MERIDEN — It’s funny how, at this time of the football season, when teams are looking to advance to the playoffs, the lingo is so evocative of offense.
Funny, because you know the saying about defense. It’s what wins championships.
So here on Thanksgiving, when teams are looking to keep state championship drives alive or maybe just hoping to take it to the house against an arch-rival, we pay homage to what will probably get the job done most of all.
We tip our hats to the defenses and their top players. We tip our hats to “The Defenders.”Billy Carr,Southington LB
Billy Carr put together an All-Conference season in 2018 with 106 tackles and he’s right back at it this year.
The senior captain goes into the Apple Classic with 94 tackles — 19 of them for negative yardage, including 10 quarterback sacks.
All of those numbers are team highs and they’ve got the 8-1 Blue Knights going back to the Class LL playoffs.
Carr has also forced two fumbles and recovered four. He is the centerpiece of a defense that hasn’t allowed a point in 11 quarters and has yielded just 456 rushing yards on 254 attempts.
That’s an average of 1.8 yards a carry and 50.6 yards a game.
“Billy has done a great job being the heart of the defense,” said Southington head coach Mike Drury. “He communicates a ton of stuff to the guys on every play.”
The 5-foot-9 Carr isn’t the biggest inside linebacker on the planet. A Class LL wrestling champ last year at 170 pounds, he’s checking in at 185 this fall.
Yet Carr possesses the most important attributes of a defensive player: read the play, see the ball, get to the ball.
“He plays with a great instinctive mindset and physicality,” Drury said. “He just plays physical. He has tremendous explosive power.”Colby GriffinCheshire SS
Cheshire has gotten terrific play from all levels of its defense in going 8-1 and securing its first postseason berth in 10 years.
Junior defensive end Chisom Okoro, with his team-high 75 tackles, leads a vaunted line. Senior Jacob Dubois (54 tackles) leads the linebackers. Sophomore Ben Wable (53) is having a fine season at free safety.
The sparkplug of the engine, though, is 5-10, 170-pound senior strong safety Colby Griffin. It’s not just Griffin’s numbers that are excellent — 70 tackles, including 10 for lost yardage — it’s his attitude. It’s contagious.
“I don't know if there is any one (defensive player) who you single out, but Colby is a real high-energy guy,” remarked Cheshire head coach Don Drust. “He does a great job of practicing hard every day.
“He's an energy guy in the locker room; he's an energy guy between the white lines. He just plays with a ton of emo
tion and a ton of passion, and when you have those things you are going to be pretty good at this game.”
Griffin is also valuable on offense. Primarily a receiver, he’s made 15 catches for 199 yards. Occasionally inserted at quarterback, he’s thrown for 41 yards and rushed for 57.
“Colby is hyper-competitive in everything he does,” Drust noted. “That’s just who he is. He just works so hard and that’s why he’s been so successful.”Jaylen John,Platt DT
Jaylen John is like all good interior defensive linemen. He’s making plays even when he’s not making plays.
Meaning: He’s either on the stop or commanding enough attention to free up teammates to make the stop.
“He does it all,” said Platt head coach Jason Bruenn. “He’s gotten the attention of opposing coordinators and they try to block him in different ways, but when you put an extra guy on him, it opens up opportunities for someone else. He sacrifices a lot for the team.”
The sacrifice hasn’t cost John individual accolades. He was All-State and All-Record-Journal last year as a junior. He was also named to the Walter Camp All-Connecticut Second Team.
This year, his third as a starter, the 5-foot-10, 250-pounder has made 50 tackles, 44 of them solo.
“He’s been tremendous,” said Bruenn. “He’s super-athletic for a big guy.”
“I was just saying to my staff that, with the defense we play, it’s similar to the old (University of) Miami teams with Warren Sapp as the defensive tackle,” Bruenn remarked. “Jaylen is that guy in the three technique defensive tackle that the defense is made up around.
“If he doesn’t do what he does, our defense doesn’t run the way it’s supposed to. He’s got to be good enough to beat the offensive lineman in front of him and make plays.”Kody TalentoMaloney LB
What Billy Carr is to Southington, Kody Talento is to Maloney.
Lining up at inside linebacker, Talento is leading his team’s defense for a second straight year.
Like Carr, Talento is a wrestler. Like Carr, he’s not the biggest dude, but he’s hard-nosed and explosive, and he gets to the ball.
“He’s tough and tenacious as a linebacker,” Maloney coach Kevin Fredrick said. “He’s a vocal leader. He knows the game really well. He spends a lot of time watching film with his father or in our film classes.”
The prep work has paid off. Talento helped the Spartans reach the Class L state final a year ago with a team-high 124 tackles. He has 92 this year heading into the Stoddard Bowl and the postseason beyond, as 8-1 Maloney has secured its third straight playoff berth.
“Kody is a great practice player and, in the game, he doesn’t take a play off,” Frederick said. “When you have a linebacker with those characteristics, it’s going to lead to success on the field.” Braedon McCarthy,Sheehan DE
Braedon McCarthy has been starting for three years for the Titans. This season, though, brought a major change, as McCarthy was moved from his customary spot at inside linebacker to defensive end.
“It’s a natural fit with his size and athleticism,” said head coach John Ferrazzi. “He has size. From his days as a linebacker he brings a different athleticism. He has good hands and is able to get off of blocks. The technique has come naturally to him.”
McCarthy, who goes 6-2 and 250, has made 21 tackles this year — seven of them for lost yardage.
“Braedon has been one of the anchors on the defensive line,” Ferrazzi said. “Sometimes defensive linemen don’t have the stats to back up their play, but Braedon has done a great job.”
He’s a two-way player, lining up at tight end and H-back on offense, running interior routes or helping block for an attack putting up 44.3 points and 423.5 yards a game.
McCarthy is also a senior captain on a club on the verge of going to the state playoffs for a third straight year. Lucas O’ReardonLyman Hall LB
Lucas O’Reardon delivered good news to Lyman Hall football throughout the season. The bad news is, after suffering an injury a few weeks ago against Amity, the junior will not be in action this Thanksgiving.
It’s a major loss for the Trojans. Simply put, O’Reardon was among the area’s top two-way players.
“He’s going to be out on Thanksgiving and I feel bad for that young man,” said Lyman Hall coach Bill Weyrauch. “He’s a great impact player and his stats don’t give him justice. Any coach that sees the film will see that he blocks and tackles on every play. He’s just a great kid to coach.”
Actually, O’Reardon’s stats are impressive. As a slot receiver/tight end, he caught 46 passes for 631 yards.
“For the old timers, he reminds me of Mark Bavaro; the kids say (Mark Gronkowski),” Weyrauch remarked. “He’s tough. When he catches the ball, he’s not going down on the first hit.”
Conversely, when O’Reardon applies a hit, the target does go down. He was among state tackling leaders with 87 when he got hurt.
“Defensively, he has a great way of receiving a block,” Weyrauch noted. “He’s one of the top tacklers in the state and his numbers aren’t inflated. He has a desire to make every play. Luke is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached in my career. I would describe Luke as an athlete that does everything right. He studies and does everything right in school. On the field, he’s as tough as they come.”
Ron Buck contributed to this story.