NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack head football coach Dan Curran doesn’t mince words when he breaks down his roster for the upcoming season. The Warriors are a young group, and that’s not something he’s going to hide from.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not excited with what he’s seen through almost two weeks of training camp.
“This is a young and inexperienced group on paper,” Curran said. “You look at the depth chart and it’s all redshirt-freshmen and sophomores with the exception of some really key guys. But with that being said, I really like the makeup and demeanor of this group.”
Merrimack opens the 2017 season on Sept. 2 at Division I-AA Bryant. The Warriors are looking to bounce back from a 3-8 season last fall, which saw them struggle with a rotation of players at quarterback and some injuries to key players at skill positions, including local favorite Cody Demers as slot receiver. Nick Davis, who started the first four games of the season under center, didn’t see action after that and Brenton Martin, a converted wide receiver, started the last seven games.
The Warriors are hoping to shore up the position this fall with the addition of Bentley transfer C.J. Scarpa, as well as another new face in transfer Cam Hayes. Former record-setting quarterback Joe Clancy is on the staff now as an assistant coach, and will play a key role in the quarterbacks’ development.
Aside from just the quarterback position, Curran said that the focus of the offseason was getting the program back to its core values. The values themselves never changed, but last spring was spent reinforcing what the coaching staff believes makes for the strongest team.
“We really talked about getting back to what made us what we were as a program at Merrimack,” Curran said. “We’ve always been a blue-collar program with a tough, gritty, competitive group of kids who are selfless. To a certain degree, I think we lost a little bit of that last year. Not intentionally, but I think we had some kids who maybe didn’t make the best decisions. But these young guys, they’re talented and they have bought into our program. They have embraced it.
“The offseason was intentionally difficult for these guys. It was really difficult. They accepted every challenge we’ve thrown in their way. Even with the inexperience, I’m excited to coach this group. It’s a fun group to coach. Camp has not disappointed. As far as competitiveness in practice — both offense, defense and positionally — there are a lot of jobs on the line right now. We have more depth, even though we’re young, and there is plenty of talent. Guys are going to have to fight to earn their spot.
“We put more of an emphasis on compete level and mental toughness. The thing about mental toughness is that you can’t be mentally tough unless you’re physically willing to go outside your comfort zone. A lot of the drills we did and the exercises we did were geared towards competing and mental toughness. The most important things are how hard we play, and how well we play together. That’s where it all starts.”
Curran said that this training camp has been the most physical of any camp he’s seen at Merrimack, including back when he was an assistant coach under John Perry, who is now with the Houston Texans as wide receivers coach.
“Practices have been competitive and really physical,” said Curran. “The practices we’re having are as physical as we’ve had since I’ve been here. Will that translate? We’ll see.”
Just two years ago, Merrimack finished the season 6-5 (6-3 in the NE10) and thanks to a strong conference record, nearly slotted into the conference championship game.
Merrimack developed a reputation for slinging the ball all over the field under Clancy a few years ago, but last year’s up-and-down play at the quarterback position forced the Warriors to change their style. The Warriors ran the ball more than they threw it last season (418-327), which is a notion that would have been laughed at when Clancy was taking the snaps.
In Clancy’s senior year, the Warriors threw the ball a 565 times and ran just 277 running plays.
“This group has the grit factor we’re looking for,” said Curran. “Even when we were throwing the ball 70 times per game, that was a gritty group of kids. That was an extension of the run game, and it was our brand of being physical. You have a slot receiver like Shane Ferguson, who wasn’t beating anyone in the 40-yard dash, but he would run through your face. You had Clancy, a quarterback who wasn’t afraid to sit in there, be a leader, and then we had a bunch of guys who weren’t afraid to embrace their role. This team has that kind of makeup and it reminds me a lot of those teams. Now, whether or not we are the same team on Saturdays? We need to go out and execute. There’s definitely some things that prove to me that we’re getting back to where we need to be.”
Merrimack’s hope opener will be Sept. 16 against Bentley (3 p.m.). The Warriors also have a game scheduled under the lights on Sept. 30 against Stonehill (7 p.m.). They hope to open the new stadium (current under construction) on Oct. 14 at Homecoming.
“Our core values have never changed,” Curran said. “I think maybe you could say we’re policing it better? There is no gray. It’s very black and white as far as what we expect and how we’re going to approach things. The kids know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. That comes back to recruiting, too, and recruiting the right types of kids. We’re looking for a certain type of kid here, and when we’ve been successful, we’ve been able to go out and get what we like to call ‘Merrimack guys’ and I feel like we have a lot of Merrimack guys in this group. That’s what makes it fun to coach. Even years when we’ve had successful years, sometimes you had some guys who would make things challenging. We don’t have a lot of those guys right now, and that’s exciting. Any time you have 100 guys on a roster, it’s just different than other sports. This group has embraced everything we talk about.”