By Dave Ruden
NEW CANAAN — Players in constant motion, until they resemble spread out pieces on a checkerboard. Balls flying through the air, from all angles, turning Friday nights into geometric games.
Admit it, these are your first thoughts in word association when you are presented with the New Canaan High School football team.
And for good reason. Since 2006, when the Rams began a run of six straight state championship game appearances that ended last fall, they have been a combination of consistency and proficiency. They have averaged 32 points a game and been the poster child of the wide-open offenses that have infiltrated the state, indeed the entire country, at all levels.
Meanwhile, the New Canaan defense has been relegated to football’s version of the witness protection program, seen but almost viewed as entertainment while the offense rested.
“It would be nice to be recognized once in a while,” said Cole Harris, the Rams’ highly regarded senior linebacker. “Inside, we know what we’re doing. As long as we win, it doesn’t matter.”
New Canaan is expected to win again this year, but this time it is the defense getting most of the preseason attention. With six returning starters each capable of dominating, the pieces are in place for the Rams to consistently shut down opponents.
“We look pretty strong,” said Connor Buck, the senior nose guard who is outspoken off the field and impossible to keep your eyes off of on it. “We are focused, disciplined and work hard in practice, which we have to keep doing. But we don’t look at the rankings. We have a lot of potential.”
Indeed, the distinction between capability and actuality has been the sentiment since practices have started. The coaching staff has preached it, and the players, confident but not cocky, realize it.
“We have the potential to be good,” said New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli. “Whether we stay healthy, whether we develop and come together as a team, that remains to be seen.”
Returning to the Rams’ front seven are Buck, Harris, linebacker Michael Root, linebacker/defensive end Zach Allen, with cornerback Michael DiCosmo and strong safety Max Wilson in the secondary. There are three other players who saw considerable time.
It would seem an enviable position for New Canaan defensive coordinator Bill Kurtz, who is excited by the core group.
“No one would ever complain to have some of the pieces we have,” Kurtz said. “We are not resting on that. We aren’t saying that is OK.”
Kurtz is fully aware that for the hopes to be realized, the returning players will have to stay at a high level and those stepping into the lineup will need to mature quickly.
“Depth is my biggest concern,” Kurtz said. “Depth, depth, depth. You can’t have enough of it. It takes 11, it takes 15, but we don’t have 11 or 15 now. We have pieces and we know what they can do, but we need more pieces. We need depth because we have a brutal schedule.”
If there is a harbinger for added optimism, it is the mindset of the players. Root, one of the most talented and soft-spoken of the group, said, “We know our assignments and not to make mental errors. It is easy to get confident with a lot of guys coming back. We are staying humble.”
The Rams allowed just over 15 points during a 9-3 season last year that ended with a 27-21 loss to Windsor in the semifinal round of the state tournament.
Harris and Root (in just nine games) led the team in tackles, with 143 and 105, respectively. Buck had 10 sacks and Allen added 8.
“I want to get a lot of sacks, toss guys around,” Buck said. “A lot of the guys know each other, which is going to make it easier on the young guys.”
The Rams get tested each day in practice, facing an offense that also has a number of veterans and averaged 31 points last year.
“We go against one of the best looks we can get,” Harris said. “Playing against another spread team like we do. It’s a great luxury to have.”
The Rams will need the work. This season they pick up Daniel Hand, in Wednesday’s season opener, along with Staples and Greenwich, the FCIAC finalists the past two years. St. Joseph follows the game with Staples, and then there is Darien in the annual Turkey Bowl.
“The comfort in having some guys coming back is you know what they can do,” Kurtz said. “It allows me to watch and find the other pieces.”
The puzzle is being finalized and the end results about to be put on display.
Whether it ends up on a pedestal will require a lot of factors to fall into place, but the possibility remains.
“It puts pressure on us, but we’re excited,” Root said. “It gives us a chance to prove ourselves.”