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The Gronk-ification of Mass. high school football

Many of the Bay State's top tight ends are modeling their game after Rob Gronkowski, to which the Patriots superstar says, "It's an honor, and it's a humbling reaction." Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

There’s always a playful sort of muzzle to Rob Gronkowski’s larger-than-life, aw-shucks persona down in the Gillette Stadium locker room. In this setting, the Patriots’ real-life answer to Nuke LaLoosh is prone to go straight-face and just rattle off a litany of clichés that may as well have been coached by Crash Davis himself.

Still, the hulking 6-foot-6 superstar can’t help but let that canyon-wide grin of his creep across his face when told the No. 1 ranked player in the state of Massachusetts wants to become Gronk 2.0.

“Everything I do, I try to emulate what he does, because he’s the best,” the kid, Danny Dalton, had said a few nights earlier following an early-evening practice at Marshfield High School.

Told of this, Gronk says with a smile, “It’s an honor, and it’s a humbling reaction, too.” And like one of those lumbering vertical patterns he’s famous for, now he’s picking up steam in his speech.

Those high-profile players around the Bay State, they love to run the fade route, No. 9 in your passing tree. And they love Gronk’s personal favorite, the corner route, just as much as he does.

Now he’s getting slightly animated as he explains the art of it, raising his oven-mitt hands for emphasis with that trademark sheepish beam of his.

“I just like to give the little stick, and go to the corner,” he continues. “I feel like that’s where I get my most speed and momentum. It’s not a short route either, so if I catch it, it’s a big play.”

There’s never been anything like Gronk to come through this way. Long after he’s gone, he’ll still be remembered as one of the best to ever put on a uniform in New England, if not the most colorful. Before he can even leave his prime, he’s already had a seismic influence at the local grassroots level in his trail.

OVERNIGHT SENSATIONS

Two tight ends, some 85 miles apart from one another, had the local high school football recruiting scene abuzz nearly nonstop for most of this offseason, after making two of the most surreal plays seen in an MIAA state tournament in years.

Last Nov. 14 on the campus of Nichols College, host site for the Division 4 Central Final, Shepherd Hill’s Sean McKeon put the nail in the coffin on a 41-6 thrashing of St. Peter-Marian for the district title. From his own 26- yard line, the 6-foot-5 McKeon came out of a three-point stance from the right hash and streaked across the middle of the field, his lanky frame and long, gazelle-like strides betraying the speed of a middle distance runner.

Backpedaling down the left sideline some 25 yards downfield, he hauled in a feathery touch pass with his outstretched mitts and turned back upfield, where he dragged one defender 15 yards and then judo-chopped a second defender square into the turf as he attempted to barge his shoulder into McKeon’s knees, running out the final 30 yards untouched for a 74-yard catch-and-run score known locally as simply “The Gronk”.

“I was just trying to run and not get tackled...Hoping to do that a couple more times this year,” McKeon smiled when asked about the play during a late-August practice.

Three weeks after “The Gronk”, Marshfield High wunderkind Danny Dalton completed a play that his father playfully dubbed, “The $250,000 catch”. For our own intents and purposes, we can just call this “The Gronk, 1B”.

Standing a yard left of the tackle box along the line of scrimmage as the second inside receiver, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dalton hop-stepped across his defender’s face and glided out his favorite route -- the fade -- down the right hash. Having separated the A.C. joint on his left shoulder the play before, Dalton couldn’t even feel his left arm as he threw it up and laid out for a diving one-handed snag some 30 yards downfield.

In the years since Gillette Stadium first began hosting high school state championships in 2007, there’s never been a catch quite like it. So naturally, Dalton was beside himself when he realized what he had just done, the cake topper on a 45-6 rout of Longmeadow for the Division 2 state title.

“People say that Jack [Masterson, the quarterback] didn’t make the best throw on it, but he threw it where it needed to be,” Dalton said. “I just stuck my hand out there and I somehow hauled it in. I remember I was pretty impressed with myself when I watched that again.”

Long-time head coach Lou Silva hates swearing, and has a rule against it. But this was one of those catches that brought out one’s inhibitions.

“I think I swore under my breath,” Silva laughed. “One of those, ‘You gotta be...’ kinda things, you know what I mean? I still can’t believe it when I watch it. How the heck did he catch that thing? I have no idea.”

Over a decorated career at Marshfield that includes 217 victories, five state championships and a handful of NFL alums since he took over in 1981, Silva could find no equal to what he saw that morning. “Danny’s is the best catch I’ve ever been involved with in my entire career at Marshfield High School. That is THE number one.”

Cracks new Hingham High head coach Chris Arouca, who was the Rams’ offensive coordinator for that title season last fall, “He’s probably a big reason why I’m at Hingham right now, too.”

That quarter-million dollar catch, the first and most outstanding play on his highlight tape, turned out to be worth its weight in gold as the recruiting trail picked up last winter. Dalton verbally committed to Boston College on Feb. 17 and spoke at the time like someone pledged lock-and-key, with quotes like, “Even if I had offers from, you name the school, it was always going to come back to Boston College.”

Of course, kids from the South Shore never, ever expect the University of Alabama to show up and offer a scholarship. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide are always a game-changer, and when they offered Dalton in early March, it sprung an avalanche of nearly two-dozen more offers stretching across the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Pac-12. He decommitted from BC a few weeks after the Bama offer, then pledged to Penn State over Alabama in May.

“[Coaches] would say, ‘Crazy catch in the beginning of the film,’ that was always the first thing they’d say to me,” said Dalton, who is on track to graduate in December and enroll at Penn State for the spring 2016 semester.

McKeon, more of the shy and quiet type, found himself with scholarship offers from an equally diverse cornucopia, from the Mid-Atlantic (Virginia Tech) all the way to the Rocky Mountains (Colorado State, Air Force) and a slew in between. He ultimately settled on Michigan, over a list of nearly 20 other Division 1 suitors.

He had been on the radar for a while, but McKeon was still considered a surprise on the scene in spite of his decorated junior season, which included First Team honors on ESPNBoston’s annual All-State Team. While Shepherd Hill has been pretty successful within its regional sphere over the last decade and half under head coach Chris Lindstrom, a four-year NFL vet and Boston University Hall of Famer, the school gets typecast as an unknown due to its location in the thickly-wooded western suburbs of Worcester (Dudley, population 11,000), and its alignment in Division 4, one of the lowest levels in the MIAA.

TRICKLE-DOWN GRONKONOMICS

Call it the “Gronkification” of high school football in Massachusetts.

On any given play, you may see No. 87 in any assortment of spots along the field – in a three-point stance attached to the formation, standing idle in the slot, split out wide beyond the numbers, or even in the backfield as a fullback. And while Gronkowski is not exactly a pioneer for this strategy, never before have we seen such a devastating combination of power and athleticism wreak such havoc on defenses as it did in either of the Patriots’ Super Bowl seasons of 2011 or 2014.

As Gronk’s role in the Patriots’ offense continues to diversify with the passing years, so too have the top tight ends in high schools across Massachusetts, the two bodies of work seeming to run parallel with one another.

Green Bay Packers tight end Richard Rodgers was a nightmare for secondaries while at Shrewsbury’s St. John’s High from 2008-10. The wide-bodied, 6-foot-4 California transplant was used exclusively as a split end while another NFL-bound tight end -- Pittsburgh Steelers sophomore Rob Blanchflower -- stayed attached to the formation. The result was one of the most successful eras of offense in school history, including a 2009 team that saw four players eventually receive NFL roster invitations.

Southeastern Mass. powerhouse Mansfield was long one of the state’s most consistent power-running attacks before Brendan Hill emerged on the scene three years ago. Head coach Mike Redding installed 15 new spread-oriented formations aimed at getting the 6-foot-5 Hill, a University of New Hampshire signee, out in space. While classified as a tight end, Hill was either in the slot or split out past the numbers on 75 percent of plays during the Hornets’ 2013 state championship season. But when Hill tore his ACL in their Thanksgiving game -- a week and a half before they were set to take on St. John’s for the D2 state title -- the Hornets went back to basics, pounding the ball down the Pioneers’ throat for the program’s sixth state championship since 1992.

Former journeyman NFL quarterback Brian St. Pierre inherited a Mack truck in Boston College signee Jake Burt when he took over the St. John’s Prep program last year. And while he took a more balanced approach to the offense, similar to the pro styles he spent a decade running in the league, Burt spent a considerable amount of time on the perimeter -- specifically in sets paired a few yards apart from the Eagles’ top receiver, Owen Rockett, twisting up cornerbacks with various “rub” concepts in the flats.

“You go back 20 years, when everyone played a 4-4 [with] Cover 3, or a 5-3-2 Monster – the evolution of the game has forced coaches to work much harder and be creative,” says Steve Dembowski, President of the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association, who’s entering his first season at the helm of Milton High after a decade of success running his patented spread offense at Swampscott.

“A lot of coaches have become creative out of necessity, because the positions like the tight end and the fullback, those kids just don’t grow on trees anymore. It’s really been about the necessity -- offense has evolved, and then defense has evolved, and then the coaches have to work harder and harder to build flexibility into their offensive and defensive systems, to account for what they see.”

St. Pierre had a front-row seat to the position’s evolution during his decade as a backup quarterback in the NFL. When he first arrived in the league in 2003 from Boston College, he was teammates with players like Heath Miller and Todd Heap, guys who served a more traditional role as an in-line blocker who ran crisp, short-to-intermediate routes as a check-down option. Along the way, college basketball stars turned Pro Bowlers Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates brought their nimble footwork from the hardwood, making for acrobatic play on the gridiron.

A decade after his first NFL snap, St. Pierre left the league as a new breed of “flex” tight ends were beginning to make their mark, a blend of finesse and brute force never seen before at the position, none more prolific than Gronkowski. St. Pierre can’t help but notice the trickle-down effect of watching Gronk on Sundays has had on high school coaches.

“I can’t help but think it. They’re the model franchise in the NFL, and the guy who’s coaching them is pretty good,” said St. Pierre, who went to two Super Bowls backing up future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner. “You see what they do when they have a guy they really feel good about, and you think, ‘Why can’t we do that at this level?’ You gotta have the guy to do it, but if you have the guy, I can’t see why you wouldn’t do what they’re doing with Gronk.”

Says Silva, “Oh yeah, absolutely. We see Rob split out, and they either put a linebacker on him and he’ll smoke those guys, or they’ll put a defensive back on him that’s 5-10, it’s the same thing with our guy. Danny is 6-5 – who are they going to put on him? And then if they double him, that opens up the inside. ... It’s nice throwing a big guy out there.”

Upon Dalton’s arrival to the varsity, the Rams tweaked around Silva’s tried-and-true Wing-T attack, blending it with “Pistol” formation looks and placing Dalton primarily on the perimeter to create one of the most unique-looking offenses -- and a difficult one to scout, at that. The Rams are still running the buck sweep -- probably as good as ever -- only now, defenses have to watch for a tunnel screen off the backside, too. The results were devastating in 2014, with Dalton leading the Rams in every major receiving category (56 catches, 765 yards, 9 TD).

Would the Dalton’s and McKeon’s of the world have these kinds of opportunities a decade ago? Silva fires a self-aware quip.

“Probably not...I wasn’t smart enough to figure that out 10 years ago, you know?” he chuckles.

PROMISING FUTURE

So where does it go from here? As the revolution nears its nexus, are we approaching the limits of the tight end position?

“I see anybody that in that 6-4 range with a body that can grow into 240 pounds with that athleticism, they’re gonna be in high demand,” St. Pierre said. “They’re at more of a premium now, and they’ll teach them how to block if they can’t. It used to be other way -- if you can’t block, they’d put you somewhere else. There’s definitely a renaissance, put it that way.”

Dalton, the nation’s No. 8 ranked tight end by ESPN, chose Penn State over Alabama in part because of his chances of getting on the field earlier, as well as the similarities between his role at Marshfield and the one he’ll play in James Franklin’s up-tempo spread attack. Franklin’s offense made superstars out of weapons like Jordan Matthews and Zac Stacy at Vanderbilt, and Dalton’s already excited about the possibilities for him when he enrolls this coming January.

McKeon, meanwhile, plays in one of the most difficult offenses to evaluate recruits from -- the Double Wing. The century-old offense is an under-center look of its equally-antiquated relative Single Wing, with the feel of a Wishbone, complete with double handoffs, cut blocks, double-teams and 360-degree quarterback pivots. It’s a run-heavy attack, and McKeon has the numbers (19 catches, 354 yards, 3 TD) to back it up.

How does Jim Harbaugh -- he of the very traditional, very pro-style offensive attack -- conclude a kid who caught 19 passes out of a Double Wing offense is a good fit?

For one, his long frame has plenty of projectability -- at 225 pounds, his once-lanky frame now looks something like a light-heavyweight MMA fighter. For another, his footwork coming off the ball is remarkable. The Wolverines reportedly loved his flexibility, his speed, how he blocks, how he gallops across the middle of the field for a player his size like a cheetah in pursuit.

“Great question. They could care less what I run,” Lindstrom says. “They’re not looking at my technique, they’re not looking at the plays I run.”

Shepherd Hill was one of the most explosive rushing attacks in Massachusetts a year ago, racking up 3,835 yards and 49 touchdowns with a converted tailback -- Central Connecticut State signee Drew Jean-Guillaume -- under center. Jean-Guillaume was a runner more than a passer, but the Rams were often at their apex when he was rolling out to the sideline, deftly “throwing receivers open” with feathery touch passes into space. McKeon was the primary benefactor of these plays, whether it was streaking across the middle on “Waggle” plays, or popping out of the tackle box for a throwback screen with plenty of real estate in front.

It will be a different look under center this year for Shepherd Hill, which comes into 2015 as the No. 12 ranked team in ESPNBoston’s statewide poll. With a more traditional drop-back passer in junior Ryan Longley likely to take the reigns, that may open up offensive coordinator Ryan Dugan’s creative side even more – though the Rams weren’t about to give away any state secrets.

“You’ll see him getting the ball in very unique ways,” Lindstrom said. “He may be running back, may be wide receiver, maybe on reverses, maybe on screens. We are going to use him, we will definitely take advantage of the talent we have. We’re pretty talented.”

As the No. 1 team in ESPNBoston’s poll, and the defending D2 state champions, there’s a crater-sized target on Marshfield’s back. Silva hinted that he may even go with a no tight end look in 2016. But for the now, as the late Darrel Royal once famously quipped: “You dance with the one who brung ya.”

“This year, we’re going to expand his role even more,” Silva said. “I won’t tell you what that’s going to be, but we’re going to expand a little more.”

CURTAIN FALLS

As the late-summer New England sun sets on the turf at Marshfield, Dalton is happy to put on a foxtrot in the final act of the Rams’ no-pads, early-evening practice.

Split out on the perimeter, Dalton runs his favorite route -- the fade -- down the left sideline and gets heavy in his step as he braces for a 50-50 ball, the way Blake Griffin might gather himself before posterizing a sorry soul. Dalton pogo-sticks himself into the air with his outstretched mitts, effortlessly out-leaping his defender for an easy snag at the back pylon. A chorus of faint shrieks ring out some 40 yards back at the line of scrimmage.

This is nothing new, folks in Marshfield will tell you. Earlier this summer at a 7-on-7 tournament, Dalton put on a route-running tutorial. After flashing his hands on a short hitch route, he turned his defender into a chair as he spun 270 degrees and sprinted upfield, out-leaping two safeties for a fly-trap catch at the sideline some 35 yards later. Dalton then quietly jogged back to the huddle, as if he only did the jaw-dropping snag out of boredom.

But here, in a playful moment of unsophistication, Dalton sprints up to the goal posts and slam dunks the ball through the uprights. You can probably guess what happens next.

“Hey! We’re not doing that anymore!” Silva yells.

Dalton sports a sheepish grin as he trots back to the line of scrimmage.

Like his idol, sometimes the young buck just can’t help but indulge.