All aspects of defense are represented this Thanksgiving in the Record-Journal’s annual “The Defenders” feature.
You want pass rushers up front? We’ve got pass rushers in defensive ends O’Neal Ward of Maloney and Zach Kizer of Lyman Hall.
You want overachievers at linebacker? We’ve got hitters who lay licks way out of proportion to their modest dimensions in Zavian Arroyo of Platt and Will Terzi of Sheehan.
You want a shutdown cornerback? We’ve got a shutdown corner in Sammy Thomson of Southington.
You want a seasoned field general at free safety? We’ve got that in four-year varsity starter Michael Jeffrey of Cheshire.
The All-Record-Journal Team that will be announced at the end of the season will fill in the other spots. For now, as we head into Thursday morning’s Thanksgiving rivalry games, here’s a look at the six players designated by their coaches as indispensible pieces to their respective teams. Today, they are saluted as “The Defenders.”
Platt coach Jason Bruenn calls senior linebacker Zavian Arroyo “a true throwback to the older days of football; he is tough and thrives on hitting and being aggressive.”
Arroyo is listed at only 5-foot-7, 155 pounds on Platt’s roster. Those 155 pounds have been in on 63 tackles, 41 of them solo and seven of them for a loss. Arroyo has also recovered two fumbles.
Arroyo was particularly sharp in weeks 3-5, when he rang up three straight 10-tackle games, including five for a loss at Wethersfield.
After the Stoddard Bowl, Arroyo will head to the wrestling room, where he’s a veteran on coach Bryan McCarty’s squad.
“As a wrestler, he uses his knowledge from that sport in football,” Bruenn noted. “The hand combat, the body balance, and the physical and mental toughness are just some of the attributes he brings to football every day.”
There have been only two players in the checkered history of Cheshire football to start on varsity for all four years of high school. The first was future Syracuse player Kyle McIntosh, a cornerstone of the 1990s dynasty teams. The other is Michael Jeffery.
Jeffery cracked the Cheshire lineup at free safety as a freshman in the fall of 2014 and he’s been there ever since. A year later, he became a two-way player, lining up at receiver on offense.
Jeffery has been durable. He’s missed just one game in his career.
Now a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, Jeffery has 56 tackles on the season and 229 for his career heading into his fourth and final Apple Classic.
“He’s our quarterback [on defense],” said Cheshire coach Don Drust. “He’s so smart, he kind of runs it for us. He gets us lined up. He makes checks. He does all those things.”
Jeffery will be doing it next year in the NESCAC. He’s headed to Amherst and will play football for the Purple & White.
A junior defensive end, Zach Kizer is the lone underclassman among the 2017 Defenders. If it weren’t for an injury, Kizer may have cracked the ranks as early as last year.
Kizer has been a key piece in Lyman Hall’s turnaround this season under first-year head coach Bill Weyrauch. He’s got both size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and agility. Of Kizer’s team-high 58 tackles, 25 of them have been solo.
Kizer also leads the Trojans with nine sacks.
“Zach Kizer is our impact player on the defensive side of the ball,” said Weyrauch. “He plays the run and pass equally well. He has the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline from the defensive end position.”
Junior Wes Terzi has been generating headlines this fall directing a Sheehan offense generating 25 points and 362 yards a game. It’s his big brother Will, a senior linebacker, who’s been leading the way on defense.
Terzi is one of three team captains and he’s a two-way player, having moved from fullback to tackle this season on offense.
He’s also seen a change in alignment on defense, moving from one of the outside linebacking slots to inside.
At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Terzi isn’t the biggest inside linebacker going, yet plays like one. He’s got a team-high 97 tackles (31 solo) heading into the Carini Bowl. That’s an average of nearly 11 tackles a game.
"Will is a tough, hard-nosed linebacker who has developed into a force on our defense as a result of his tremendous work ethic and competitive nature,” remarked Sheehan coach John Ferrazzi. “He is tough and relentless, which certainly shows up on film with his motor and pursuit to the football."
As a top defensive player, Sam Thomson is continuing a family tradition. His dad, Southington defensive coordinator Rob Thomson, was an All-American DB at Syracuse. His brother Matt, a linebacker, is now at Marist. Both preceded Sam as a Blue Knight.
Sam will likely be playing college ball somewhere a year from now. In the meantime, he’s putting up All-State numbers in the Southington secondary at cornerback.
Employing his 6-foot-4 height to optimum use, Thomson has picked off four passes this year and broken up 15 others. He’s only 170 pounds, yet is hardly skittish when it comes to contact. having made 39 tackles. Thomson has also forced a fumble and recovered another.
“He’s exceptional back there with his ability to shut down teams’ No.1 receivers. It allows you to do more things with your secondary when you have a guy like that. It allows you to put more guys in the box to stop the run,” noted Southington coach Mike Drury.
“He’s done a great job versus every team we’ve faced. We put him on their top guy and he’s done a great job just shutting them down, playing physical, making plays.”
A few of the schools showing interest in Thomson are Bryant and Marist.
Our last guy is putting up first-rate numbers, some of the most gaudy around.
For starters, Maloney senior defensive end O’Neal Ward has been a sack machine. He’s got 12 on the season. That’s the area high. (“His favorite thing to do is to hit the QB,” said Maloney coach Kevin Frederick.)
Ward has often proved unblockable. Of his 54 tackles on the season, 18 have gone for lost yardage.
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Ward is literally a big piece of a defense that has the Spartans on the verge of their first trip to the postseason since 2006. Maloney is giving up just under 14 points and 200 yards a game.
For Ward, success in ’17 has sprung from preparation.
“He's a fierce run defender and a student of the game,” Frederick said. “He watches the most film of anybody on the team. He's constantly looking at opponents and at our practices on HUDL. He'll always text me and our defensive coordinator (Mike Dargan) with questions.”
The question is, how many sacks will Ward get in the Stoddard Bowl? How many will Kizer collect in the Carini Bowl?
How many tackles await Arroyo and Terzi in the same games? How many plays out of the secondary loom for Thomson and Jeffery in the Apple Classic?
The final numbers are all that’s uncertain. The quality of play by “The Defenders” is not.
Sean Krofssik & Ken Lipshez contributed to this story