One of the more intriguing developments in the local college scene this year is Merrimack College's jump to the Football Championship Subdivision level.
The Warriors have joined the Northeast Conference after leaving Division 2 and so far have fared well. After winning the season opener against Virginia Lynchburg, Merrimack lost a heartbreaking, 40-37 game to Central Connecticut State in New Britain last weekend.
As a running back, Curran had standout careers at both Chelmsford High and the University of New Hampshire. He bounced around at several professional football teams in both the NFL and Arena Leagues, including the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, before ending his playing career after eight seasons.
Curran first had a successful run as Merrimack's offensive coordinator starting in 2010 before taking the head coaching job in 2013. Now, in his seventh season leading the program, Curran faces one of his biggest challenges as a coach yet.
The Warriors go on the road to face a good St. Francis (Pa.) team on Saturday. We spoke to him for a few minutes on Thursday to talk about his program, a few of his key players, and his recruiting strategy as Merrimack moves forward.
Here is an edited version of that conversation.
MV: I know you want to have the win against CCSU, and you don't want to take moral victories, but that was one, wasn't it?
DC: Our kids were pretty confident going in. I know everybody else was thinking we were going to get pounded, and I get it. Central's a good program. It's not like we're playing one of the lower-level teams. Central Connecticut's a good program.
You play on the road, and I don't know if you've ever been there, but it's a great environment. It's awesome. The students are right on top of you. It's a really hostile environment for opposing teams to come into.
But we had success, again, it was a long time ago, but when we had (former quarterback and current position coach Joe) Clancy in 2013, we beat (FCS and NEC member) Wagner, who had won the league the year before. Now, I think we caught them completely off guard. I think they weren't ready for us and he played out of his mind.
In '17, we were up two scores on Bryant in the fourth quarter, and that was just an attrition thing. We ended up just getting beat up.
But this (CCSU) game was different. Obviously, we came out the gate, and they're really good. They've got a veteran group. They did a good job early on on offense, but this wasn't a fluke. We were outplaying them early.
They wore us down a little bit. Then we had some mishaps. We had a bust on a man coverage on a wheel route right before the half, which obviously was a crusher. (CCSU) had the fumble scoop and score which is more of a fluke. So if anything (the Blue Devils) kind of got spotted a couple touchdowns, and it looked maybe a little bit less competitive than the game actually was.
I think our kids always believe. I think, certainly, knowing we can go into an environment like that against one of the best teams on our schedule, to not only play with them but come back from a difficult circumstance, that certainly gave us some confidence.
But I think our kids can play at this level. Now, the challenge is for us is can we do it week-in, week-out? We don't have the depth of some of these other teams, at least not yet.
That will be the challenge going into this week. St. Francis was a team that was No. 3 in the country last year on defense. They're a senior, veteran group. They're just known for being big and physical. They have a 6-8 wideout. They have another kid who's a 6-3 wideout. Their quarterback looks like (Ben Roethlisberger). He's 6-4, 240. They're just a big, physical group up front who's going to challenge us. We're going to have to win some one-on-one matchups.
I think we can do that.
MV: You picked up wide receiver Anthony Norcia from Everett in the 2018 recruiting class. That's another kid that a lot of the coaches from around here I talked to were surprised he didn't get picked up by a team that was either already in the FCS or in the FBS. What did you see in him, and what have you seen from him now from a developmental standpoint?
DC: He's a gamer. You ask (John DiBiaso) over at Everett (now at Catholic Memorial), the people over at Everett — this is no disrespect to . . . we've had a lot of good Everett players over there — all the FBS kids who were there, (Norcia) was the most productive high school player out of those kids.
I'm not knocking wide receivers Mikey Sainristil, who's going to have a great career at Michigan, or Jason Maitre over at Boston College, but Norcia was (Everett's) most productive guy. You look at week-in, week-out, the production (Norcia) had his junior and senior year when (Everett) won those two state titles. He was the most consistent guy.
You talk to (coaches in the area), they're like, 'That kid can play.' He was a pain in the ass. No one could stop him. I think the thing that we saw in him, and this was a big evaluation for us, what we're looking for is, regardless of what position you are, 'Are you a football player?'
You look at Anthony, he punt returns. He's making tackles on kickoff. He's blocking linebackers who are three times his size. He's a tremendous route-runner. Great ball skills.
Some coaches fall in love with measureables, and that's part of the evaluation, but you can't overlook certain skill sets. Really what he does well is winning in space and being a physical, aggressive player. That's kind of what our slots do here.
We've had a really good tradition, a kid Cody Demers of Central Catholic, who won a state title (in 2013 over Xaverian). Norcia's playing the same exact position. We have another guy, Marquis Spence, who was on the NEC Weekly Honor Roll, he's a Paramus Catholic (NJ) guy. He's got a very similar skill set. Anthony, I will say, is actually more physical than all of them.
They're probably a little more quicker than him at this point, but he's an unbelievable route-runner, great teammate. He's our long-snapper on punt. Great kid. He's a football player.
I think what happened to him is he got lost in the shuffle of all the good players there. And when he goes to these prospect days, which we do, too, he's not going to blow you away with his (40-yard dash) time. He's going to come in and measure at 5-10, 185. He's not going to do bad at that stuff, but he's not going to blow you away. These other schools are enamored with that stuff.
We've got guys (who can be impressive off the hoof), too. You look at our 'X' receiver, who is a good player and on the All-Rookie team last year. He's another Massachusetts kid, Johnny Rosario. He bounced around a little bit, but he was originally from Cambridge. He's a kid who's about 6-4, 215, and runs a 10.8-second 100 meter dash. He's the prototype.
But you need to have different guys with different skill sets, and it's about finding the right guys to fit in that puzzle, and Anthony's a huge piece of that puzzle for what you do here.
MV: How much in general does it matter that you played at Chelmsford, you went to (the University of New Hampshire), you know the coaches here. You an get a trusted evaluation from these guys here. How much does that play in to you being able to find the right guys?
DC: It's a big part of it. I think the other piece is going back to, everybody loves (New Jersey prospects). I get it. Washington, D.C., the DMV area, you can look at our roster, it's filled with those guys. We've done a good job of recruiting down there.
But you've got to win in your backyard. That's got to be the number one rule in recruiting. I think people get caught up in, 'Let's go to Pennsylvania. Let's go to Ohio. Let's go to New Jersey. Let's go to the DMV, and Florida, and Cali.' You can build a roster with guys from there, but if your foundation is built off of kids that live eight, 10, 20 hours away, good luck. I just don't see that happening.
I don't think that's a way to consistently build a college football program. So, for us, it's about doing our best to get the best kids in our backyard, to understand that there's really good players in Massachusetts.
Some of these (local coaches), they coached against me when I played, and a bunch of these guys now are guys that I actually played against that are now starting to get coaching jobs. (Brian) St. Pierre at St. John's Prep, we're starting to cross over. We had teammates in common. We know a lot of the same people.
Coach Chuck Adamopoulos coached against me when I was playing at Chelmsford. A lot of these relationships, coach DiBiaso, there guys that I trust, the guys that know me over at Xaverian, Charlie Stevenson and Al Fornaro: those guys coached against me when I played against the Hasselbecks (Tim and Matt), playing with Matt in Seattle.
So it's a small community. It's a small world. And when you have relationships with these guys, No. 1, they're going to be honest with you. No. 2, there's got to be a trust on our end that they're going to tell me if these kids are the right fit for us.
Even if they aren't, that doesn't mean that that's a bad kid, but we're looking for a certain type of kid here, and I think we do a pretty good job of identifying what we mean by Merrimack guys. Anthony Norcia is a perfect example of that.
MV: And what is, in your opinion, "a Merrimack football guy"?
DC: So I'll tell you a quick story. At the University of New Hampshire, they used to say the best compliment you could ever get was not being an All-American or all-conference or being a pro prospect. I was really lucky to do some of those things. I was around a lot of good players that made me look better than I actually was.
But the thing that was the best compliment you could give was to be called a "UNH guy." And really what that means is you were a guy that doesn't just love football on Saturday afternoon and Friday night when the lights are on when the media's there and there are fans in the stands.
You love everything about it. You love the entire process: spring ball; winter runs; the weight room; field work. That whole process is something you're in love with. Our kids, when I say UNH guys, those guys loved really being physical. They were ultra-competitive. They took pride in being gritty and being great teammates.
Those are the things that we've built here. We ask every coach when we're on the road recruiting is, "All right, listen. Let's look at his film. What did he look like in his prospect days? Can he get into Merrimack? Is he going to be a fit academic-wise?"
Then it's, "What type of kid is he?" The response, and what I'm looking for is, "He's a Merrimack guy." If someone's going to embody all those qualities and values that I just mentioned, we're trying to build something very similar here.
We want the type of guy people want to play with and for if you were a player yourself. And if it were a kid I wouldn't want to play with or for, I wouldn't recruit him.