By Tom Pedulla—
Irvington’s varsity football players may not have expected a crash course before the start of the school year. That is what they are getting.
New coach Jeff Michael was hired a fairly short time ago, giving him relatively little time to install an offense that revolves around multiple looks and to evaluate each player’s talent. The learning process for Michael and his team will certainly continue into the season opener against Peekskill at home on Saturday, September 11 at 3 p.m. and beyond.
The Bulldogs’ heavy reliance on the run in past seasons is a thing of the past. The new coach promises a more balanced approach.
“One of my goals is to make opposing defensive coordinators work and work and work, so different formations, different looks, different plays,” Michael said. “I’d like to say 60-40 run-pass, but it all depends on who we have as our quarterback.”
It is expected that Morgan Balkin and Alec Schrader will both be given an opportunity to run the attack against Peekskill. Balkin is viewed as the better runner while Schrader may bring a stronger and more accurate arm to the passing game. Either way, the ground game will be spearheaded by Ethan Pakola, a bruising back who battles furiously for every yard.
“I have no problem handing him the ball and letting him run between the tackles,” Michael said.
Tommy Flanagan, a co-captain with Pakola, is a scoring threat as a runner and receiver. Finn Cleary, a transfer from Fordham Prep, showed in preseason that he is an excellent route runner. Marcus Canton, Drew Cortese and Schrader offer other dependable targets. Canton’s twin brother, Mason, will see time at fullback. The Canton’s are sophomores with bright futures.
The Bulldogs’ fortunes may depend on how well the offensive line, coached by Anthony Di Nardo, holds up over the course of the season. “The offensive line is thin in numbers but thick in heart,” Michael said.
Jacob Constantine, a sophomore center, should benefit from the experience he gained as a freshman. His play was a bit uneven during preseason, but coaches saw more good than bad. He will have every opportunity to develop into a mainstay on the offensive line and a four-year starter. Devant Webster, a junior, and Ditmar Seci, a senior, are set at tackle.
Even with a simplified terminology, a huge question revolves around how quickly the Bulldogs can learn the new offense and operate it effectively. “It’s very easy to learn,” Flanagan said. “The people who are returning have a good understanding of football, so they are quick to pick up new stuff.”
Balkin said of the adjustment, “It’s nothing we can’t handle. Every day we’re working on it, putting in new things.”
Balkin, a junior, offers game-changing potential with his powerful leg. He has hit field goals from beyond 40 yards; his punting can make an enormous difference in the battle for field position. With continued development, he has college potential as a kicker.
“You could see right away he’s got a special leg,” Michael said.
Players are supposed to think they can win every game. Balkin does.
“Coach Mike and Coach Di Nardo are preparing us as well as they possibly can,” Balkin said. “Hopefully, we can come out and smack all these teams.”