NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The environment is different, but the situation is still the same. Like it had last summer, the Merrimack College football team entered preseason camp last week with its starting quarterback position an open competition.
The candidates include Joe Capobianco, who last season started six games and appeared in eight as a true freshman, throwing for 1,999 yards and 13 touchdowns before a concussion put him on the shelf. Nick Laspada, a Billerica native who took over the position after Capobianco went down last season, is also in the thick of things along with newcomer Nick Davis, a junior college transfer out of California who comes to North Andover with some hype as an athletic, mobile quarterback with a good release and arm strength.
Brendan McInnis is another local product, last year’s Eagle-Tribune Player of the Year at Windham High School, who is more of a project and will likely spend this season learning the system and pace of the game behind his three QB teammates.
“Last year started the foundation for learning the system and buying into the system, which every player needs to do if we’re going to be successful,” said Laspada. “From last year to this year, the QB competition is great. You have personal goals but it’s the team goal that counts. With the four of us, each one of us does certain things different. We all have specific skills. Some of us are better movers in the pocket, some of us have better arms, so it helps that we’re all learning from each other.”
Capobianco has the best arm, according to Merrimack head coach Dan Curran. Davis might be the most athletic and Laspada might be the best pure competitor.
“We build our offense to look like whoever is in there,” he said. “So when Joe is in there, it looks a lot like when Clancy was here. When Nick Davis is in there, it looks a lot more like when James Suozzo was in there.”
Added Laspada, “You need to give 100 percent in every practice and every meeting, all of the time,” Laspada said. “With the competition we have, you can’t settle for anything.”
Capobianco was in a tough position last season but certainly made the most of it. Thrust into the starting role just two games into his career after senior Luke Bakankowsky suffered a torn ACL, Capobianco was playing behind a makeshift offensive line that was littered with injuries.
“Everything seems to be a lot more smooth for me this year compared to last year,” he said. “Last year coming in it was a different speed, having different coaches and players around me, it was tough. It wasn’t easy, I won’t lie. But coming in this year it feels more like everything is smoother. I know the receivers better, the coaches know me, the offensive line has been great last year.”
What helped Capobianco’s transition last season was the incredible depth the Warriors have at wide receiver, and they return almost that entire group. Jere Brown is one of the best receivers in the Northeast-10 and Justin Mount, who will line up at the opposite wide spot, is a big 6-foot-3 target who is deadly in the red zone, catching eight touchdown passes last season. Curran said Mount has improved his route running this offseason as well.
Once Capobianco was able to develop a rhythm with his receivers as a freshman, things started to take off.
“We have a lot of great weapons from returning guys to freshman coming in,” Capobianco said. “We have unlimited weapons there. Last year we had to work a lot, me and the receivers, just to get a rhythm going because I was a new guy. Now this year right from the start the offense is clicking. It’s like we never left after spring call. The freshmen too, they’re right there. The offensive line is giving all the quarterbacks plenty of time to run the plays and move the ball down field.”
The talent depth at that position is especially welcome by Davis, the newcomer who battled injuries last season as a sophomore at Moorpark College.
“It’s almost ridiculous,” Davis said of the depth at receiver. “Especially when we work on matchup plays. You look over and and how you say to yourself, ‘how can I not trust this guy?’ All of the receivers have great ball skills, great hands and it’s a confidence thing. I know for me it’s huge for confidence because I know you get the ball near them and they’re going to make a play.”
Davis said that Merrimack was one of the first teams to contact him about transferring, mentioning Curran and quarterbacks coach/recruiting coordinator Andrew Dresner specifically.
“The coaches talked to me almost like I was in the program already,” Davis said. “I came out on my visit and there was nobody here. The students weren’t here and I met two players on the team. They said if I liked it then I’d love it when the students were here and I trusted them and I do. I love it here and school hasn’t even started.”
Davis is an athletic quarterback who can use his feet as well as his arm. He’s a coach’s son, and said that while he thinks he can help the team in numerous ways, he’ll do whatever he’s asked.
“If they want me to get out of the pocket and move, I’ll do it,” he said. “If they want me to stay in there and make progression reads, I’ll do it. Whatever helps us win.”
Davis has spent much of camp learning Merrimack’s system, which relies on moving the ball quickly as the quarterback; the Warriors sometimes play games with as many as 100 snaps.
“The quarterbacks and the other coaches have really helped me,” said Davis. “If you don’t quite know what you’re doing, just turn around and ask. They’d rather you ask than get in there and do it wrong. Everyone’s been really helpful.”
Curran on the QBs
Dan Curran on Nick Davis: “At the junior college level it’s expected that you’re going to split time. Their job is to put guys in a four-year school. He was banged up his sophomore year and his numbers weren’t quite as good, and to be honest with you that might have helped us, because I think he’s good enough to be at a higher level. He’s not a big kid, but he’s what we call a dual threat quarterback to the very fullest. He can make every throw, he has a real smooth release, and he walked into the California Juco league, which is legit, and he walked in there as a true freshman and had great numbers. His high school numbers; he was a three-year starter and his numbers were through the roof. He fits what we do. He’s a smart kid, he’s a coach’s son, and he has a good quick release. He has all the intangibles. He’s the type of kid where, he’s in here in the summer and sometimes as a transfer it can be tough to get the guys to buy in, but everyone here loves playing for him. He has natural leadership skills.
“What he needs to work on is his consistency. He has flashes of some high-level stuff. He does some stuff that we’ve never had in this program, including Joe (Clancy). But he needs to be more consistent. At the end of the day, at that position, it’s about being efficient and consistent. That’s where he needs to improve. But from making all the throws, the zone-read stuff, he’s great.”
Dan Curran on Joe Capobianco: “Cap is a guy, and people forget, before he got banged up there at the end of the year, he was the Rookie of the Week three weeks in a row and won the Gold Helmet. He threw seven touchdowns in a game. I don’t care if you do that against the Sisters of the Poor, that’s legit. He still completed more than 60 percent of his passes and he can make any throw.
“His issues were that, at times, he held onto the ball for too long and he’s not the most mobile kid, so when you’re not mobile — and [Clancy] wasn’t either — you need to get the ball out quick and that’s what our offense is based on. Part of that is getting into the progression. He needed to improve working through his progression and not taking sacks.”
Dan Curran on Nick Laspada: “The great thing about Nick is that he’s an unbelievable teammate. We knew when we brought him in that, at worst, we were getting a kid who was a great teammate and a great, great competitor. He has a lot of charisma and the kids love playing for him. He impacted us on special teams last year, and when he did play quarterback he played well.
“For him it’s consistency as well, throwing the ball. He doesn’t have quite as strong of an arm as the other two guys, and he’s not as consistent on his reads, he’s a little more schoolyard, but he’s a great competitor. He’s a guy that, if he’s out there, I know he can win football games for us. If he doesn’t win the job, he will be making an impact somewhere on this team.”
Dan Curran on Brendan McInnis: “He’s a guy who has a chance to be good. It’s a big transition coming from high school and they ran the Wing-T (primarily a running offense) there, but he has a strong arm and he’s a smart kid. He’s big and moves pretty well, actually. We’ll take him along slowly and a few years from now, he could be a good football player for us.”