Football preview: Young players need to step up for Wilton

The Wilton Football Jamboree, an eight-team, end-of-August scrimmage extravaganza, is over. So, too, is last week's final exhibition contest with Naugatuck.

For sixth year Wilton High football head coach Bruce Cunningham both events are rapidly fading memories. The 2014 regular season couldn't start soon enough as he must keep his team focused on what lies ahead.

There is no time for even a glance backward. No time especially to contemplate the loss of 14 seniors, nine of whom were two-way starters, plus an injured captain, Griff Bender, who contributed in a key leadership role. And no time to regret the absence of three other captains — Joe Fraccaroli, Ace Sakamoto and Brett Phillips — each of whom captured some form of All-FCIAC honor (with Phillips an All-State honoree), or dwell on a 4-7 record last year that easily could have been 7-4 (three losses were by eight points or fewer).

This season, Cunningham has his hands full rebuilding his team.

“We're young, awfully young,” he says.

The roster bears him out. Of the 41 players listed, no less than 19 are sophomores. While they are coming off an excellent freshman season, they will face major adjustments once they've been dumped into the bubbling vat of varsity competition.

“There isn't a lot that's changed since the Jamboree,” said Cunningham this week ahead of the Warriors' first game of the season at home tonight (Thursday) against Guilford at 7 p.m. “We've kept our schemes pretty basic and just let the guys play. Right now, our defense is still a little ahead of our offense.

“I thought we took a step forward at the jamboree,” added Cunningham. “On defense, I thought we ran well to the ball. On offense I thought (quarterback) RJ Romeo threw the ball well. I thought we could have caught the ball better. But in 48 snaps for the day, we didn't turn the ball over and there was only one bad snap. That's progress. Our approach was real good... We were pretty locked in.”

The Warriors will need that focus and more, as they must replace four starters from the offensive line. Only center Tyler Mirabile, a captain, is back. Tom Courtney got solid seasoning last year, accumulating major starting minutes at guard when he replaced injured Dan Holland for multiple games. However, Courtney will move to tackle, leaving three other holes for Cunningham to fill.

Senior Brady West and junior Brennan Ryan appear to be slotted at the guards, while junior Nick Pica seems to be set at the remaining tackle spot. Captains Jack Dexter and Carter Vail give Wilton strength at tight end.

The backfield will feature veteran senior starter Patrick Ryan at halfback, while co-captain TJ Savvaides will step in at fullback full time after sharing the load with John D'Elisa a year ago. Ryan, small, speedy and shifty, is also a superb pass catcher. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury derailed a potentially superb season for him last fall. As it was, he still averaged over five yards per carry rushing. Also joining the backfield could be senior Paul Sorbo. Though he will start at wide receiver, Sorbo has played in the backfield, adding versatility to the attack.

The other starting wide receiver position will go to senior Rod Djaly Thoby. A special teams demon over the past two years, Djaly Thoby has shown speed, good hands and grit while playing with devil-may-care abandon. He gets a chance to deploy those assets full time this season.

Orchestrating the offense will be the new quarterback, RJ Romeo. He has played well in practice and scrimmages, throwing a good pass and having the playbook under control. How well that holds up with the increased speed of varsity play will be a key to what kind of season the Warriors have.

On defense, there is experience, though some of it will be deployed differently. Vail will move from defensive end to tackle/nose guard, while Courtney and Ryan will flank him. Mirabile will again play his hybrid linebacker/defensive end slot. When he does play linebacker, he joins Dexter and Savvaides in what is the defense's primary feature. Sophomores Jack Dooley and Stefan Nobles also appear to join in as part of that mix.

The defensive backfield will have Ryan and Djaly-Thoby at cornerback, while Sorbo and newcomer Ryan Sullivan will man the safety positions.

“Special teams? … Special teams?” said Cunningham shaking his head. Last year, he pulled a rabbit or maybe two out of the hat when he found kicker EJ Sassani shortly before the season started and punter Dan Baird who returned to play football after a year's absence. Both are gone, so Cunningham’s got to do it again. So far, it's a freshman, Will Sullivan, who seems to have the nod as placekicker, and he, among others, will vie for punting duties.

This team no doubt will suffer growing pains, but under Cunningham and his cadre of coaches — Brewster Clancy, Dick Cerone, Dan Farina, Ron Leinhardt and Ryan Phillips — it will not suffer from quit or lack of effort.

Notes: Other sophomores to keep an eye on are Matt D'Elisa (QB, FS), Colin Carroll (OT, DT) and Joe McFadden (RB, LB).

Wilton will play seven of its 11 games at home games this year.