NEW CANAAN — One of the New Canaan defensive players who will play an important role in slowing the state’s leading rushing attack during Saturday’s Class L championship game has proved commanding with increased time, yet has received little acclaim. That despite a 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame that has made him arguably Connecticut’s most coveted high school football player by top college programs.
But then you probably only think of Lucas Niang as the monstrous All-FCIAC left tackle when the Rams’ have the ball.
Though New Canaan has the depth and preference to limit the number of two-way players, Niang’s performance has forced the team to give him increased responsibility on defense.
“When you put him up against most high school players, because of his size he’s able to dominate the people that he’s been in front of,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “The thing that was surprising was not only was he dominating a kid, but he’d get rid of the kid and make a play. You run down a kid and you’re that size and you say ‘Oh, my god.’ It really was a no-brainer.”
Chris Silvestri, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, estimated than Niang has gone from playing about 10 percent of the time with the starters last season to 70 percent this season.
“Last year we wanted to use him a lot more but he was a junior and still more comfortable learning one position,” Silvestri said. “He would play in spots. If we needed a run stop we would put him at nose guard and he would do a good job plugging it up.”
It is hard to keep a player with the physical gifts and talent off the field, especially when Niang was vocal about getting increased time both ways. One of the reasons, given his acclaim protecting quarterback Michael Collins, might prove surprising.
“It’s tiring but it’s really fun,” Niang said of his double duty. “I’ve been playing defense since youth football and the last two seasons I haven’t been playing as much. I really like it. You are kind of bored on the sideline when the offense is out and the defense is doing a great job. You want to be a part of it.”
Niang then made this confession: “I like defense better than offense. If I had the opportunity in college I would like to try it. I enjoy firing out and hitting people, going after the ball.”
The Rams’ championship game against North Haven Saturday afternoon in West Haven has about as many stark contrasts as possible. The Indians, the top seeds, will be playing in a state final for the first time. This will be the Rams’ ninth trip in the last 10 years. They have won two in a row and six in all during that stretch.
But in terms of this game, North Haven (12-0) leads the state in rushing, with 4,149 yards. They have passed the ball just 29 times, which is just about an average game for Collins, who has seldom played in the fourth quarter this year. The two teams have used different paths to get the same results: North Haven is averaging 48 points to the sixth-seeded Rams’ 44.
Niang has been recruited by the nation’s top college programs. He visited TCU the day after New Canaan’s lone loss, on Thanksgiving against Darien. He has plans to travel to both Auburn and Miami after the season.
Good offensive tackles, especially with Niang’s size, are a coveted commodity, so it is doubtful a school would be looking at converting him to a defensive player on a full-time basis. Silvestri said the only reason right now Niang is better on offense is reps and playing time.
“Right now he’s a fantastic offensive tackle and a very, very good defensive player,” said Silvestri. “That’s because he works at offensive tackle more, and we have more depth on defense and can rest him more. This year there has been a different mentality. In the offseason he talked about how much he wanted to play defense, and he ended up learning the three positions we have up front. He does a great job. It is so hard to block someone his size. It is nice to put him wherever we need him.”
Niang and the New Canaan defense will have to stop, or at least contain, the Indians’ Wing-T offense, which is hard to simulate because it has become almost extinct in this spread-offense era. The teams met in the semifinals two years ago; New Canaan won, 17-0.
“It can be a little confusing seeing where the ball is going, but if I stick to my assignments I should get it done,” Niang said about Saturday’s game, which will be his last for the Rams.
“I don’t know when we’ll have another kid like that again,” Marinelli said. “Who is so athletic and so strong.”