Millville High School football coach Jason Durham reminded his team early and often at Tuesday’s practice that it’s game week.
The homestretch is upon the Thunderbolts as they prepare for Friday’s season opener at Atlantic City — a program Millville has formed a budding rivalry with after playing the Vikings in back-to-back weeks in 2010 with the latter coming in the Group IV South playoffs.
The Bolts placed a strong emphasis on defense to start Tuesday’s practice session. The Vikings are never short of playmakers and Millville knows from experience that Atlantic City will attack from a variety of formations.
With an assortment of new full-time starters on defense, some of which saw no varsity action in 2011, the Bolts’ margin for error will be minimal in a revamped Cape-Atlantic League American Conference that, much like Millville, features some offensive juggernauts.
“We had a good unit last year, but we had guys who knew what they were doing, we weren’t teaching everything from ground zero like we are with this group,” defensive coordinator Nick Belmonte said. “The bad side of that is, for next year those guys are going to be ready, but for this year with the schedule going up it puts us in a bit of bind.”
The obstacle Belmonte is alluding to is shrinking the learning curve for some of his green players as soon as possible.
“The kids are very positive,” Belmonte said. “They believe in what we’re teaching them, but the natural steps of processing it and doing it is taking a little bit more time. We just don’t have time right now. We have to get it.”
Among the areas of focus Tuesday were open-field tackling and pre-snap communication.
Carrying out the fundamentals will make a huge difference for Millville’s defense this season — starting Friday.
“We are going to have our hands full Friday night with Atlantic City,” Belmonte said. “We better be ready to tackle or it might not go our way.”
— Anthony Coppola
Buena is making a major change on the defensive side of the ball for this season.
The Chiefs are switching from a 5-2 to a 4-3. The alignment, according to coach Jonathan Caputo, gives the team more flexibility and allows them to make better adjustments on the fly.
“More teams are spread out than ever before,” Caputo said. “That lets us make better adjustments against those spread formations.”
Senior Dom Defoor will be the single player with the biggest adjustment. He’s moving from defensive end to linebacker, but the way he played the position a year ago, he was more of a hybrid of the two anyway. He will still likely be up on the line for a good number of snaps this year too.
The Chiefs were able to make the switch due to good depth at the linebacker spot. Instead of two defensive ends, two tackles and a nose guard in front of two linebackers, the nose guard is out and a third linebacker is in. Senior Trayvond Barbary and junior Erik Anderson will be at end now. Seniors Darryl Guilford and Ty Warren will play tackle.
Linebacker snaps will be split among four players. DeFoor will be joined by fellow senior Dustin Endicott and sophomores George DiBiase and Neal Nelson. Endicott was a starter last year and both DiBiase and Nelson saw time on varsity, especially late in the year.
Nelson has been a standout in preseason action.
“I think Neal is really going to step it up,” DeFoor said. “He’s got a lot more experience now, he knows what’s going on, he’s gotten a lot stronger.”
Buena is known for having a long line of athletic linebackers that swarm around the ball, and now there’s going to be a third on one the field. If the team can adjust in time for the season, Buena’s defense could make a step forward.
— Patrick Buganski
Vineland Fighting Clan
The backpacks are gone, having been replaced with shoulder pads and helmets.
Three starters — sophomore running back Isaiah Spencer, senior wide receiver Toure Douglas and senior lineman Ben Henderson — each returned to practice this week and all will likely be ready for Friday’s opener against Buena.
Spencer looked fresh after missing most of the preseason with a strained hamstring. The injury caused him to lug around his backpack on the sideline instead of the ball.
“It feels good to get back in there,” said Spencer, who rushed for 322 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman season.
But, how does the hamstring feel?
“That feels good too,” Spencer said with a smile. “It actually felt better than I thought it would after I started running around a little.”
Spencer said he wasn’t concerned about the lack of playing time in the preseason. He’s healthy and confident, two things that he feels will fuel his game this fall.
“I certainly feel more confident, I’m ready to go,” he said.
Spencer feels the team is ready to take the next step too.
“As long as we play hard and execute, I think we’re going to have a big year,” he said.
Douglas (hip flexor) and Henderson (knee) also looked back to full strength in Tuesday’s practice.
— Tom McGurk