Masuk High School football coach John Murphy knows fans are looking forward to the return of phenom quarterback Casey Cochran and the Panthers' high-powered offense this season, but he believes his defense could steal some of the spotlight.
"People are going to talk about Casey and all the offensive numbers he put up last year, but come watch us play defense this year because that is what is going to be the difference in our season," Murphy said. "Whether we can win a championship or not is up to the guys in the black shirts at practice."
Murphy points to last season's lackluster defense as one of the main reasons that the team collapsed in its final two games and missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
The "disappointing" 9-2 season ignited a commitment among Panther coaching staff and players to improve the defense this offseason.
"The thing that I am most excited about with this group is that they have really taken it upon themselves that they are going to be a good defense," he said. "We are going to be playing really fast. We are going to be real aggressive with a complicated blitz scheme that has given our offense — with all our weapons — fits at practice."
At defensive end, senior co-captain Tim Allen leads a defensive line that boasts stocky junior Jerry Peck at nose guard and junior Andrew Sebben at the other end. The quick, 190-pound Sebben is a converted linebacker and an example of the defense's concentration on speed this year.
"We spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about how we are going to play defense and we focused a lot on speed," Murphy said. "We want kids that can run and run and run."
The Panther linebackers will be a focal point of the defense's blitzing style with senior co-captain Anthony Calabrese in the middle alongside junior Matt Duignan. Senior Kevin Costello and junior Pat Tripodi will bring pressure from the outside.
The defensive backfield has a dearth of talent. Led by three-year starter and senior co-captain Jon Testani at cornerback, the Panthers can rely on seniors Joe Diaz and Mark Fuller and junior Nate Coleman, a converted receiver, in coverage. Senior Shawn Flynn returns to the safety position after leading the team with 73 tackles last year and will have some help from senior Peter Peremenis in controlling the backfield.
"We're excited to have Flynn back there. He is all over the field. He'll throw his body at a Mack truck if he thinks he can tackle it," Murphy said.
Offense ready to explode
The Masuk attack will center on returning junior quarterback Cochran who compiled an eye-popping 2,968 yards for 26 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in his premier season. Though clearly talented, Murphy is most impressed with his signal caller's work ethic.
"He is a wonderful player and he is a wonderful kid. Every kid on our team will tell you that there is no kid that works harder," Murphy said. "As good a player as he is. Nothing has come easy. He's worked his tail off. He is the first guy out at practice. He's the last guy to leave practice."
While the Panthers lost last year's leading receivers, Anthony Giaimo and Alex Trump, to graduation, Murphy believes his team will be even more productive with six strong receivers stepping up this season.
Testani brings solid athleticism and experience to the receiving group and Diaz and sophomore Thomas Milone can stretch the field with their speed. Senior Tyler Peremenis has good moves after the catch and junior Brandon Cusmano has shown incredible hands. Junior Ryan Norado completes the diverse set with a lanky 6-2 frame that helps him get to jump balls on the outside.
Behind Cochran will be an unsung hero from last year's potent offense, according to Murphy.
As a sophomore last season, Colin Markus amassed more than 1,000 yards on the ground for 11 touchdowns and figures to be even better after a solid offseason.
"Colin is a very talented kid. He is bigger and stronger and faster than he was last year and he's just a junior," Murphy said. "I have to chuckle about it because everyone is 'Casey, Casey, Casey' when they talk about our offense and we had a sophomore running back rush for 1,000 yards last year. I don't know of many sophomores in Connecticut who rushed for 1,000 yards."
The cornerstone for the Panthers' attack will be an experienced offensive line of players who all saw starting time last year.
Senior co-captain Jeff Wright returns at left guard and junior Eric Tucker will hold down the right guard spot. Senior Dan Minardi will protect Cochran's blindside at left tackle and 6-4, 220-pound senior Glenn Taylor will control the right edge. Returning senior center Kyle Hopkins has come back stronger and almost 40 pounds heavier to man the middle.
If the Panthers get stopped on offense, they will be able to rely on Testani for points from deep distances. The senior sparkled last year with kicks as long as 47-yards and has looked amazing in the offseason, including a 63-yard field goal at a camp in New Haven, Murphy said.
With all the bright spots on offense and defense, Murphy said he is most impressed with his team's attitude. He recently had to have a practice without pads because his players were "going after it" a little too hard.
"I love the way this team practices," he said "Every day we go to practice, it is like World War III. The games might even feel slow to our kids — that is how well they have been practicing."