Some of them aren’t old enough to drive yet, but on the football field, they’ve been handed the keys to the Bishop Hendricken offense.
They’re not exactly taking it slow.
The Hawks, who are 2-0 in league play and are ranked second in the Rhode Island Sports Media High School Football Poll, are led by their seniors. They set the tone, do a lot of the work in the trenches and anchor the defense.
But on offense, few seniors are touching the ball regularly. It’s the youngsters – some that are really young – who have the ball in their hands.
“It’s definitely a unique thing,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft. “As a staff, it’s something we haven’t experienced in our five years here. But they’re a talented group, and it’s not just their talent. They have high football IQ’s and they’re very coachable. There are no egos. Nobody’s demanding the ball. They’re really fitting in well.”
From the moment last season ended, Croft and his coaching staff knew the Hawks might be in for a youth movement. They lost a lot of talent from their Super Bowl team and had strong sophomore and freshmen classes rising up the ranks.
“We had an inkling in the off-season,” Croft said. “We had a talented group coming up and we knew they would be able to push our veterans. They were around all summer, lifting and working hard. They were ready.”
The Hawks had some experience plugging holes. The year before, they had to replace almost a full lineup from the 2010 Super Bowl team.
The difference is that many of last year’s replacements were seniors, like quarterback Ryan Brannigan, running back Louis Falcone and wide receiver Laionel Cintron.
There were some seniors in the mix this year, but players like Marco DelVecchio and Jarrid Witherspoon are defensive standouts more than offensive stars. It became clear pretty early that the full-time replacements would be a little greener, but so far, they haven’t missed a beat.
Junior Remmington Blue, who got just a handful of varsity carries as a sophomore, rushed for over 200 yards in the season opener, and the rest of the young Hawks have followed suit.
“We were nervous about the beginning of the season,” Croft said. “But we got off to a good start and I think that was key for us. We’ve said all along that we’re following the same blueprint. We’re going to be a better team and a different team in November. I think we were just a little younger to start.”
That’s true at all the skill positions, but growing pains have been few and far between. Junior Patrick Gill grabbed the starting quarterback job out of camp and has played well. Sophomore John Toppa has seen some time as well.
“I’ve said this to [offensive coordinator Frank Pantaleo] and I’ve said it to Gill too – he’s exceeded my expectations,” Croft said. “I had confidence that no matter who we put there, we would be okay, because we have a lot of weapons and we weren’t going to put it all on the quarterback. Gill has done great. I think he’s tasted it now and he knows what it takes to be successful. And Toppa has continued to work too. He’s made a lot of improvements.”
In the backfield, Blue and sophomore Power Kanga are developing into a dynamic one-two punch. Blue has had two more big games after his strong debut, and Kanga tallied 137 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s win over East Providence. Sophomores Gary Gibbs and Terrence Gibbs have gotten some late-game carries and have also run well.
“It’s a very talented backfield,” Croft said. “They’ve got good speed. I think the biggest thing they have to work on is their blocking.”
In the receiving corps, Hendricken has senior Kazre Cummings leading another young group. Juniors Mike Scarcella and Mitch Lucci each caught touchdown passes last week. Sophomore Matt Duffie, who starts in the secondary, has also been in the mix on offense.
In all, it’s a lot of touches for sophomores and juniors. In Croft’s eyes, the best part of the situation is the way the seniors have handled that.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Croft said. “It’s really a team effort. Sometimes when seniors see young guys coming in, they get anxious. They don’t want to lose their jobs. But our seniors have been phenomenal. They know we’re here to win and they’ve welcomed the younger kids in. I think they’ve really made them feel comfortable.”
That’s been a big help in the development process, but with some stiff challenges ahead, the Hawks know there’s a lot more to go.
The young players are at the wheel.
Now they’ve got to keep it steady.
“We haven’t had a lot of trouble so far but I think we have to realize that there are going to be times when we make mistakes,” Croft said. “Generally, it’s going to take half a season for guys to really get comfortable and get that inexperience past them. We’re getting into the meat of the schedule now, so it’s going to be an opportunity for the guys to continue to get better.”