The Blitz: 5 Questions As FCIAC Football Camps Open

Darien defensive end Mark Evanchick had a breakout season as a sophomore. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Darien defensive end Mark Evanchick had a breakout season as a sophomore. (Photo: Darien Athletic Foundation)

Camp is open.

Today marks the beginning of training camps for all teams in the state that did not start last week because they opted out of spring football.

The offseason was relatively uneventful compared to the past. Yes, we are going to have to endure the absurdity of eight state champions, but rather than continue to lament it is best to look at what will take place after Thanksgiving as a one-year aberration before order is restored in 2015 with the return back to four champions and quarterfinal rounds.

Four of the 19 FCIAC schools will have new coaches, with the highest profile change — in the state — coming in Danbury, which has former Cheshire coach Mark Ecke now calling the shots.

If there is a common theme, it is that last year’s top teams, led by defending state champions New Canaan and St. Joseph, were hit hard by graduation losses, while the schools at a level just below them have a lot of starters back.

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It takes a little time each preseason to get a read on personnel and predict what we think will happen.

For now, here are five questions to ponder as the countdown to opening day begins.

1. Can New Canaan repeat as FCIAC and state champions?

When we last left the Rams, they were soundly thrashing Darien in the snow at Boyle Stadium, avenging their lone loss and completing a dream 14-1 season.

As of now, including returning players, 13 members of the team will be playing college ball. But, oh, the returning starters. There aren’t many of them.

The Northwestern-bound Zach Allen is back to lead a defense that was one of the best in league history but decimated by graduation losses. He is going to also be employed at tight end.

State final MVP Alex LaPolice is headed to Harvard and will be one of the top offensive weapons in the state.

But the Rams’ success hinges on whether many question marks turn into exclamation points. Will touted new quarterback Mike Collins live up to his potential? How long will running back Frank Cognetta, who broke his foot at the Rams’ 7 on 7 tournament last month, be sidelined?

More pressing, what is the state of the team’s offensive line and secondary?

New Canaan is hardly going to be free falling. But there is uncertainty as to whether it will remain in the title hunt or be a step behind in the race.

St. Joseph's Mufasa Abdul-Basir will again be one of the state's most potent offensive weapons. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

St. Joseph’s Mufasa Abdul-Basir will again be one of the state’s most potent offensive weapons. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

2. Who Are The Late-August Favorites?

The two teams that far and away received the most talk during the offseason were Greenwich and Darien.

The Blue Wave were a surprise last year in they were not expected to be a contender. But they went 12-2 and reached the state final before the loss to New Canaan. Their only other defeat? St. Joseph.

Darien lost a lot of talent but the cupboard isn’t bare. In fact, the team’s front seven could be one of the best in the state, led by a line that includes George Reed and last year’s breakout star, Mark Evanchick.

Tim Graham takes over at quarterback for Silas Wyper, and has a reliable weapon in Griffin Ross.

Wyper said in June that this year’s team will be superior to last year’s. A scary prospect.

The Cardinals had one of the most potent offenses a year ago. Unfortunately, in their three losses they allowed 42, 66 and 50 points.

They did win their final five games and seven of the last eight. Austin Longi, who gave a verbal to Fordham on Friday and is coming off a season in which he finished with 2,881 all-purpose yards and 33 touchdowns, is the league’s most dynamic player, while Matt Marzulla did a good job when he took over at quarterback.

Greenwich’s first three games? West Haven, Darien, New Canaan. If it can come away from that stretch with no more than one loss, watch out.

3. Which top program is flying well underneath the radar?

Remember Staples? Team in Westport? A coach, Marce Petroccio, who later this fall will be inducted into the state Hall of Fame.

It says something of the Wreckers’ tradition the last two decades that going 8-3 puts you on the back of a milk carton.

That was the case after Staples lost to Xavier, New Canaan and Greenwich, the three toughest opponents on their schedule.

Are the Wreckers going to be just a very good team this fall or back in the postseason? With an opener against Xavier, it won’t take long to get an initial read.

Northwestern-bound Zach Allen will be the leader of New Canaan's defense. (Photo: Chris Cody)

Northwestern-bound Zach Allen will be the leader of New Canaan’s defense. (Photo: Chris Cody)

There are not a lot of household names on the team, but the offensive line is experienced. The players carrying the ball will be different: the three backs responsible for almost all of the 2,716 rushing yards have graduated.

Petroccio does not mind at all that few eyes are currently focused on his team. That will not be the case if it is still happening two months from now.

4. Which teams are sleepers?

Two schools worth keeping an eye on should be improved — but have to overcome extremely difficult schedules.

Outspoken that it was time for his school to again be competitive, Danbury athletic director Chip Salvestrini turned to Ecke after Dan Donovan resigned.

Ecke’s resume at Cheshire and Danbury’s school size would seem to be critical pieces to achieving Salvestrini’s mandate.

Will it happen this year? The Hatters have returning talent. They also have New Canaan and Staples back to back in the middle of the season and close out with Trumbull, Greenwich and Ridgefield.

Strength of schedule may also be a mitigating factor at Fairfield Warde. The talk is that the offensive line should be good enough to protect promising quarterback Brendan Bisack and open holes for T.J. Gallagher, who rushed for 761 yards last season.

Then you look at the Mustangs’ slate: Trumbull, New Canaan and Darien in the first five weeks, with Greenwich and St. Joseph down the road.

Danbury and Warde should be much better than a year ago. Will that be reflected in the standings?

5. Who is the preseason MVP?

This all depends on how you define MVP. If you go by the player that has the best year, you have to look at Longi and Allen.

But if you view the MVP as the team that would be most adversely affected by the loss of a single player, right now you would have to go with St. Joseph’s Mufasa Abdul-Basir, who along with Lars Pederson are the team’s two returning offensive weapons.

Abdul-Basir finished with 2,481 yards on the ground and 33 touchdowns. Not much is known about this year’s version of the Hogs, but if they can open holes Abdul-Basir could be the single most important player to his team’s success.