When the Toll Gate football team takes the field for the Injury Fund round robin next week, it’ll have a new offense, a new defense and several new assistant coaches patrolling the sidelines.
As the Titans try to rebuild after a second straight winless league campaign, those changes will be key. But head coach Matt Mancuso hopes they merely set the stage for the most important change.
“Our biggest problem is confidence,” Mancuso said. “Our M.O. the last couple of years is that we’ll be in the game, something bad happens and we duck our heads and that’s it. That’s what we’re trying to overcome. I think once we get some confidence, things we’ll roll.”
The Titans have had a rough go of it the last few years. They went 3-4 in 2009 and 2010, holding their own and making up for low numbers with some experienced talent. In 2011 and 2012, it came crashing down, and the Titans went winless in league play.
The goal behind all the changes – and the focus on confidence – is to build the program back up. Numbers are still down, but the Titans are hopeful.
“I think those first few games are going to be the key,” Mancuso said. “Our biggest thing is getting the momentum in the scrimmages. We want to get some positive things going for these guys.”
The Titans lost a handful of veterans to graduation from last year’s team, including standouts Dave Babcock, Jose Javier and Colby Connell. The returning players have their work cut out for them, but that’s where the scheme changes come in.
Toll Gate is scrapping the Wing-T offense in favor of a simpler, power-running attack. Mancuso will also hand over play-calling duties to new assistant Jimmy Cook.
“No more Wing T,” Mancuso said. “Little more smashmouth, option football. We made things a lot simpler so that we can be faster and go harder. Not think so much.”
Mancuso, who was a defensive coach at Johnston High School before taking the Toll Gate job in 2011, will get back to his roots and focus on the defense this year.
“We’ve kind of scrapped everything, figuring the things we were doing weren’t really working,” Mancuso said.
A blend of experienced players and newcomers will be slotted into the new schemes.
At quarterback, senior Joe Brosnahan is penciled in as the starter. He has seen a few varsity snaps, but it was his performance in the summer passing league that set him apart.
“We weren’t sure how it was going to work out in the passing league, but he’s really improved every week,” Mancuso said. “He’s gotten better and better. We’re not going to throw the ball 100 times a game, so he knows what he has to do. He needs to manage the game for us.”
Senior Aaron Travers, who played both quarterback and running back last year, will slide to running back and should get a lot of the carries. Senior Chris Durand and junior Nick Lemioe will also run the ball. Junior Sean Vann is a jack-of-all-trades who can play running back or wide receiver. He’s also a back-up quarterback. The Titans plan to use two tight ends – junior Jake Moran and Shea transfer Evan Liriano.
Up front, the Titans bring back starters Jackson Burgos, Jake Lima and Nick Brown. The offensive line has struggled in recent years, but Mancuso thinks those three can help it become a strength this season.
“I think our line could be a strong suit this year because we’ve got some guys who have been playing a lot together the last few years,” Mancuso said.
Burgos will also anchor the defensive line. Juniors Cameron Vickers and Jimmy Marsella, who saw some minutes last year, are also in line for a lot of time.
Lima leads the linebacking corps, where he’ll be joined by newcomer Dave Navilliat, a stand-out wrestler who decided to come out for football.
Brosnahan and Travers will man the safety positions, with Vann and Lemioe at the cornerback spots.
For now – at every position – the Titans are focusing on basics.
“We’re really working on technique,” Mancuso said. “So when we get all our stuff in, we can focus on running it and having the technique down.”
The Titans hope their preseason slate will be part of the progressions. Scrimmages, plus an Injury Fund game against Warwick Vets may set the tone for the season.
“We’ve got some good scrimmages coming up – North Providence, PCD and Central Falls,” Mancuso said. “Hopefully, we can come out and get some confidence there.”
Toll Gate will open the regular season against Division I Cranston East, perhaps the top team in the state. They’ll focus on competing and refining their attack.
Then it’s time for league play, which begins with a Friday night game at cross-town rival Warwick vets.
“Against East, we want to come out and compete, no matter what the scoreboard says,” Mancuso said. “Then we start with Vets. If you can’t get fired up to open your league against Vets on a Friday night, I don’t know what else we can do.”