Week 6: Farmington (2-2) at Middletown (4-0), 7 p.m.
MIDDLETOWN — This season and last, Middletown High football fans have grown accustomed to seeing the back of Xzavier Reyes’ No. 7 jersey. The senior is averaging 10.4 yards per carry and 153 yards per game in the Blue Dragons’ 4-0 start, a strong encore to his 1,163-yard junior season.
But he’s not moving the chains all by himself. Where would he be without his offensive line?
“Nowhere, absolutely nowhere,” Reyes said.
Middletown’s well-regarded football history is steeped in running backs like Reyes. Saturday morning coffee conversation is likely to center on “did you see that run?” rather than “did you see the space he had to run it?” But for every Reyes, Highsmith or Gallaher, there have been good and prideful linemen setting them up for big runs, big numbers and big headlines.
“Coming into the season I knew, if anything, our offensive line would be our strongest position,” Reyes said during a break in Monday’s practice. “For the most part they take pride in doing their jobs and it shows up on the scoreboard on Friday nights. They stick together and grind it out. Where there is a need for improvement, they get it done.
“Most people just see the touchdowns and don’t think of the hard work it takes to get there.”
This year’s Middletown offensive unit is heavy on seniors — center Cam Barrett, guards Nygell Smikle and Joh’nel Fields-Gomez and tackle Mike Foster. Foster’s brother, Brady, a junior, starts at tackle, too, and senior Osbourne Richards and junior Eric Alicea are in the rotation.
Each of the seniors is unique in his own way. Grouped together, they form a tight-knit bunch that is supportive of what each needs to accomplish on his own. In a recent group interview, their maturity and easygoing confidence shone through and the importance of “chemistry” was brought up often.
“As team chemistry goes, I think we have the strongest unit on this team,” Fields-Gomez said.
Barrett (No. 75 on your roster) is an imposing 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, but comes across as the Teddy bear of the four. He is trying to master his technique, but says, “I’ve never had a perfect game and I never will.”
Smikel (6 feet and 260, No. 77), a three-year starter and perhaps the best athlete among them, is a straight talker with a matter-of-fact confidence. He’s seen his share of players bigger than him across the line. “But faster? No.”
Foster (6-2, 250, No. 52), who got spot starts on offense last year and is now a full-time two-way player, is the most animated of his peers and enjoys giving pointers to the underclassmen, especially brother Brady.
Fields-Gomez (5-9, 230, No. 51) knows he is smaller than the average-sized lineman, but he likes the challenge of trying to block or push a bigger opponent and takes pride that he won a starting job in his final season of high school football.
“Against Wethersfield,” he said, “one of their linebackers came up and said to me, ‘Keep playing your heart out, kid.’ ’’
“To be a successful lineman, you’ve got to be tough, persistent and be a thinker. They are good students of the game,” coach Sal Morello said. “They’ve taken great pride in what they do. They understand they won’t get a headline, but they’re all about winning.
“The seniors are doing a great job with the leadership role, too. They’ll take 10 minutes at the end of a practice to teach the younger kids about what they learned today. I can leave them and go work with the special teams. It’s great to see.”
Morello pays his linemen a lot of attention because he’s their position coach as well. He’s big on technique and attention to detail, things he took away from the late John Skubel, his head coach at MHS in the 1980s.
“When we needed a line coach (a few years back), I thought, ‘Why not me?’ ’’ Morello said.
“My freshman year, Coach Morello was not running the offensive line. We couldn’t run the ball,” Smikel said.
“I think coaching the line makes you a better (head) coach,” Morello said. “It helped me in a lot of ways. You’re in the trenches with them. The defense is showing you all these looks. It makes you work at it, and you’re always engaged with the players.”
“Coach Morello is with us constantly,” Foster said. “He’s strict on what we’re doing. We are developing and getting better. Against Bristol Central, we were getting a push. That’s new.”
Pushing a defense a step or two off the ball can create all sorts of advantages for an offense, and some of that is in the numbers. Middletown has rushed for 12 touchdowns and Reyes, who has scored nine times on the ground, has run for no fewer than 130 yards in a game. The Blue Dragons, who are on the bye this week, average 269.5 yards on the ground and 115 yards in the air. Over 11 games last year, they averaged 209 yards rushing and 118 passing.
“They (the line) take pride in the yards we get per game,” Morello said.
They also have helped senior quarterback Jonta’e Dempsey-Brown settle into his first season as the starter. Dempsey-Brown completes better than 50 percent of his throws and represents another option in the run game, which includes seniors Tyreece Lumpkin and Dajaun Lomotey.
“As a whole, it all starts with us,” Fields-Gomez said. “If we’re not performing, the running backs don’t get any yards, the quarterbacks can’t throw the ball, and the wide receivers aren’t catching anything. They know the team would not be able to function at a high level at all (if we aren’t playing well).”
At one time or another the last two years, the four faced each other in practice and used the experience to improve their skills. Before becoming starters, Foster and Fields-Gomez got plenty of reps either in drills or in scout team, usually against Smikle, Barrett and Richards.
“Going up against them in drills, I love it,” Foster said.
In past seasons, the Blue Dragons haven’t been challenged much in the early portion of its schedule. But last week, they found themselves facing a 9-7 fourth-quarter deficit against a Bristol Central team that was 1-2 going in and allowed 56 points to Middletown a year ago.
“They came out more physical as a front five. We didn’t react as we did in past games,” Smikle said.
Middletown’s sense of urgency in the final three minutes produced touchdowns on two big plays. For the second, Reyes found space and got away for a 61-yard run that extended a one-point lead to a 17-9 win.
“Coming back showed our character,” Barrett said. “We were down, but we got back up and fixed our mistakes. The defense also stepped up and played phenomenal ball.”