By Matt Popchock
Some of the top Division I talent in Pennsylvania frequently comes from Gateway, and this weekend Terry Smith’s team will be eyeball to eyeball with it as well.
His Gators open their 2011 season at 6:00 Sunday at Antimarino Stadium against central PA power Bishop McDevitt, the No. 11 team in the Commonwealth regardless of classification, according to MaxPreps.
McDevitt opened the previous season in Harrisburg by blanking the Gators 23-0 en route to a District 3 Class AAA title and PIAA Championship berth, whereas 2010 did not bring the kind of gridiron success we’ve gotten used to seeing from Gateway. It finished a modest 6-5 overall and 5-1 in Class AAAA Foothills Conference play, surrendering the conference title at home to McKeesport in the final week before ousting Erie McDowell and falling to Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the WPIAL Quarterfinals.
Smith really likes the balance and the experience of his offense entering this season, but for it to move the ball effectively, it’s going to have to contain McDevitt tight end/defensive lineman Noah Spence, who will be one of the most scrutinized players in Sunday’s doubleheader.
Spence is the top recruit in Pennsylvania according to Scout.com, and CBS Sports’ Tom Lemming has him pegged at No. 4 overall in the country; furthermore, Lemming lists Spence as the top prospect at defensive end in the nation, and a player who could easily transition to outside or inside linebacker. He registered 102 total tackles (61 solo) and a state-high 22.0 sacks as a junior. Over 30 of those tackles went for a loss, and he also forced nine fumbles, recovering three.
Spence has received offers from Pitt, Penn State, Notre Dame, and a host of Big Ten, ACC, and SEC schools. He’ll try to put the clamps on Gateway’s running game, led by Darin Franklin, who led the Gators with ten rush TD’s and 868 yards in 2010, averaging almost six yards per carry. Last year Spence also made life miserable for QB Tom Woodson, who seems ready for a big year after throwing for 1,362 yards and 12 TD’s despite completing just 46% of his attempts. Woodson is also getting looks from several Big Ten schools, including Penn State.
Meanwhile, ESPN2 cameras will be on hand to capture the action as the team that ended Gateway’s 2010 campaign pays them a visit. In the other game, scheduled for a 2:00 kickoff, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, the preseason favorite in Quad-A and No. 4 team in the state according to MaxPreps, collides with Archbishop Wood.
The “other” Vikings fought their way to a Philadelphia Catholic League (District 12) title in 2010 before bowing in the PIAA Class AAA Semifinals to eventual state champion Allentown Central Catholic. Archbishop Wood enters 2011 ranked No. 1 in the state and has also cracked MaxPreps’ national top 25.
One of the top defensive teams in Quad-A a year ago, the mettle of Central Catholic will be tested by tailback Desmon Peoples. He won Philadelphia Catholic League MVP honors while rumbling for 25 TD’s and over 1,000 yards. Peoples has committed to Rutgers, and was, in fact, recruited by former Pitt tight ends coach Brian Angelichio.
But the most intriguing matchup might be Central receiver/defensive back Anthony Nixon against playmaking tight end and Florida recruit Colin Thompson, or, failing that, Nixon against transfer receiver Nate Smith. Nixon, a Maryland recruit who is considered one of the top safeties in PA, also led Central’s receiving corps in 2010 with 700 yards and three TD’s.
Once again, it’ll be another future Terrapin, Perry Hills, throwing him the rock. Hills completed 55% of his passes and amassed 1,582 yards as a junior, with ten touchdowns. Damion Jones-Moore, who has evolved into one of the WPIAL’s top tailbacks, can take the pressure off the passing game; he ran for 16 TD’s and 1,074 yards last year, averaging six yards a pop and garnering offers from Pitt, WVU, Penn State, and Cincinnati.
So what exactly can we expect to see at Gateway High School on Sunday? “Mr. High School Sports” caught up with Coach Smith to further preview the Gateway Kickoff Classic, and the rest of the 2011 season:
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)