When it comes to running backs, Merrimack might have its most talented group in some time. Even with Armond McRae missing the season due to academic ineligibility, according to head coach Dan Curran, the Warriors return senior Adriell Mayes as well as two other unheralded returners and a freshman who could transform the offense with his electricity.
First there’s Mayes, the leading returning rusher, who Curran said is having a great camp and has improved as an overall football player.
“People forget he was playing high school football in Virginia, in a very good league, and he rushed for 2,000 yards twice,” he said. “He’ll get more burn this year. He’s a kid who has a great feel for the inside zone and he’s improved as a total player.”
One the main areas of improvement for Mayes has been his work in the passing game and pass protection; he caught 14 balls out of the backfield in 2014.
“In our offense you need to be a complete player or else you won’t play,” Curran said. “He’s there now. He’s worked on what he needed to work on.”
McRae was hurt down the stretch last season and that opened the door for freshman Derrick Villard to get some action. He responded with a modest 3.3 yards per carry in just 31 touches, but after a year of learning the system, Villard could prove to be a key piece for the Warriors in 2015 with the bulk of the running opportunities open.
Villard has a rare combination of bruising size, along with good speed.
“We think he can be the best in the league,” Curran said. “He’s a different-level kid. He’s 6-foot-1, 230 pounds and he’s sub-11 (seconds) in the 100-meter dash. You drop him into an NFL practice, and just the way he looks, he wouldn’t look out of place. He’s a different-level kid who can go 340 (pounds) seven times on the bench, he’s a 500 (pound) squatter and one of the fastest guys on our team.”
Villard broke two bones in the team’s spring scrimmage but Curran said he should be cleared for game action by the time opening day rolls around on Sept. 5 against Bowie State.
“We expect huge things from Villard,” Curran said. “We’re taking him along slowly, but he’ll be cleared for the opening game … If he’s healthy, he’s a difference-maker in this league.”
The third spot could belong to local bruiser Santino Brancato (Central Catholic), who last year didn’t register a single carry, but Curran raved about his work ethic and how he’s carved out a niche on the roster.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I have a great relationship with the Central staff, and that’s the only reason he’s on the team. He was a good high school player but he didn’t really project to the college level. There were questions about him as a running back and he was undersized as a linebacker. But I’ll tell you, he’s tough as nails. We talked to him about creating a niche for himself and he’s done that. He’s an all-purpose guy. He has a great attitude and the offensive line just loves to block for him because he has a chip on his shoulder and he plays physical. He’s our Heath Evans.”
The Warriors also add three rookies, including the lightning-quick Juwan Hall, who Curran said clocks in as the fastest kid in Merrimack’s history.
“I’d be shocked if he’s not the fastest kid in the league,” he said.
Curran said that Hall ran a sub-4.3 40-yard dash twice in camp and was nationally ranked in the 55-meter dash last season as a high school senior.
“I’d use short, because he’s not small,” Curran said of Hall, who measures 5-9 and weights 185 pounds. “He’s put together. He’s a 400-pound squatter and a 300-pound bencher. He will play this year in a situational role.”
That situation could be a number of things. Curran said Hall is the perfect fit for the slot when the Warriors go with an empty backfield on a jet sweep, and Hall is also likely a candidate to return kicks.
“He’s a Division I kid across the board,” Curran said. “We just outworked some people and it was good enough to get him here. We love him. He’s picking up the offense quickly, too. Our offense is complex, there is a lot of moving parts, and if you can’t pick it up you can’t play. That’s part of what held Villard back last year, but to his credit he came in at the end of the year when (McRae) got hurt and he was great.”