DERBY >> The Derby offense has made significant strides in head coach George French’s tenure with the team.
Now in the fourth year of French’s spread attack, the Red Raiders’ offense has developed into one of the Naugatuck Valley League’s most effective units. Last year Derby finished 6-4, its first winning season since 1996. This year’s edition has both the talent and experience to compete with any team on the schedule.
The results speak for themselves. Derby, which is averaging 36.5 points per game, is 4-0 for the first time since 1990. The Red Raiders put their undefeated record on the line when they host Valley rival, and fellow unbeaten, Ansonia tonight at 7.
Ansonia has won the past six meetings, including the last two by an average of nearly 40 points. But French believes Derby’s balanced offense, led by junior quarterback Mike Kreiger and senior running back Tyrae Small, can compete with the Chargers, the No. 1 team in the Register Poll.
“We bring more to the table (than the past two years),” French said. “This year we’re really cruising on all levels.”
French noted that the Red Raiders rushed for 351 yards in a Week 1 win over St. Paul, but then passed for 283 yards the next week against Holy Cross.
“Each week is something different,” French said. “We bring a lot more to the table. We’re more multi-dimensional this year. Our kids are really picking up what we’re doing.”
Part of the reason for Derby’s success is the growth and development of Kreiger, who started as a sophomore last season.
Kreiger has completed 55 of 91 passes (60 percent) for 919 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also rushed 44 times for 386 yards and three scores.
“Last year he learned as a sophomore, but he was very young and he had a lot learn and a lot to pick up quickly,” French said. “He did a good job last year, but now he’s experienced. He knows what to expect, and he knows how high the expectations are and what we expect of him. He’s picking up things a lot quicker and he’s become more of a leader. He’s become more of what we want to see out of a quarterback.”
Said Small: “When we’re down, (Kreiger) brings us in the huddle and tells us everything’s going to be alright, and just take it play by play and forget about the last one.”
The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Small has been equally as impressive, rushing 46 times for 370 yards and three touchdowns this season. Small ran for 1.172 yards and 14 scores as a junior, but is bigger and stronger as a senior.
“Tyrae is a big boy,” French said. “He’s solid, but he can run. He’s a leader that’s really bringing a lot to the table.”
The Kreiger-Small combination makes life difficult for opposing defenses.
“Yes, it does,” Small said, “because on short-down situations we can run the ball instead of having to pass all the time. I feel like since both Mike and I can run, they don’t know who’s going to get the ball.”
Kreiger has additional options in seniors Sal Frosceno (11 catches, 264 yards, four touchdowns), Josh Russell (12-180), Tyler Dobek (19-303-4) and Jordan LaRue (5-81).
While the offense can strike at any time, the defense has been a work in progress. Derby allowed 45 points in the victory over St. Paul and 33 in a win over Wilby, but there’s been an improvement since.
“Since Week 1 our tackling has improved,” French said. “It was night and day between the Wilby (on Sept. 27) and Crosby (last week) game. I think we’re getting better defensively, we’re getting more comfortable. You don’t realize it, but there’s a lot of youth on that defense.”
French said he started four sophomores and just two seniors on defense last week against Crosby.
Small, a linebacker, and Arben Komani (6-1, 215), a lineman, provide the Red Raiders with some senior leadership on defense.
“I think we’ve improved a lot,” Komani said. “Our defense started playing with more heart. We came together as a team and realized that our offense was doing work so our defense had to pick it up.”
The undersized Red Raiders have the difficult task of stopping the potent Ansonia offense, led by senior tailback Arkeel Newsome and a veteran line.
“Ansonia is Ansonia,” French said. “They’re big and physical. They have one great tailback back there, but they’re just not the tailback. They have other weapons and they have some real good linemen down there.”
The winner of tonight’s contest will take a big step in claiming the NVL Brass Division title.
“There’s a lot on the line this year,” French said, “especially with us both being Class S schools, being in the same division fighting for division rights. It’s a huge game overall.”
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