Last Monday, the first official day of two-a-day practice sessions, I began an informal trek through Ohio to meet up with and see in person some of the best gridiron talent in the state. Most of the guys I've already known and made friends with while others were guys that I was hoping to get to meet for the first time.
Being from Youngstown, I thought I would naturally begin my tour by catching up with some of the top local talent that just happens to be perennial powers in Division IV, Youngstown Ursuline, and Division I, Warren G. Harding in Warren.
Gone from the talented team at the beginning of the decade that won a state title for the Irish are such names as Josh Swogger, the current quarterback at Washington State and probably the least known of that talented squad, Louis Irizarry, Delbert Ferguson and Terrance Graves.
First year head coach, Dan Reardon, 32, a Jim Tressel disciple who spent the last six seasons coaching at Harding under Gary Barber and then Thom McDaniels, has a youthful group under his helmsman ship but has at least two exciting veterans to build his team around in seniors Derrick Stewart and Alex Allen.
Alex Allen (4) and Joe Underwood (9)
"I couldn't sleep last night. It's extremely exciting and I'm definitely ready to get started," said Reardon who had his squad working out in helmets and shoulder pads. "The kids are doing a great job so far and I think they're itching to get last year's season out of their mind. It was a little disappointing last year for them going 5-5."
Reardon will have to rely on a solid senior class for leadership but may be smiling the most when he looks at a lot of talented players he's inheriting in the junior and sophomore classes.
"I'm very happy with our senior class, and our younger classes have a great amount of ability, so I think it's a great mix as far as that goes," he said. "We have a very tough schedule; it's a demanding schedule and it's a schedule that's going to get us ready for the playoffs."
Derrick Stewart (left), 5-10, 170, is the biggest name and the most prolific talent on both sides of the ball that Reardon will have to work with. Stewart, one of the most underrated talents in the state, boasts offers from schools like Wisconsin and Cincinnati along with a handful of others in the MAC. Stewart is a three-sport star and a state participant in the 110 hurdles.
"Derrick Stewart is as talented a receiver as I've ever been around," said Reardon who has been around Mario Manningham at Harding the past two years. "Derrick is not as big as Mario, which unfortunately sometimes means that you're not as big of a prospect, but as far as flat-out ability, if Mario is better than him it's not by much. He's extremely exciting and I can't wait to see him play."
Alex Allen, 6-0, 195, has a chance to be mentioned among the names of the elite running backs at the school, like Ferguson and Sean Penny. Allen rushed for around 700 yards last year, averaging almost 8 yards per carry.
"I think he's going to be a guy that really opens up some eyes this year and a lot of people are going to wonder why the heck they've never heard of him before" Reardon said. "He's attracted a lot of interest after having taken him to some different camps over the summer. I think he has a bright future ahead of him."
Cory Maizel, 6-3, 295, leads a senior-laden offensive line at Ursuline.
"Our offensive line is going to be very instrumental in whatever success we have this year," Reardon said. "There's a handful of seniors on the offensive line -- Cory Maizel, Mike Constantini and Dom Cutrone -- doing a great job from a leadership standpoint. Cory's lost almost 50 pounds since I've first met him in January, and he's just done a great job trimming down and that's going to make him especially effective this year."
Ursuline has at least three juniors who are destined to be big-time prospects next year in Mike Bartos, Joe Underwood and Jerome Jones.
Bartos, 6-2, 250, is a returning starter on the offensive line and will play some on the defensive line as well.
"Mike Bartos just won the national championship in power lifting (sanctioned by the World Natural Power Lifting Federation in New Jersey). He was named a national champion in his weight class (age 13-16 in 242 pound weight-class)," Reardon said. "He's unbelievably strong, he works hard and he's a great kid. He's going to play guard and defensive tackle for us and again he's extremely strong."
Underwood 6-2, 230 and Jones are both candidates to rated near the top of the class in Ohio next season.
"Joe Underwood is a very talented young man that will play defensive end and tight end for us this year," the coach said. "And J.J. is about 6-7, 210 and he can really run. He's also a basketball player, and I'll be honest -- I was a little nervous about that, but he's a football player. He's been extremely competitive and he's doing everything that we needed him to do. He's doing a great job."
Matt Yarb, 6-1, 200, is one sophomore candidate that Reardon is more than happy to boast about.
"If we played today, he would be starting at linebacker for us and he'd get a lot of reps at fullback," Reardon said. "So he's definitely going to contribute. He's at least going to start one way. He's got a ton of ability and the sky is the limit for him."
With the tough and aggressive schedule that Ursuline plays every year, a 5-5 and 6-4 record is commonplace. But in most instances, those wins provide enough points to make the postseason.
"We have a lot of the right pieces, and I expect us to be successful this year and I expect to make the playoffs," Reardon said. "And if you make the playoffs, you never know."
If you drive north from Ursuline about 15 miles, you'll arrive at Mollenkopf Stadium, where Harding plays their home football contests.
I talked with Thom McDaniels briefly about his Raiders, who haven't lost a regular-season game in two years now, after watching their second practice of the day.
Harding OL Rocco Cironi
"I love this senior class, but I think the success of what we attempt to do this fall is going to come down to us being more disciplined than the people we play and us being in better shape than the people we play," the coach said. "The sum may be greater than the parts, and if we get it all together, we're going to be okay and qualify for the playoffs again. It's a tough schedule though."
I first asked the coach to address the running back situation that was left vacant with the graduation of Richard Davis and Ferguson and the quarterback position that is up for grabs with Alex Engram's departure
"We've got a running back, we've got more than one running back," McDaniels said. "Jonny Richardson (5-9, 181, Sr.) is very good and Danny Herron (5-10, 177, Soph.) is going to be fine, and we got another sophomore, Sidney Glover. We've got running backs, but we have not found a quarterback yet. You've got to be accurate, you've got to make decisions and you've got to be consistent and manage the game and none of the three has done that yet. So we're still looking for quarterbacks."
Corey Stringer (3) and Mario Manningham (1)
Roger Matlock, Rashawn Shannon and Pat White (6-4, 184, Jr.) are three candidates to be the signal caller.
"It's the first day of two-a-days and I have no idea who the starter is going to be."
Whoever it is will be protected by a strong offensive line anchored by two three-year tackles.
"Our two tackles are great players, and if anybody has two tackles better than these two, then they're a pretty good football team because I think Rocco (Cironi) and Dante (Campbell) are two real good tackles on this particular football team," McDaniels said. "The young guys we've got at the guard and center positions are going to be fine. This unit has the potential to be the best offensive line since I've been here."
With adequate time, whoever the quarterback is will have two tremendous receivers in Mario Manningham and Corey Stringer, to get the ball to.
"Mario is as good as advertised," McDaniels said. "He's come back and he's readied himself for his senior year about as well as anybody that I've ever coached. Stringer (6-3, 180, Sr.) has paid his dues and he's ready for his time, for his turn, for his opportunity. He's a cousin (of the late Korey Stringer) and it's nice to have him opposite a guy like Mario."
On defense, Harding returns two linemen, one linebacker and two in the secondary.
"We've got five back over there," McDaniels said. "We're a little more experienced coming back on defense than we are on offense."
At 6-0, 280, Tony Reed (left), just a junior, is a mainstay on the defensive line and he will be a top recruit in the state next year.
"If he's not a solid player, then we're going to have a hard time playing defense," the coach said. "Tony Reed's got to be solid, Marque Allen's got to be solid, Ben Elser's got to be solid and Roger Matlock and Preston Kelson at the corners, those five guys on defense all have to pick up where they left off."
Maurice Clarett was carrying the ball for the Raiders when Harding last lost a regular-season game, and that was to Cincinnati Elder in the Pitt. The Raiders have an extremely challenging schedule this season and to say it will difficult to go undefeated again this year is an understatement.
"Oh my goodness! That's everybody's goal, but I'm no fool," McDaniels dead panned. "If we can do that, that will be great. But when you play Glenville, Buchtel, Ursuline, Mooney, Ed's, Ignatius, Massillon and Hoban; they all want to be undefeated too, so somebody is going to be wrong here.
It's one game at time for Harding, who opens with Washington D.C. Dunbar at home.
"All we want to do is win enough games to get in because if we get in, as young as we are, we're going to be a lot better the final third of the season than we are the first third," McDaniels said. "All we want to do is get in because if we can get in we can make it interesting.
"But again nothing is going to matter unless we're more disciplined than the other guys and in better shape than they are. We need to make the games be decided in the fourth quarter and if we can do that we're going to be okay. If we don't do that we're going to be in trouble."
Of course I spent some time watching Manning and Cironi (6-7, 270) go through their drills in practice and I couldn't leave without asking McDaniels about Cironi's status recruiting-wise. Manningham has already verbally committed to Michigan.
"He's in the same situation that Mario is in; he has readied himself
for a great senior year and he's a big-time football player," the coach
said. "He's got offers from a lot of people in Division I, not everybody,
but I know Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame want to see his first three games
of the season to make their minds up. But he's got offers from other people if
they're not interested. He's a three-year starter, so is Dante Campbell
(6-2, 280, Sr.). Both tackles have started for three years."