Swarming defense a strength as New Hampshire readies for Shrine Game against Vermont
Consider David Jackson a convert.
The New Hampshire coach for the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl is an offense guy. Has been throughout his career. But after seeing his team at practice, he had to admit it’s the other side of the ball that has him looking for superlatives going into tomorrow’s annual showdown.
“I’ve always been offensively minded, I’ve coached defense in the past, but everywhere I’ve gone it’s been on the offensive side of the ball,” he said. “I’ve never been excited about defense like I am right now. The kids on defense are flying everywhere.”
That sort of attitude has helped instill a confidence in each of the 36 players on the New Hampshire side, one that hardly needed boosting considering the Granite State’s 13-game winning streak against Vermont. There’s plenty of talent on board to help New Hampshire make it 14 straight, in the form of 12 former Division I players, 13 from Division II and 11 from Division III, and the players are eager to show off what the mix can produce.
“It’s unreal how much talent we have, and how willing everyone is to just do their job,” Concord linebacker Marc Gaudet said. “They’re all smart. … We have a lot of confidence and I think we’re going to do really well, especially on defense.”
Gaudet, voted a team captain yesterday, will start at linebacker and lead the defense with a smart, aggressive style that made him a standout with the Crimson Tide – and has earned him a fan in Jackson.
“(His presence) has been worth its weight in gold. We love the kid,” said Jackson, who coached Merrimack Valley to a 7-2 record and playoff berth last year. “He carries the energy a lot on defense.”
While Jackson said a few of the starting spots were still being decided, he confirmed several starters on the defensive side. Gaudet will be joined in the linebacking corps by Dover’s Eric Waddington, while Merrimack Valley’s Ryan Head and Plymouth’s Kyle Reisert will anchor the defensive line. Keene’s Alex Parenteau could start at either tight end or outside linebacker, and the secondary will be led by Plymouth’s Jared Kuehl at safety and Campbell’s Cody Alward and Stevens’s Donald Pellerin at corner.
The product is a fast and fierce defense, one that hits hard and flocks collectively to the ballcarrier.
“It’s definitely an ability to swarm,” Gaudet said about the team’s strength on defense. “It’s not just a single guy who can do one thing really well. It’s the whole unit just flying to the ball, everyone wants to tackle on a play.”
“We have a lot of big guys and a lot of strength,” Head said, “and the scary part is a lot of the guys that are big and strong can also move.”
On offense, New Hampshire has been taking on aspects of Jackson’s up-tempo, spread-out offense that he utilized at MV. Nashua South’s Trevor Knight is on track to start at quarterback, and he’ll have weapons in a versatile backfield led by Salem’s Jason Martinez and in a deep receiving corps that will include MV’s Cole Martin.
“We have a handful of kids that have played in the spread, and we have a lot of speed. We’ve wanted to go fast; (Tuesday) was one of the first days where we really put the pedal down and tried to get some different tempos down,” Jackson said. “To me, it’s more exciting. You can put defenses in a little more stress if they have to worry about doubling their area of responsibility with the pass.”
The speed is there, but the strength of the offense could be the line. Bedford’s Trent Fortune Jr., Exeter’s Peter Lalime and Merrimack’s Colin Healey are projected starters, and at a combined 785 pounds, they’ll provide Knight with protection while opening holes for the New Hampshire backs.
The balance will come in handy against a Vermont team that will be driven to make up for some of the blowouts its endured in the latest editions of the rivalry. Jackson said he anticipates a heavy running attack tomorrow, based mostly on the team’s philosophy in recent matchups.
“I’m expecting some flexbone, option stuff. A little bit of wishbone, maybe some I,” he said. “That’s what the coaches have used primarily in the past. … Fortunately, there’s not really that much espionage.”
New Hampshire is confident it’ll be ready. For assurance, Jackson needed only to watch his own practices.
“Right now, it’s just savage pursuit to the ball,” he said. “They’re flying, there’s not a lot of space out there. I’m sure Vermont’s not kidding around and doing nothing, they’re working their tails off too, they’re coaching them up, but when we line up, it’s pretty awesome.”
For many of the New Hampshire players, Shrine practices haven’t been as much about introductions as catching up with one another.
After all, 26 players on the roster played in the CHaD NH East-West All-Star Game in late June, a total that included local players Gaudet, Martin and Dwight Alford (Bow). With the majority of the roster having already worked together on the field or seen each other play live, there was a head start on chemistry and an ability to start practices on the same page.
“It got us all fired up, got us back into football early,” said Gaudet, voted MVP of the game. “We’re already like we’ve been together for four years in high school. I love all these guys. I trust them completely. … Normally kids wouldn’t even start training until after that point, so it just got everyone a head start.”
Head didn’t play in the game, but he could see its impact, noticing that several players were making a seamless transition to playing with each other.
“I think we’re flowing, it’s surprising how fast we came together as a team, too,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust, too. I trust the guy next to me and I know the guy next to me trusts me.”
A look at the other Capital Area players named to the New Hampshire team:
∎ Bow’s Alford has been going for a spot on the offensive line and in the linebacking corps, and has impressed Jackson so far.
“He’s one of the reasons we haven’t ironed out the whole thing up front because he’s doing a great job,” he said. “He’s always ready to work. … He’s a little smaller than most of the other linemen (6 feet, 200 pounds), but he still plays his tail off.”
∎ Pembroke’s Dean Dustin, like Alford, has been going for the line and linebacking spots, but Jackson said the former Spartan has looked for reps wherever he can get them.
“If we have scout-team fullback, we can’t keep him out of there,” Jackson said. “He jumps in and wants to be involved. He’s not content just being part of it. He wants to be involved in it.”
∎ Dakota VanTassel is as tall as anyone on the roster at 6-foot-3, but at only 210 pounds the New Hampshire coaches have been trying the former Winnisquam lineman at outside linebacker – with good results so far.
“He’s a hitter. He’ll hit anybody. He’ll hit anybody that moves,” Jackson said. “He’s not playing the position he played in high school, but he’s working at outside linebacker and offensive tackle. He’s right there on both.”
∎ Bishop Brady’s Matt Tetu was projected to be one of the team’s top corners, but a concussion suffered in Tuesday’s practice will sideline him for the game.
“He’s looked great at corner,” Jackson said just after practice Tuesday. “We looked at him on both sides and thought he was closer to the top on defense, so he (was) able to focus there.”
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dbonifant.)