Irish have local connection under center
YOUNGSTOWN — With Ursuline preparing for its first state championship game appearance since 2010 this week, one thing has been consistent in carrying the Irish all season long as they have ventured to this point — the offense.
In 14 total games, Ursuline has averaged 43.7 points per game, while having a quarterback who has thrown for 2,500-plus yards and run for 800-plus yards, a running back who has run for 2,000-plus yards and four receivers each with 400-plus yards.
“We try to force the defense to defend the length and width of the field,” head coach Dan Reardon said. “I think it goes back to the fact that we have good skill players and a veteran offensive line, which gets overlooked at times. Maybe our biggest strength is that you don’t know who’s getting the ball (on a given play). Also when you have a quarterback who has the ability to spread the ball around and then keep the defense honest with his feet, it gives you a chance to be dynamic.”
Even back during its state championship three-peat from 2008-2010, Ursuline was a prolific up-tempo team offensively, but since then, while maintaining some similarities, the offense has evolved.
When Reardon, offensive coordinator John DeSantis, and the rest of the coaching staff first installed the system, current Princeton University wide receivers coach and Ursuline-alumnus Brian Flinn was a vital resource, according to Reardon. At the time, Flinn was the wide receivers coach at Villanova University.
“We’d go out there (to Philadelphia) for spring ball and he would spend a lot of time with us when he’d come in for recruiting,” Reardon said. “That’s where we first went to a spread, no-huddle mentality.”
Prior to each season, Ursuline’s coaches rank the team’s best offensive playmakers and skill position players. Then, based on the personnel groupings and their respective positions, the coaching staff will build the offense around getting their best playmakers on the field at the same time.
“We try to get the best skilled players on the field who can make plays and then figure out what plays are good from year-to-year,” Reardon said. “We have a big menu that we draw from and we just try to narrow it based on our player strengths. We’ve evolved from year-to-year and this year we have a lot of flexibility. We can play with two backs, we can play with four receivers, we can play with a tight end — it just makes us more multiple.”
Multiple is the key word when it comes to the scheme. Based on the game situation, where the ball is on the field, what the defense is showing, having multiple sets and personnel groupings allows the offense to be more flexible and versatile.
This season, however, Ursuline’s primary offensive set has been 10-personnel, which Reardon said the Irish are in about 75 percent of the time. In that set, senior quarterback Brady Shannon, who attended South Range schools throught the 8th grade, operates with senior running back DeMarcus McElroy in the backfield with four wide receivers that usually include juniors Will Burney and Marc Manning, along with seniors Dean Boyd and Jakylan Irving.
With the decisions and reads he has to make on almost every play, the quarterback is incredibly valuable in the Irish’s scheme. Shannon said the reads he makes have to be quick, regardless of whether it’s a run or pass, because being one second too late or too early in making a decision “can cost you.”
When he first started at Ursuline as a freshman, Shannon said learning the offense and the scheme was tough.
“We won just one game my freshman year, but I think going into my sophomore year is when I really started to understand what the offense is trying to do against certain defenses,” Shannon said.
The offense blossomed in his junior season when Ursuline made it to the regional final, and it has clearly hit a different level this season, Shannon’s fourth in the system.
“I really understood the offense well — just like the players around me, what I can do with the ball and the different weapons we had and how to take advantage of that,” Shannon said.
Timing is everything in a system like Ursuline’s and the connection between a quarterback and his skill position players has to be almost instinctive.
Boyd and Irving have both played alongside Shannon for all four years, while Boyd and Shannon have played sports together dating back to their youth flag football days.
“Jakylan and I played basketball with (Shannon) for a long time,” Boyd said. “Brady and I go way back. We played flag football together in third grade, baseball fifth through eighth grade. I’ve known him my whole life, he’s been my best friend. Being on the same page always, it’s just the little things we do well together.”
But, even with the familiarity with one another, their chemistry is something that blossoms over time.
“It’s a lot of offseason work — long summers and two-a-days just repping those routes, the timing, the footwork, all that stuff just to be on the same page when game time comes around,” Shannon said.
“We’re always on the same page,” Boyd said. “He’ll see something or I’ll see it. It could be during a play or before. We’ll communicate it with each other or we’ll just already know before the play starts.”
Ursuline’s offensive system contrasts considerably from what it will see when it faces Clinton-Massie in the Division IV state championship game Friday morning.
Although they also have a high-powered offense — the Falcons and Irish have each scored 612 total points during the entire season — Clinton-Massie is much more methodical in its approach. The Falcons will seldom throw the ball, having thrown just 45 passes the entire season, whereas the Irish are capable of throwing for 200-plus yards and/or running for 200-plus yards in any given game.
“(Ursuline) is one of those teams where, if you get up on them, you’ve got to play four quarters, or else they’re just going to explode on you,” said Falcons head coach Dan McSurley. “We’re going to have to contain them, but we’re going to do what we always do and try to control the game with the running game and just move the chains, eliminate mistakes. We feel like we can play with them, but the first impression is that they are explosive. They have a lot of great athletes.”