Two preseasons ago, Ridge coach Bill Tracy faced something of a dilemma most of his peers would probably be glad to entertain. He had two players — sophomores Nick Franzese and Conor Hughes — both capable of playing quarterback.
Franzese started game one against Immaculata, a 21-7 loss in Somerville, and then suffered a concussion in the second quarter of a week two game at Montgomery.
“I really felt it at halftime, I didn’t want to come out, but I didn’t feel right and I told the coach,” said Franzese, who missed the next two games.
Hughes entered the game in the third quarter in a 21-7 loss to Montgomery. He is now preparing for his third varsity season as the starter. In 16 years as a head coach at Livingston and Ridge, Tracy has had only two three-year starting quarterbacks — Tom Fisher at Livingston and now Hughes.
Franzese’s misfortune turned into a blessing in disguise of a concussion to twist a proverbial line.
Franzese, now 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, returned two weeks after the injury as a wingback against Hillsborough. Halfback is a position he’s played throughout Pop Warner. He caught four passes for 51 yards in his truncated season, and ran for 24 on nine carries. He also made 24 tackles with a pass deflection from his defensive back spot.
“Nick went back to his more natural position,” said Tracy, whose team finished 3-7. “The future came quicker than we thought.”
Tracy praises Franzese for a great attitude, work ethic and leadership that the coach says has led to so good results on the field. Franzese will also play any position required as he showed when he filled in for injured tight end Tim Falato after he returned from the concussion.
“Overall it worked out the way it was supposed to, coach Tracy wanted to see how I did as a quarterback and a leader and how I could develop,” said Franzese. “But ever since I played Pop Warner (Somerset Hills Bulldogs) I’d been a back and receiver.
“Conor’s a great quarterback and deserves to be our quarterback and I’m comfortable catching balls and running around,” Franzese said. “We’re both in our comfort zones.”
Versatility is what has made Franzese such a productive player, returning kicks and punts and providing sound coverage in the secondary.
His third-quarter interception and 25-yard return for a touchdown gave the Red Devils a 13-0 lead on their way to a 20-7 Week 2 win last season against Mid-State 38 Watchung Division-rival Immaculata. That play was was one of many he made on offense and defense, emerging as one of the best all-around players in the league.
Franzese finished the season with three picks, eight pass deflections and 40 tackles. He caught 31 passes for 453 yards and seven touchdowns — all from Hughes, and ran for 245 yards on 31 carries. He returned five punts and seven kicks, finishing with 875 yards in total offense, a big help in the Red Devils’ division title, and qualifying for the North 2 Group V playoffs.
The victory over Immaculata, the division title and sectional playoff berth, were the second for the Franzese family. Neil Franzese, now running the 400-meter hurdles for Lafayette, was a member of the 2009 team that beat Immaculata, won a division title and advanced to the North 2 Group IV final. Nick Franzese wouldn’t mind that kind of season, which he has worked and worked so hard for since a 27-21 Thanksgiving Eve home loss to Watchung Hills.
“We work to prepare ourselves in the off season, so by the fourth quarter of games we’ll have a lot left,” Franzese said. “A lot of it is mental and if you’re in the right mental state, it’s easier. You feel like you can do almost anything.”