WELLESLEY, Mass. -- As the head coach of the Wellesley Raiders, Jesse Davis does not mince words when it comes to the importance of building a successful football program.
“I bleed Raider Pride,” Davis told ESPNBoston.com. “I grew up in Wellesley, my parents still live here, I work here, and this program is definitely a source of pride for me.”
After starting the past two seasons 1-3 and 0-4, Wellesley (4-0) is off to a red-hot start in 2015, as Davis has led the Raiders to impressive victories over Peabody (20-8), Framingham (35-7), Dedham (27-14), and perennial Bay State Conference power Natick (7-2) to start the year.
What’s been the secret to Wellesley’s success?
Well, aside from the steadfast efforts of a tight-knit group of athletes that grew up playing football together, the coaching staff’s revitalization of an old offensive strategy has allowed the Raiders to effectively control the pace of play over those three contests.
“We had success in the spread [offense] over the past few years, but we were looking for a system that’s more team-based, and a way to gain an advantage on a week-to-week basis,” explained Davis.
He continued, “So, we changed our offense to the Flexbone this year, and the theory behind that is creating a system that fits your players’ type. It’s very similar to the Wing-T in that it’s not necessarily talent based. Here at Wellesley, we traditionally have undersized, smart players that are good athletes, and this type of system can allow you to be competitive year-in, year-out with the right personnel.”
The Raiders were able to finish the 2014-15 season on a high note by winning six of their final seven games, and with more than half their starters returning on offense, it’s not surprising that they’ve hit the ground running this year.
With a 3-0 record in conference play, Wellesley is clearly a contender to win the Bay State League. The Raiders will face the chief competition in the conference with home tilts against Walpole (3-1, 2-1) and Milton (4-0, 2-0) over the next couple weeks, and if they make it through that section of the schedule unscathed, this group will have made huge strides as far as helping a storied program return to prominence.
Offensive Revival: Davis played offensive guard and defensive tackle at Wellesley from 1994-98. With Hall of Fame head coach Andy Levin calling the shots, the Raiders of that era were able ride a versatile attack based on the Wing-T formation to a Super Bowl meeting with Marshfield in 1998, before breaking through with a state title the following season.
After a year at Norwich University, and four years in the Marine Corps, Davis returned to his high school alma mater to join the Raiders coaching staff in 2006, and became head coach prior to the 2012 season.
Now in his fourth year at the helm for Wellesley, Davis recalled the success of the Wing-T during his playing days. “It was new to the Bay State League,” he said. “Coach Levin introduced it, and it was sort of his brainchild. There was a lot of misdirection and angles that helped us keep defenses off-balance.”
So, as the school year came to a close last spring, Davis made a decision to implement a version of that offensive system with the current team at Wellesley.
“The plan was to move in a different direction with the offense,” Davis confirmed. “Our defense has been good over the last couple years, but we wanted to figure out a way to adjust the offense to compliment the defense and control the ball more by running the football.”
For senior captain and quarterback Jake Mohan, a revamped offense meant a lot of studying in a short period of time.
“Back in May or June, coach Davis handed me the playbook and said, ‘we’re changing the offense. Learn this stuff,’ Mohan recalled. “So I spent the next few weeks studying every single play and every single defensive front, because not only do I have not what we’re doing, I have to know what the defense is going to throw at us.”
The season began with very positive results, as Mohan led the Raiders to a 37-0 victory over Weston in their final preseason scrimmage. Mohan would go on to throw 4 touchdown passes and rush for two more scores over the next four weeks of regular season action, as he guided his team to an undefeated start.
Yet, as great as Wellesley has been offensively, the Raiders defense has been just as important to their success.
Band of Brothers: Since Davis took over as head coach, Wellesley has held its training camp in a remote location where the players can truly concentrate on football.
This past August, the Raiders once again made the trip to Camp Caribou in Winslow, Maine in an effort to get into shape, and come together as a unit.
“It’s been a very positive experience for us,” Davis said about the unconventional preseason ritual. “No cell phones are allowed. We unplug the kids and really focus on football. With no distractions, it’s really allowed the team to bond.”
Back at Wellesley, with the team closer than ever, junior outside linebacker and fullback Grant Chryssicas detailed the process of preparing for the Raiders home opener against standout running back Doug Santos and Peabody.
“It was a big week, because all we were hearing about is this running back [Santos] that ran for 2,000 yards against a bunch of D1 teams last year. So we were geared up to stop him. When it came down to it, we just did our jobs, and were able to do it as a team,” Chryssicas said.
Chryssicas would lead the effort against Peabody’s vaunted offense with 15 tackles and two sacks, and also carried the ball 12 times for 119 yards as the primary pitchman in Wellesley’s triple option attack.
At the end of September, the Raiders defense undertook an entirely different challenge when they faced Natick’s spread-based offense on the road. Wellesley gave up 35 points in each of their last two meetings with Natick, but this time, the Raiders were able to shut out the Redhawks offense, as they only yielded a safety on a botched punt during their 7-2 win.
Chryssicas discussed the difficulties of preparing for a completely different offense when he said, “We had to transfer from Santos getting thirty carries a game to Natick throwing it all over the field. We ran the spread last year, so coach Davis was able to get our mindset right for each type of challenge, and get us motivated to make a statement in a league game.”
Davis did not hesitate when asked whether the offense or defense has been more pivotal to the Raiders’ early-season success. Despite Wellesley’s improved offense, the coach maintains that it merely compliments the defensive strengths of his team.
Furthermore, he pointed out how the Flexbone is still a work in progress for his players.
“Our kids have bought into what we’re doing on both sides of the ball, and their fire and passion has been impressive thus far,” said Davis. “Anytime you’re trying something new, you’re going to make mistakes, and we made a lot of mistakes on the offensive side of the ball last week. But their ability to fight through adversity, and go out there and play tough defense against a good [Natick] football team, really carried us through.”
A Football Community: When asked about his hopes for the future of the program, Davis replied, “I want the kids in our youth football program to want to come to Wellesley and play together. I want to get kids who aren’t playing football to want to play in high school, because as the old cliché goes, it builds character.”
At the same time, an increasingly competitive youth football program in Wellesley has produced a cohesive class of intelligent athletes, who are now finding success at the high school level.
Some of those players -- such as Mohan, and fellow captain Griffin Morgan -- have been playing together for years, and that chemistry proved invaluable during the Raiders’ big win at Natick.
Struggling to get much going offensively against Natick’s stellar defense, Wellesley went into hurry-up mode on the final possession of the first half. The Raiders matriculated the ball down the field before Mohan and Morgan combined for what would eventually stand as the game-winning play.
“We came out in trips right, and Griffin ran a backside slant,” Mohan delineated. “All game that route was open because [Natick] was sending the outside linebacker, but as I was dropping back, that backer dropped back into the throwing window.”
With nowhere to throw the ball, Mohan started scrambling, but said, “I knew Griffin [Morgan] would find space. We’ve been playing together for 10 years now, so we’re very familiar with each other and have a great connection. Because I trust him, I threw it to the back of the end zone where I knew he would be, and was thankful that we were able to make a play to help the team win.”
Mohan, Griffin, and Chryssicas are a few of several Raiders that benefited from excellent coaching and experience gained while playing at the youth level.
According to Davis, the strength of the youth football program in Wellesley has helped him build the program into what it is today.
“Guys are looking to get onto the high school team and eager to perform at that level,” Davis said. “They want to see what they can do as a team after playing together for so many years.”
From the players’ perspective, their connection with the town creates an extra sense of motivation.
“You see all the youth football kids with their jerseys at our games, and it’s cool to see that and think about how you supported the team when you were that age,” confirmed Chryssicas.
Much like their head coach, Wellesley’s players are filled with Raider Pride.
Putting It All Together: Of course, motivation can only take a team so far. When it comes down to winning football games, preparation is absolutely vital.
While Mohan took on a huge responsibility to learn the new offense, Chryssicas talked about how the linebackers received take-home tests before the Natick game, and are often given “homework” outside of practice.
Chryssicas also shifted into a much different role offensively, as he moved from slot receiver to fullback for the Raiders. Mohan isn’t the only player that has to get in plenty of mental reps, but his grasp of the offense is obviously vital to the success of that system.
“[Mohan] was a spread QB last year, so this is a completely different philosophy and scheme, but he’s embraced his new role,” Davis said of his quarterback. “Anytime you install something new, there’s a learning curve, but the amount of time [Mohan] spent studying the playbook during the offseason has really contribute to us being successful early on.”
Despite the mental and physical challenges, Mohan has embraced his new role.
“So far it’s been awesome,” Mohan said. “We put in so much work in the weight room and on the field, and our commitment during the offseason has put us in a good place, but we still have a lot of work to do to get everyone on the same page.”
Davis agreed with his captain when he talked about the importance of making adjustments throughout the season. As teams grew more accustomed to the Wing-T during the late 90’s, it became much less effective.
In order to prevent the opposition from keying in on Wellesley’s triple option attack, Davis said, “We really have to work on adjusting our scheme as the season continues, and Jake [Mohan] has to have command of the offense. He has to be able to make decisions at the line of scrimmage and communicate to all the players, because if he sees that the play we called isn’t there, he’ll need to check out of it.”
Perhaps they’re a bit undersized, but no one can doubt the Raiders intelligence, or heart. So far, the combination of those two qualities has helped Wellesley upset a couple of established programs, and crack ESPN Boston’s Top 25 rankings for the first time in the six-year history of the poll.
If they can continue to stay one step ahead of the opposition, there’s no telling how far the Raiders can go this year, but regardless of how the season ends, their gutsy performance will continue to bolster a sense of pride within the local community.