NORWALK — Consider the outlook for the Norwalk football team to be like a wavering scale. On one side is inexperience. On the other is tremendous athleticism.
If that speed and skill can overcome a rebuild of the starting lineup, the Bears will be one of the FCIAC’s sleeper teams.
Coach Sean Ireland is confident the balancing act will play out in Norwalk’s favor.
“We’re very athletic, very fast,” Ireland said today as the team finished up a morning conditioning practice. “We’re going to be a team, as the season goes on we’re going to get better and better. The football knowledge is there with all of these kids. They’ve been playing together and been successful growing up, so we are hoping the same thing will pan out here.”
The team that takes the field for the opener at East Lyme on Sept. 7 will look decidedly different from a year ago, when the Bears finished 6-4. The starting lineup will be comprised almost exclusively of sophomores and juniors.
“We’re young but we’ve got speed and we are playing together, so we should do well this year,” said Jakari Walker, a returning junior running back and cornerback who Ireland is extremely high on.
“He’s a dual threat,” Ireland said. “He can run the ball. He can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. He can score anytime he touches it. He’s the real deal. If he stays healthy he can have a big year. He’s a block of iron.”
Walker, who is 5-7 but weighs 180 pounds, rushed for 691 yards a year ago despite playing hurt at the end of the season. His eight touchdowns were second on the team.
“I think he is the best running back in the league,” Ireland said.
Two other players are back in the spotlight. Kyle Gordon, who started at quarterback as a sophomore, is more seasoned and has had a strong offseason. Last year he threw for 1,728 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also rushed for 456 yards.
A candidate for the FCIAC breakout player this fall is left tackle and defensive lineman Sam Papp, a junior who is 6-5 and 255 pounds. He had 3.5 sacks a year ago and is starting to get contacted by a number of top northeast programs, including Syracuse and UConn.
“I’m very excited because I get to go out there and do what I love to do,” Papp said. “It’s fun for me. I have to get to the quarterback and protect my quarterback.”
Papp, a captain, is also ready to assume a role as one of the team’s leaders.
“Right now we’re just out there working,” Papp said. “A lot of new guys in a lot of new spots, but we have that strong young core to help lead the way.”
The Bears have made a tradition the past decade of sending linemen to top college programs, starting with D.J. Morrell (Old Dominion), who had tryouts with several NFL teams, Evan Adams (Syracuse) and James Makszin (Rhode Island).
“We’ve been lucky,” Ireland said. “(Papp) will be the next one.”
Ireland opted to forego spring football and get the extra five days of practice, which started on Monday.
“It’s been very good,” Ireland said. “It’s been hot, but we’ve been getting them out of here before the heat starts kicking in. But for the most part the kids showed up in shape and that’s a good sign that they worked real hard in the offseason.”
Ireland has been pleased with what he has seen so far but admitted he is looking more to the future milestones, beginning with the formal start of practice this weekend.
“That first day is good because there’s no more worrying about who’s going where, who’s here, who’s not here,” Ireland said. “Now babysteps. Lets get to Saturday, lets get to the first scrimmage, then lets get to week one.”
The Bears’ schedule makes duplicating or even surpassing last year’s mark a realistic goal. The only two league games where they would appear right now to be a decided underdog are against Greenwich and New Canaan.
“When you have a young team like this everybody has to work harder,” Walker said. “I think we are going to be better than last year.”