THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL: Proceed with caution! The Defenders are back on the prowl

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We don’t claim to have all the football answers. We don’t presume to know how the playoff picture will play out.

All we can offer, with 100 percent certainty, is that if you’re a quarterback or running back or ballcarrier of any sort, avoid the following dudes at all costs this morning.

If you don’t, chances are you’ll still be feeling the collision at dinner time.

Introducing “The Defenders,” 2021 edition. With the loss of last season, we missed our annual look at the area’s top defensive players.

Therefore, allow us, in the fashion of the gentlemen who follow, to close the gap with all dispatch.

Antwone Santiago, Platt

Platt’s do-it-all senior, who has verbally committed to Division I Temple, moved to inside linebacker this fall after starting at free safety dating back to his sophomore year.

He’s responded with a team-high 75 tackles, 47 of them solo.

“He has great range and is not afraid to hit,” noted Platt coach Jason Bruenn. “He lines up all over the place and allows you to do different things with his speed and ability to cover ground.”

That ability to cover ground has made Santiago a multiple threat. He’s among area receiving leaders with 417 yards on 28 catches. He’s amassed 236 yards on punt and kickoff returns.

Above all, though, Santiago hangs his hat on being a linebacker.

“He wants to be a defender,” Bruenn said. “Everybody wants to catch the ball or run the ball. Being a defender-first player is a rare thing for this generation. It’s all about making highlights. Antwone wants highlights on the defensive side of the ball and that makes him special.”

Kenny McMillan, Maloney

The Spartans also bring a top-shelf veteran inside linebacker into today’s Stoddard Bowl.

The name Kenny McMillan should sound familiar. He’s been a starter since his freshman year, when he helped the Spartans reach the 2018 Class L state final.

Now a senior, McMillan leads Maloney with 67 tackles, including three sacks and a fumble recovery.

He’s at the heart of a defense allowing 15 points, 105 yards rushing and 100 yards passing a game.

“He’s a tough kid, a physical kid that wants to hit you and get after you,” said Maloney coach Kevin Frederick. “As a linebacker, those are the qualities you are looking for.”

McMillan can take a hit, too. He runs the ball on occasion, with 200 yards and seven TDs on 45 carries.

“He’s got good experience,” Frederick said. “He’s a guy that’s dependable to always make the right play.”

Raysean Emrie, Wilcox-Kaynor Tech

In this cruel season of attrition for Wilcox-Kaynor, outside linebacker Raysean Emrie has been the Tribe’s top defender both for his play on the field and his durability.

The junior from Kaynor Tech one of the few players on the first-year co-op to play in every game.

And that’s impressive, because not only does Emrie play linebacker, he’s the team’s leading rusher. Heading into Wednesday night’s Route 66 Bowl against Vinal-Goodwin Tech, he had 341 yards on 64 carries.

Defensively, Emrie had 41 tackles, all but three of them solo. He’d also recovered two fumbles.

“He’s played pretty consistently all the time,” remarked Wilcox-Kaynor coach Trevor Jones. “He’s probably been the best throughout the year.”

Joe Pieper, Lyman Hall

Lyman Hall coach Bill Weyrauch makes no bones about it. “Joe,” says Bill, “is my best player.”

Joe Pieper, a starter dating back to his sophomore season of 2019, is a senior defensive end in Lyman Hall’s 3-3 stack, which means he plays more like a defensive tackle.

The two-way lineman — Pieper is also an offensive guard — has a team-high 44 tackles, including 6½ behind the line of scrimmage.

The senior has good hands and feet, excellent technique. Weyrauch, who played at Fordham University, believes Pieper will be playing at the next level a year from now.

“He’s a little undersized, but he’s a really good football player,” the head coach said. “He uses his hands very well; he’s versatile. He makes up for his size with just his skill.”

Apollo Dubuc and Shaine Salvador, Sheehan

It can’t be easy when you share a name with a Greek god. Rather lofty expectations, eh?

Sheehan’s Apollo Dubuc, though, has done a fine job of it, and fellow inside linebacker Shaine Salvador is right there with him, virtually step for step.

Dubuc leads the Titans with 67 tackles, 47 of them solo. Salvador has 66 and 46.

They are at the heart of the Sheehan defense and, as tackles, two pillars of the offense. Throw special teams in there, too. They play every snap.

“Both of those guys have been extremely unselfish guys,” said Sheehan coach John Ferrazzi. “They do what’s best for the team and they do it willingly.

“They’re great kids and they’re great leaders.”

Dubuc’s eight tackles for a loss also lead team. He’s blocked a punt, picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles.

Kevin’ D’Errico and Luca Raccio, Cheshire

These two seniors lead the Rams as linebackers and team captains, a role they don’t take lightly in Cheshire.

D’Errico closed October leading the Rams with 75 tackles, including nine for lost yardage.

Measuring D’Errico’s intuition isn’t as easily quantifiable.

"Personally, as a defensive guy, I look out there and see a guy who, at times, I really don't have to call something,” said Cheshire coach Don Drust. “He knows what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it.

"He plays relentlessly, just super hard,” Drust added. “When you have an opportunity to have a senior captain out there who does all the right things, it makes my life really easy."

D’Errico and Raccio play both ways — D’Errico at guard, Raccio at fullback when the sets call for one. Raccio is also on every special team.

He is, you could say, a middle-of-the-huddle man.

"Another guy who does everything right. We saw leadership skills (in Raccio as a sophomore) to be able to do the things he's done this season,” Drust remarked. “He has ability to rally guys around him. It's no surprise he is who he is." 

Jackson Rusiecki and Austin Pszczolkowski, Southington

These two senior defensive ends pose a Scylla and Charybdis quandary to opponents. Running away from one usually means you’re running into the other.

Then again, by the time you make your mind up, chances are good they’re already in your backfield.

And about the only thing harder than spelling Austin Pszczolkowski’s name is getting past him. Only the spelling is bit easier with Jackson Rusiecki.

“Those guys are dynamic players,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “Just dogs up front — tough, fast, physical. They play intense; they play 1,000 miles an hour every play.”

Rusiecki and Pszczolkowski definitely feed off each other.

“The way Austin and I worked out this summer — we put a lot of work in together — I knew we’d be big factors,” Rusiecki said. “Looking across the field and seeing Austin dialed in, it just makes me want to play harder.”

Scylla. Charybdis.

What’s telling: Rusiecki and Pszczolkowski share the team lead in tackles with 71.

More telling: Rusiecki has 19½ tackles for lost yardage, including 7½ sacks. Pszczolkowski has 15 TFL, including 10 sacks.

“We expected big things out of them,” said Drury. “We had an idea about those guys (from last year’s independent schedule). We knew what they had. We expected them to have an impact on the game.”

Impact: That’s the watchword of this edition of “The Defenders,” as both noun and verb. Teammates and coaches can attest to the former, opponents to the latter.

Contributing to this story were Sean Krofssik, Ron Buck and Riley Millette

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