NEW CANAAN — In evaluating Ryan O’Connell’s value to the New Canaan football team, it is probably best to start with the positions he cannot play rather than the long list of options afforded his coach, Lou Marinelli.
So don’t expect to see O’Connell on either the offensive or defensive lines. Tight end is out. Linebacker too.
After that? All fair game.
“I think he might be the featured back,” Marinelli said. “He did it last year never really having practiced it. We had some injuries and he had to do it in the state championship game and he was a key part of our offense. He’s our captain and the great thing about him is he can play anywhere. He can be a receiver, he catches, he could be our running back. It’s great to have a kid like that.”
O’Connell, in other words, is the ultimate chess piece. Consider that right now the Rams, who will be seeking a fourth straight state title, are planning on using O’Connell on offense despite the fact he led the team a year ago with seven interceptions and was fourth in tackles playing cornerback . But with just three starters back on offense and four on defense, O’Connell might prove of greater value to what has been the FCIAC’s most potent attack this decade.
“It’s definitely exciting,” said O’Connell. “I think I’ve definitely worked my way up. I was able to lead last year on the defense so I think that will transition well to the offense. We do have a bunch of guys returning, especially on the offensive line, so it’s not like I’m the only one there.”
O’Connell’s versatility was perhaps best evidenced in last year’s state playoffs, when the offensive backfield was beset with injuries. O’Connell, with few practice reps, rushed for 57 yards on 10 carries — four more than he had during the regular season — in a semifinal win over Windsor. He also had a pair of catches for 24 yards.
He scored twice in the 42-35 state final win over North Haven — including the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of an offensive shootout.
“The state tournament altogether was crazy,” O’Connell recalled. “Kids got hurt left and right so I ended up in the backfield a little, too, which was pretty foreign but it was fun.”
Football is not even O’Connell’s primary sport. He has given a verbal commitment to play lacrosse next year at North Carolina.
“He’s been a tremendous athlete since his freshman year,” Marinelli said. “He’s one of the top athletes if not the top athlete in the school. He’s a leader and he’s the kind of kid you’d like to have as a son. He’s just a tremendous role model.”
O’Connell said he has spent the past three months optimizing his skills in both sports.
“I’m making sure I’m the best athlete I can be,” O’Connell said. “Working in the weight room or running on the field, whatever it was to stay in shape. Playing lacrosse or 7 on 7 events, all those things really helped.”
O’Connell mostly deferred all of his accomplishments from a year ago to the strength of a New Canaan team that lost only to Darien, the consensus No. 1 team in the state, in the FCIAC championship game.
“The interceptions all came from having a strong defensive line that we had,” O’Connell said. “We had good rushes on quarterbacks and I would be able to come in at the last second and snag a pick. It was a huge confidence booster, especially after getting my first interception, getting the ball rolling and staying confident. “With the offensive line that we were fortunate enough to have last year and bring back this year too, I was very comfortable behind kids like Lucas Niang or Teddy Hood. I was very comfortable getting the ball. It wasn’t that hard.”
O’Connell realizes more will be expected of him this year — on and off the field — and is ready for the responsibility, especially with personnel losses lending to an air of uncertainty.
“We always do a good job of rebuilding so that will be a good test with us to see the way we rebuild, but I definitely think we have the guys to do so,” O’Connell said. “A bunch of guys working their butts off in the offseason in the weight room, on the field. I’m confident. I’m not scared going into the season saying we lost (quarterback) Mike Collins. Yeah, we did lose Mike Collins, but I think we’ll be all right.”
Marinelli would prefer not to have any two-way players, and he has usually had the depth to avoid it. But O’Connell may provide a dilemma, someone too valuable to keep on the sideline.
“We’re still in the discovery mode. Lets find out what we have and try to emphasize the positive and see what our strengths are,” Marinelli said. “If the game is on the line he will be a two-way player in the fourth quarter. He may very well be a two-way player. We’ll have to see.”