We swung by Gillette Stadium on Friday night and Saturday morning and afternoon to take in the New England Football Coaches Clinic.
Over the course of the two days, watched a number of compelling presentations that ranged on topics that touched on basically every aspect of the game. There were offensive and defensive scheme talks, ones on building and maintaining a winning culture, others on strength and conditioning, and anything one could think of.
However, one consistent theme was promoting and protecting the game going forward, as more than one speaker cautioned how the game is "under attack" for being seen as unsafe.
Springfield College coach Mike Cerasulo opened his presentation on the option game with words about that very subject, and how "people don't know what we're doing" when it comes to coaching football.
Afterward, MassVarsity caught up with Cerasulo to expand on his comments, and why he felt the need to tell those in attendance that message.
"I think it's important at any level, because I just think that the things that you learn from the game are unlike anything else, and you can't teach them and you can't teach them in a classroom," Cerasulo said. "And, obviously, what you learn in a classroom is equally important, but there's a lot of things being taught, the principles of the game: as far as camaraderie; as far as leadership; as far as accountability; as far as the mental and physical toughness part of things; as far as being a good brother to someone else and relying on someone else. All the other things outside of blocking and tackling and winning games, we're teaching, as well. We need to continue to teach, and I just don't think they know the game well enough.
"They just see headlines on the TV or in the newspaper. If you actually went to . . . That's just such a small part of the game. It's everything else. It's the time with the guys in the meeting room and the time away from the game and the relationships that we build, I think that's what's so special, and I think that's what makes the game so special. And, if all of a sudden, everybody wants to attack it as opposed to finding out what it's really about and what we're trying to do, then none of us are in a good way."
'Athletes first, big guys second'
Harvard coach Tim Murphy used his hour to teach the inner workings of his team's run-pass option schemes. After he spoke, we talked with Murphy about his two Massachusetts recruits from the 2019 class in Scott Elliott from Holliston and Spencer Cassell from Hingham.
"Well, there you go. There's two offensive linemen," Murphy said. "The key thing with both guys is we recruit athletes first, big guys second. There's lots of big guys on the offensive line, whether it's us or anybody else. But, if you look as an example, our left tackle, Tim O'Brien, was a 235-pound tight end in high school and played at 290, very athletic left tackle. Spencer Cassell is in the same mold. He's 6-5, he's 6-6. His parents are both athletes. His parents are both tall, athletic people. He will grow into that. He's 250 pounds right now. Scott Elliott, even though he's going to be an inside guy because of his lack of height was an outstanding lacrosse defenseman. So, those two kids are certainly a huge part of that freshman class on the offensive line."
Murphy feels that this is the direction offensive line recruiting is going now.
"I think so. I don't think there's any question about it, because your inside guys still have to be athletes," Murphy said. "It's all relative, but if you're going to protect your quarterback's blind side, your left tackle, you've got to be athletic. For example, the kid we have this year, a guy named James Lee, was a volleyball player in high school, and now he's a 6-6, 282-pound, athletic left tackle."
We asked Murphy about what it was like to tell Cassell that while he may have been a skill player at the high school level, he'd be a lineman in college.
"I don't think any guy wants to hear, right off the bat, that you're not going to be a tight end anymore," Murphy said. "The tight ends that we're seeing play in the game, it's all relative. What are they? They're big wide receivers. So they're beefing up. The big tight ends, there's not necessarily a place for them because you're seeing so much spread offense. Those are the guys like Spencer that, 'Hey, here's the deal. We want you to be an offensive tackle.' If a kid's not really excited about it, then, you know, you don't do it."
The move to Federation rules for next season has been covered here and elsewhere, but we had a chance to speak with Friday night's keynote speaker, Troy Vincent, about it. He said, as the case is, if the coaches want to do something about it, they have to mobilize.
"This is actually what I was sharing now. This is where your membership has got to come together," said Vincent, the NFL's Executive Vice President of Football Operations. "The membership has to be informed, meaning your coaches have to be informed on what's being proposed. Then, taking a position and working with your legislative officials. If this is what you believe is not conducive to your state, this is where your membership has got to come in and you've got to tell them. You have to inform your membership. What is actually taking place? And, what collective decision are you all going to make to address this concern."
We also asked Vincent about the prospect of NCAA players being played, and shared the back-and-forth over Twitter that night.
One coach asked Vincent about the proposed bill that would ban organized tackle football in youth leagues under the eighth grade, and Vincent said, "That's on our radar, because that's happening in a few other states."
Another coach asked Vincent, who handed down the Deflategate sanctions, about the Ideal Gas Law. Vincent laughed and said, "That chapter of my life is closed."
One of the best presentations of the weekend came from Tewksbury coach Brian Aylward, who talked about the culture building and program structure that has allowed his team to be one of the most consistent winners in the state.
He preached accountability, unity, teamwork, and showed various ways of bringing his kids together to make them want to fight for a common goal.
Afterward, we asked Aylward about his scheduling philosophy, which seems to benefit the team come postseason time. Tewksbury has scheduled Division 1 programs like Everett and BC High in recent years, and never seems to back down from a challenge.
Still, Aylward did not frame it that way.
"My scheduling philosophy is we want to get a game. And, it's weird, but because we're a Division 3 team and we play bigger schools," he said. "So, even schools that are our size, they consider us a bigger school, and we've had a little success the last couple of years, so that becomes harder. I don't want to take a bye week because I think that hurts your momentum, any momentum that you build. We're not looking for those things. We're taking whatever we can get."
Ready for spring
The last time we spoke to UMass coach Walt Bell, he was singing the praises of his first recruiting class with the Minutemen.
On Saturday morning, he went through the details of his power run game out of the spread. Afterward, we asked him if he felt more settled in Amherst now that he's been able to close the book on the 2019 class.
"Yeah, absolutely. The biggest thing is, staff's settled. We're settled," Bell said. "We've still got some guys living in the office right now because their families don't come until May or June. But Hotel Jacobson is still pretty nice, though. Thirty-five million dollar home with 16 bedrooms. But, no, our whole staff's here. We've got a little bit of a battle rhythm right now. We've got our hands on our kids. Our kids are kind of figuring out the accountability piece. You never feel great about anything. Now, it's just on to the next evolution. Now, spring ball starts when spring break's over with. But, yeah, much better, much more settled. I'm a routine-oriented guy, so to have a routine feels good."
We also wanted to know how familiar he has been able to get with his current players.
"We do as much as we can with our kids to spend as much time as humanly possible. There's three types of recruiting: you recruit high school and junior college players; you recruit your transfer portal; and, you recruit your own players," he said. "The most important of those three is recruiting your own players. We've done everything we can to invest in those guys and spend time with them, be in the weight room with them, and do everything that we can to let them know, to start building trust, because you won't get the best out of a kid until they really trust you have their best interests at heart. You've got to go prove that to them every day. Every day I've got to do with my wife. She's got to know I love her every day. We do the same thing with our kids right now. Hopefully, it's our job as a coaching staff to prove that what we say is the truth: that we care about them; that we love them; we're going to invest in them. We're going to do it every day."
As for if he has seen any leaders emerge, Bell was hesitant to anoint anyone yet.
"You're really only able to see one type of leadership right now, and that's leadership by example, and leadership through works," he said. "We've obviously had a bunch of kids step up, guys you'd see as a physical leader. Vocally, right now, there probably hasn't been enough adversity yet to really kind of see. But that's our job to see in spring football, to create a little adversity, make it kind of tough on them, see who really likes football when it's not comfortable. But physically, we've definitely had some kids who have put in unbelievable work, gained the type of weight, lost weight. We've got a lot of kids who have invested really hard."
Bell noted that with spring practice, much of it is already scripted out, and that he and his staff is probably, in his words, "over-organized." But everything will be open to the public, and he spoke about the nature of that philosophy.
"I hope (the high school coaches) enjoy it. We want them around. I watch college football every Saturday like everybody else. We're out there playing, and we're all running the same stuff," Bell said. "I mean, inside zone . . . There aren't a lot of secrets anymore. Ten years ago, when there weren't a lot of spread, one-back, no-huddle teams, I get it. But not a lot of secrets. The recruiting piece and the building relationships piece in the first year of a program is a lot more important than making sure Rutgers knows . . . I mean, they know we run four verticals. They know we're going to run the football. They know we're going to run inside zone, and power, and counter. That's who we are and what we do. But to me, the more we can get our kids in front of a camera, the more visibility and availability we have with our kids and our coaches, the better off we'll all be as a program."
A few years ago, Blackstone Valley Tech came into its Super Bowl against Mashpee as a heavy underdog and lost, but in a competitive game. This past season, BVT topped St. Mary's at Gillette, and now coach Jim Archibald feels that the program's expectations have reflected that success.
"Since this new format, we've always talked about our goals of wanting to win a state championship," Archibald said. "It was just probably never that realistic. Now, the expectation is that it is realistic. We can do it. We can play with teams that are on the level of a Mashpee and a St. Mary's and teams like that. It's a blessing and a curse, as they say. It's one of those things that now that we've won, we want to continue to have that success. Certainly not going to be easy, but our program goals have shifted."
We also asked Archibald about coming out of the Div. 7 Central bracket, where a team like Oxford that did not even make it in could have played with just about anyone.
"It certainly helps. Division 7 Central is probably, pound-for-pound, the toughest section, as you said. Oxford and Leicester have played the last two years basically a playoff game to see who gets in the playoffs," Archibald said. "With that, it's one of those things, too, where anything less than 6-2 might now get you in. So it really puts that pressure on your games during the season. So, it's certainly, we're thrilled to be in a division that's that competitive, but we also know you can't have too many slip ups or you're going to be left out in the cold."
As for his 2019 team, BVT lost a lot, but Archibald is not crying poor.
"We graduate 22 seniors. So we're losing a ton of guys, but we have a lot of guys coming back, and we have a ton of faith in our freshman and JV program that we expect to have a say in it this year," he said. "We're not going to make any guarantees, but we feel if we play up to our ability, we're going to be in the hunt. And, at this point, with the new format, just get in. Get in the tournament and anything can happen. If you get hot, you get hot. So that's our goal. Come out, get in the playoffs, and see what happens."
In the age of the spread, one might think teams that run the Wing-T are out of style. But St. Bernard's won the Division 8 Super Bowl this year doing it both from under center and out of the shotgun.
St. Bernard's coach Tom Bingham, who gave his talk on running the Wing-T out of the shotgun, said now is as good a time as any to be running the offense that once ruled the day.
"I think it' way more effective, especially when you get into playing teams that aren't used to defending it anymore," Bingham said, "because it is deceptive when you're in the center of it, and it's super quick."
Making a commitment
At any clinic, one of the must sees is always going to be Boston College assistant Jim Reid, who currently coaches defensive ends for the Eagles.
He ran his presentation on linebacker play, and his energy and enthusiasm for the game was infectious.
Reid has been coaching for over 40 years and is an ever-present recruiter in Massachusetts. We asked him about some of the major changes he's seen in recruiting in his time.
"The pressure is not so much from social media, is making sure we offer the right player, and then making sure that we keep good communication," Reid said. "Because what's happened is this, is that people offer everybody, and then when someone tries to commit, someone says, 'No. It's a non-committable offer.' That's just not . . . That doesn't follow the rules of the game with honesty and integrity and doing things the right way. So it's a hard balance, and you offer more than the number of places you can take them. But then if someone takes a scholarship now, then you've got to get on the phone and say, 'Hey, we just got a commitment. Check it. We're not telling you anything that isn't true. Now your offer is not good.' Or, 'Hey, we're taking two. we've got one. Just want to let you know that, and there's three out there, just want to let you know to keep you aware.' Now, some guys will say, 'Thank you,' while others will say, 'Ooh, now I've got to make a decision.'
"The only wrong way today is for the coaches to not stay in touch with the players and communicate with them. Recruiting is so hard, and sometimes we make it even harder. So, you want to come, we've got one spot left. This is it. But you really like Syracuse. I'm going to wait. Now you come back and say, 'Hey, I want to do it,' but we've just taken Jim Reid. Check the list. It's on there. And that's how the offer has to be made, as well. There are some guys I've told their offer is good, just take as long as you want. Now, what we've got to do is, 'Hey, we've got one left. So and so wants to come, but we told him we've got two.' You've just got to be careful. And some people, they have no regard for that."
Reid then passed on an anecdote from his time as an assistant at Iowa.
"I'm not going to mention the school, but when I was at Iowa, I was recruiting a guy, and he committed to another Big Ten school. Then he got a call, two days, three days before Signing Day, and they said, 'You don't have a scholarship here anymore.' He said, 'What? Why?' And the coach just said, 'We found a better player.' I don't know if I could say that to anybody, but it was said. That's the way it is."
As for his position group at The Heights, the Eagles will lose two potential draftees in Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray, both of whom performed at the NFL Combine. Reid mentioned three names as replacements. He said to keep an eye on Marcus Valdez, Brandon Barlow, and Joey Luchetti.
We spoke with Steve Addazio briefly about the emerging identity of this year's group.
"I think this team, the culture has been set," Addazio said. "It's really important to this group, they're not dropping that standard, that culture that they have. So, it's been great leadership to start the spring, which, you don't know, right? It's been fantastic. So the older guys have just stepped up and owned it. AJ has been acting like one of those guys, and Anthony. It's been a little different. Those skill players, those really talented young guys, they're not young guys. They've become older guys. I think that's become evident."
Turning the corner
Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney gave his speech on the elements that it takes to turn around a program, and he is in the midst of one of those projects in Worcester after the Crusaders won their last four games of 2018 to finish 5-6.
"I think that after the Harvard game, we went into the bye week, and I think we were able to regroup a little bit, figure out what we do well, what we don't do well, and we were able to build a little more momentum toward what we were hoping to attack," Chesney said of that stretch run. "I think the competition became more like us with the Patriot League in the second half. We were playing more like opponents. At one point, we were pretty major underdogs in a lot of those games, and that's something we have to do a better job in changing."
We asked him what the team needs to do to carry that momentum over.
"I think all of our effort has to continue to get better and better," he said. "What we did last year is not enough. It will never be enough. We've always got to be a little bit more, and take the strengths, build on them. Take the weaknesses, and find a way to turn them into strengths. That's the name of the game here, right? As soon as you try to rest and say, 'We've got it figured out,' is the minute that everybody runs right by you."
He added: "I think our main mission — attention to detail, positive attitude, and urgency — are things that we're going to talk about every single day with these guys. We need them to be all in on that. As you started to see that, the locker room cleaned up a little bit more. The way they show up early. The way they're dressed. The way they have pride in what they're doing, and the way they're excited to play football again, that's the key to this whole thing. We were 1-5 at one point. There's a lot of chance to hang your head and pack it in and say, 'This just ain't for me.' But it's not about the initial goals. It's about the purpose. And that's what we keep trying to talk about with these guys."
Finally, we asked him about his former kicker at Assumption, Cole Tracy, who had a tremendous transfer year at Louisiana State. Chesney went down to watch Tracy kick at LSU's Fiesta Bowl win over Central Florida.
"I can't necessarily say it's anything to do with the way that we practice, but he's learned to block that out a long time ago," Chesney said when asked about Tracy's penchant for hitting the clutch kick. "I think that when he's lining up and the whole team's around him and we're squirting him water and throwing things and being loud, that's a foot away from his face. Then you get that stadium pumping, I'm sure it's a little bit intimidating, but it doesn't change, again, his mission. His mission is the snap, the hold, the kick, and he does his part. When I went down to watch him in that bowl game, it was just impressive, so impressive."
Bridgewater State wide receivers coach Jon Lyons did an excellent presentation on his team's shallow passing route combinations. He noted to us afterward that he does, in fact, get something out of watching prospects participate in 7-on-7 tournaments.
"I can always look at compete level, effort, and also, how do they run the routes? How do they catch the ball? Because that is going to be transferrable to a game," Lyons said. "So if you're playing 7-on-7 and you still aren't getting a good release or you're not having a good stem or if you're easy to cover, then you're going to be easy to cover in our game. The big thing I look for in that is the compete level in there, and the consistency there, and how do you run the routes? You can definitely see it in 7-on-7 there, for sure."
He said that there are tells for the quarterback position in those settings, as well.
"What I look for is, is he getting the ball out at the right time? Is he making the right reads? Is he still throwing to the open guy?" Lyons said. "Because, if you're going to throw an interception in 7-on-7, good chance you'll throw it in a game. So, to me, yeah, I don't know how he moves around the pocket in 7-on-7. I don't know some of those things. I don't know his protection checks. But is he getting the ball out quick? Because 7-on-7, kids sometimes have the tendency to sit there, sit there, sit there. Is he getting it out quick and efficiently? So there's definitely things you can pick up, 100 percent."