During his remarks at the inaugural Southern Connecticut Conference media day last month, Hamden coach Todd Dowty said that success in football starts with the offensive line.
Dowty, a former lineman, might be biased, but the guys up front certainly play an integral role for any team.
In attendance at the event held at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven were some of the best linemen in the league, including Boston College commit Anthony
Palazzolo of Fairfield Prep and Hand’s Jack Driscoll, who has given a verbal commitment to play at UMass.
Physical strength and size are traits that most linemen share. That’s the case for Palazzolo and Driscoll, as for Cheshire’s Cullen Clairmont and Xavier’s Tanner Kern, two other standout linemen in the league.
But the four are all naturally athletic, and possess the intelligence necessary to understand the complex offensive schemes common in today’s game.
“It’s huge,” Xavier coach Sean Marinan said about the importance of a sound offensive line. “I don’t think you can be successful without a good one. Without one, you become too one-dimensional, and that’s deadly in this day of age.”
At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Palazzolo certainly has the body and bulk to play the position. But Palazzolo brings other attributes to the field besides just size.
“He’s got terrific feet,” Fairfield Prep coach Tom Shea said. “So far, he’s been doing very well for us. He has the potential to have a terrific year.”
Palazzolo, a former basketball player, added several inches and about 50 pounds to his frame since his freshman year. Shea says the added weight is muscle, and it hasn’t hindered Palazzolo’s performance.
“He’s in very good shape,” Shea said. “He’s worked very hard in the off season. The difference between last year and this year is the way he’s built himself up. It’s startling. He looks fabulous.”
The Jesuits, who advanced to the Class LL state championship game before losing to Southington last season, operate out of a spread formation, but had much success on the ground, with returning quarterback Colton Smith rushing for nearly 1,900 yards. Palazzolo was instrumental in Prep’s rushing attack, and offered a simple formula for his non-physical preparation.
“It’s all about technique,” Palazzolo said. “We go over our steps, and our pass sets, and our run-blocking technique. We hit the sled, hit each other, and just get our technique down perfect.”
The Jesuit linemen also concentrate on the mental aspect of the game.
“We have a lot of chalk talk,” Palazzolo said, “especially when we’re doing so many pulls if we’re running the ball a lot.”
Shea has also been impressed with Palazzolo’s commitment to the sport.
“He’s always been a great athlete, that hasn’t changed,” Shea said. “He’s a competitive kid, but he’s grown in other ways, too. He’s matured, his work ethic has improved. He’s very serious about things now.”
Tommy Durkin. Reid Staples. Bryan Twohill. All three were better linemen than Driscoll last season, Hand coach Steve Filippone admitted.
“The thing about Jack, he played last year at 205 (pounds),” Filippone said. “He was 6-5, 205, which made him a big body. He was good, he got in the way of people, but he really didn’t have the strength or the mass to really move people. I would say he (Driscoll) was a good lineman for us last year, but not our best.”
But the off-season was a productive one for Driscoll, now listed at 6-6, 255.
“What happened to Jack is that he started to grow,” Filippone said. “He started to thicken up a little bit in the legs and the hips.”
Said Driscoll: “First of all, obviously, I hit the weight room a lot. Our team has a great strength and conditioning program, and we all buy into it. I not only got bulkier, but I also got a lot stronger and faster.”
Driscoll’s commitment in the weight room translated to better results when Driscoll attended camps and clinics this past spring and summer. This impressed college scouts. Driscoll gave his verbal commitment to play at UMass at the beginning of August. Driscoll also received interest from Holy Cross, New Hampshire, Brown and Army.
Filippone thought the scholarship offers were well-deserved.
“We’ve got kids, but he’s improved the most of anybody by leaps and bounds,” Filippone said. “He has come further than any lineman in our program from the time our season ended last year until now.”
Fortunately for Hand, Durkin, Staples and Twohill will also be on the offensive line when the Tigers host New Canaan in the season opener on Friday. Driscoll will likely be matched up against Zach Allen, the New Canaan senior headed to Northwestern.
“I’m excited,” Driscoll said. “I got matched up with him a few times last year (in a 50-21 New Canaan win).”
Clairmont says do not believe what some may say about linemen.
“I definitely think the stereotype that linemen are dumb is wrong,” he said. “You definitely need to understand a lot of different things that some don’t realize. It’s not just ‘go get that guy’. If it’s a zone, there’s more than one person you have to be responsible for. I think it’s a position like no other. You just have to go full out.”
Clairmont (6-2, 275) helped the Rams win the inaugural weight lifting competition hosted by the Nutmeg State Games in March. Clairmont was the overall winner in the over 220-pound weight class and placed first in both the squat (500) and the power clean (300).
“He’s a super-strong kid,” Cheshire coach Don Drust said. “You take that and then add in his brains. He’s one of the top kids in the entire school. He’s as smart as you get.”
Clairmont has yet to decide on his college destination, but he’s received interest from several Ivy League schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, and schools from the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). Clairmont’s combination of brain and brawn should prove invaluable for Cheshire this season.
“With him, it’s a combination of work ethic and strength and smarts,” Drust said. “When you put them all together, you get a pretty good football player.”
With so many teams now operating out of the spread offense, football has become more complex. Drust believes having a kid with Clairmont’s smarts is an asset.
“It’s not just that (learning all the plays), it’s thinking on your feet,” Drust said. “You don’t want a kid that can’t figure out a situation. Whenever you have a kid on the field that’s as smart and intelligent as he is, it’s like having a coach on the field who can adjust and fix things. And he’s not just smart, he’s football smart.”
Kern will play left tackle for the Falcons, who are coming off a 7-3 season that did not include a postseason berth for the first time since 2008. Kern, though, could easily play center or guard according to Marinan.
“He’s a kid that could play really anywhere,” Marinan said. “He’s at left tackle because we’re comfortable that he can protect the quarterback’s blind side, but he’s a good run-blocker as well. He has good feet and he’s a good all-around athlete.”
Kern, and fellow senior Chidi Broderick, are the only two starters Xavier returns on the line this year. Kern, like the other linemen featured, worked extensively on weight training this off season. Kern, though, also did quite a bit of conditioning under the direction of Rob Mangino, who operates a strength and conditioning facility in Guilford.
“I work on speed work, flexibility, which is very important,” said Kern, who’s committed to play at Lafayette.
Kern works on foot work, agility and spends a considerable amount of time on the treadmill. He lifts at the high school for an hour and a half five days a week and then trains a “few nights a week” in Guilford.
“I got bigger,” said Kern, who is 6-4, 290. “I worked on being more physically fit, and worked on technique throughout my four years of school.”
Kern is well-aware that, despite his efforts to improve in the off-season, a skill player will likely get most of the credit for Xavier’s success. Kern, though, is content with that.
“I just want to win games,” Kern said. “I like to see the running back or quarterback score. When I see them score, and the crowd goes crazy, it’s all worth it.”
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