no denying the influence former walk-on Joe Colton’s rags-to-riches ascent in Amherst has had on Westwood’s Clapboardtree Street, where All-State Xaverian linebacker Kenny Kern signed a letter this morning declaring his intent to take the Colton route with the Minutemen.
Coming out of Xaverian with no Division 1 offers, Colton, a 2010 ESPN Boston All-State selection, tried his hand at prep school, where he came up empty again a year later. The Norwood native decided to walk-on at UMass, and in their first year of Division 1 FBS membership he immediately got on the field as a safety, registering the sixth-most tackles on the team as a true freshman.
Two years later, Colton is a fan favorite in Amherst, one of the team’s most popular players for his gritty approach to the secondary. And back at Xaverian, the Hawks have begun to see players walk-on to the Minutemen at a yearly clip.
Last year, fullback Matt Tuleja transferred to UMass from Assumption and immediately got on the field as a junior, opening running lanes for another former walk-on, Shadrach Abrokwah.
Kern, a 2014 ESPN Boston All-State and captain of the Division 1 State Champion Hawks, gave a pledge to walk-on with the Minutemen Tuesday night, just days after giving a commitment to Assumption.
“I just felt that it was a better choice for my future academically and athletically,” Kern said. “Some former Xaverian alums like Joey Colton and Matt Tuleja have been real with me about the good and bad parts of their experiences.”
Asked about Kern, Colton told ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Uva there are similarities between him and Tuleja, a teammate of Colton’s on the Hawks’ 2009 Division 1 Super Bowl champion squad.
“The kid reminds me of an undersized Matt Tuleja,” Colton said. “Great fit for the program and the culture we want at UMass.”
The local Division 1 programs have maintained steady pipelines in Massachusetts over the years, from the decades-long exodus of Brockton and Everett kids to Chestnut Hill, to the almost-yearly walk-on tradition developing from Xaverian to UMass, to BC defensive coordinator Don Brown’s affinity with Central Mass prospects at seemingly every stop of his career.
One new pipeline to keep an eye on going forward is Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have been one of Division 1 FCS’ most consistent contenders this decade, making four NCAA Tournament appearances in the last five seasons and reaching the national quarterfinals each of the last two; since 2008 the Conway, S.C.-based school has sent nearly a dozen players to the NFL, including Mike Tolbert, Jerome Simpson and Tyler Thigpen.
And as their program stock has risen, so too has their aggression on the recruiting landscape in New England.
For this year’s class, the Chanticleers scored two New Hampshire pledges, one scholarship (Pinkerton Academy’s Noah Robison) and one preferred walk-on (New Hampton’s Seamus Tully), and has been aggressive with Massachusetts recruits. Last July, they got a verbal commitment from Xaverian safety Damion Wood, a 2014 ESPNBoston All-State selection, but they have since parted ways.
In all, they offered scholarships to five Bay Staters in the Class of 2015 who ended up elsewhere – Wood, St. John’s of Shrewsbury safety Davon Jones (BC), Xaverian lineman Joe Parsons (UMass), Mansfield tight end Brendan Hill (UNH) and Milton Academy lineman Bobby Gilmore (Harvard) – and in most cases were either the first or one of the first to offer.
Their aggression up here stems from recruiting coordinator Cory Bailey, a Wrentham native and Xaverian grad who served as head coach at Worcester’s Assumption College in two separate stints before joining the Coastal staff in 2013. All too familiar with the landscape, he’s made a vow throughout his career to always keep his alma mater on his radar, telling ESPNBoston.com, “Every year, no matter where I am in the country, what program I’m at, I’ll always recruit Xaverian, and the Catholic Conference.”
“I think there’s a lot of good football players up there,” Bailey said. “You look at [University of] New Hampshire, what they’ve done with kids from that area – year in and year out, they’re a national championship contender – taking a kid or two from up there makes a lot of sense.”
Even in an area as rich in homegrown talent as the Palmetto State, Coastal aims to maintain a foothold across the Eastern Seaboard (more undergrads currently hail from New Jersey than South Carolina, Bailey said). And long-term, with their proven track record, they should continue to reap the benefits.
“One thing about Northeast, New England kids is that generally they might be underdeveloped compared to a kid from the Southeast,” Bailey said. “The reason for that is down here, with restrictions around spring ball and summer training, they’re not as strict as they are the Northeast. So you sometimes get a kid coming in that might not be as good at the outset, but their potential is higher in some cases.”
Addazio said Lindstrom, who graduated high school in December, has already put on 15 pounds since enrolling at BC last month. “He’s a guy that’s gonna fight you,” Addazio said. “He likes football, he was brought up tough, and he’s tough. You can tell by the way he’s training in the weight room.” … New Hampshire continues to mine the Bay State for talent that slips off the radar. This year, it’s by way of injury. Two-sport All-State Mansfield product Brendan Hill, who has missed his last two basketball seasons with knee surgeries, signed with the Wildcats as a tight end after holding nearly a dozen offers from the FBS and FCS ranks over the summer, including UConn and UMass. Meanwhile Bridgewater-Raynham running back Brandon Gallagher, who missed two months of the season with a broken ankle, is heading to Durham as a preferred walk-on. … Central Connecticut State might have a few steals on their hands in linemen Guershwon Jean-Louis (Everett) and Chris Tinkham (Lynn English/East Coast Prep). Jean-Louis, a massive body at 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, showed flashes this fall with the Crimson Tide in their run to the MIAA D1 State Championship. Tinkham, a 2013 ESPN Boston All-State selection who had been on UMass and BC’s radars in the past, demonstrates a lot of raw power in his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame. “I’m not the kid in your face about where I’m going, so maybe CCSU did seem under the radar to people looking in from the outside. But to me, it felt right,” Tinkham said. … Sixteen players from Massachusetts signed FBS scholarships on Wednesday, another high-watermark year after inking 15 players last year. Eleven prospects were graded a three-star by ESPNU, including the nation’s No. 2 placekicker, Milton Academy’s Justin Yoon (Notre Dame).