Football recruiting gurus won’t be confusing Central Massachusetts with North Texas or South Florida anytime soon, but the region annually produces multiple Division I prospects — and this year might be the area’s most talented class in some time.
From Leominster to Dudley to West Boylston, Worcester and its surrounding communities already boast four Division I FBS commitments, and another may be on the way shortly, albeit with a slight detour:
Kevin Mensah, a star running back for Holy Name who rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season, decided earlier this month to transfer to Shepherd Hill Regional in Dudley for his senior season, he said, for a better shot at that top-level scholarship. Of course, a 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash won’t hurt either. [Scroll down to find out which FBS colleges are already checking him out.]
Here’s a look at the top college football prospects in Central Massachusetts:
Ifeatu Melifonwu (Grafton High)
Many thought Grafton High incoming senior Ifeatu Melifonwu would follow his brother Obi, a redshirt senior defensive back at the University of Connecticut, but he’s instead chosen to carve out his own path at Syracuse. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Melifonwu is similar in height and length to his brother, and that size made him attractive to the Orangemen.
With safety size and cornerback speed, Melifonwu is a player the coaching staff at Syracuse thinks can play either position in their secondary, though they seem to think he’ll begin as a physical corner in their Cover 2 scheme.
“I know the new coaches (at Syracuse) run a Cover 2,” Melifonwu said. “I think I fit pretty well.”
Melifonwu chose the Orangemen over local offers from UMass and Holy Cross, along with interest from New Hampshire, Maine, Bryant and Albany.
On the high school field, Melifonwu will do a little bit of everything for Grafton this year. The Indians played him at corner, safety, wide receiver and even a little bit of option quarterback en route to a Division 4 Central championship.
With a number of key seniors gone, Grafton expects Melifonwu’s role to increase offensively, and it will again need him to cover a ton of ground on defense.
Cole McCubrey (West Boylston High)
Few running backs in Central Mass. history have pounded the rock as well as Cole McCubrey.
McCubrey, who recently committed to UMass, led Central Mass. last season with 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing as a junior. That followed a sophomore campaign in which he rushed for 1,918 yards and 17 scores.
His 4,058 career rushing yards placed him within striking distance of Holy Name alum Quron Wright’s Central Mass. record (5,891).
The Minutemen, though, might like McCubrey even better as a linebacker. He has been a sideline-to-sideline playmaker for the Lions’ defense the past few years, racking up nearly 150 tackles a year the last two seasons.
McCubrey, a senior at Tahanto Regional who plays football for West Boylston, lists his goals for the coming season as a state championship, the chance to again rush for 2,000 yards, and to grow as a leader. He selected UMass because of the attentiveness of the coaching staff and for the chance to play at college football’s highest level.
“I chose UMass because they had shown me the most attention throughout the recruiting period out of all the schools recruiting me,” McCubrey said. “Also, I felt an instant connection with the coaches, and I really like my position coach, Charles Walker.
“On top of that, the opportunity to play Division 1 football in my home state was something I’ve always wanted to do. On the education side of things, I want to study business (finance), and the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst is one of the most reputable business schools around.”
West Boylston came up just short of a Division 6 Central title last year, but enters 2016 as one of the favorites in the newly realigned Division 4 Central.
Noah Gray (Leominster High)
If you stop by Leominster’s football camp this preseason, you might be shocked to see prized quarterback and Duke commitment Noah Gray doing the dirty work as a blocker in drills.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Gray is built like a brick wall, so it’s no surprise Duke believes he can transition from quarterback to tight end at the next level. However, his willingness to hit and be hit during practice is shocking for what could be the region’s most important player.
“We’re just out here playing football,” Gray said with a smile. “We don’t think about quarterback, running back, receiver, none of those positions. We’re just football players, so when you see me blocking in a drill or running through people, I’m just playing football.”
Gray fits the definition of a football player. He’s set to again play both sides of the ball (he starts at safety on defense). His style of play at quarterback is on the, uh, physical side.
Gray is also one of the region’s most punishing runners. Last year he made numerous plays with his legs, both on designed runs and on passing plays that broke down.
His physically imposing stature and run abilities sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the best passers in the state, throwing for 20 touchdowns and more than 1,700 yards last year.
Gray figures to be a part of a very good Leominster defense this year. He’ll need to spread the ball around a little more offensively because the Blue Devils lost several key skill players from a year ago. Despite that, Leominster will assume its usual place as a favorite in the “new” Division 2 Central.
Alec Lindstrom (Shepherd Hill Regional)
Joining Leominster in the Division 2 Central are Shepherd Hill Regional High’s Rams, and they’ll have the luxury of a Division I lineman leading them in both trenches. Alec Lindstrom, unlike Grafton High’s Melifonwu, decided to more directly follow in the footsteps of an older brother, recently committing to Boston College, where Chris Lindstrom is already a starting guard for the Eagles entering his sophomore season. For his part Alec is just happy to have his college decision behind him.
“It’s nice to get it out of the way,” Alec Lindstrom said. “Now I can just focus on the season, and our goal of winning a state championship.”
His father, Shepherd Hill head coach Chris Lindstrom Sr., isn’t feeling quite as relaxed. A former NFL lineman himself and a Boston University hall of famer, Lindstrom has seen his program produce numerous college prospects, most recently tight end Sean McKeon, now a freshman at the University of Michigan. With that perspective, he knows his son’s journey is just beginning.
“Absolutely not,” the elder Lindstrom said when asked if his younger son’s early decision makes things easier. “It puts more pressure on me, because I have to get him ready for January. He’s going to be playing with some of the best athletes in the country, and he needs to be ready. So, as his coach, I need to get him ready, just like we did with Sean (McKeon) last year.”
Alec Lindstrom chose the Eagles over UMass, but the decision wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Both he and his father came away from their trip to Amherst impressed with the up-and-coming Minutemen, and believe the program is headed in the right direction under coach Mark Whipple.
“We went to the University of Massachusetts, and they offered [Alec a scholarship] at a camp,” Lindstrom Sr. said. “I was very impressed with UMass and the coaching staff. [Alec] was very close to going there, and as a Massachusetts resident I look forward to watching them and cheering them on, as well.”
On the high school field, Alec Lindstrom is looking more the part of a punishing run-blocking guard, bulking up to 240 pounds. Still, the 6-foot-3 lineman’s biggest strength is his speed, making him an excellent blocker in space and a ferocious pass rusher on defense.
Kevin Mensah (Shepherd Hill Regional)
Finally, we come to Worcester native Kevin Mensah, who recently transferred to Shepherd Hill, joining Alec Lindstrom and company after playing the last three years at Holy Name.
Mensah led Holy Name to within a single play of the Division 4 Central title last year, but believes transferring to Shepherd Hill was the best decision for his future and his family.
Still hoping to snag that elusive Division I FBS offer, Mensah is hearing from Boston College, UMass Amherst, Syracuse, UConn and Northwestern, though only Bryant and Kentucky Christian have offered the star running back a scholarship thus far.
This offseason, Mensah trimmed his 40-yard dash time down from a 4.6 to the 4.44 seconds he ran at a UConn camp, turning numerous heads across the Northeast.
With the addition of Mensah, Shepherd Hill begins its first year in Division 2 as a force to be reckoned with. Boasting one of the region’s best offensive lines and an all-state running back make the Rams instant contenders, and Mensah believes this new level of competition will open college scouts’ eyes to him.
“It’s hard here,” Mensah said with a smile after a Shepherd Hill practice. “Coach Lindstrom has coached so many college players before, so he knows what it takes. … Alec, man, he’s fast for a big guy. He can really move, and playing with him has been great so far. These guys are all making me better.”
Mensah has already visited Boston College, and expects to visit UConn in the coming weeks. He also hopes to make his way out to Syracuse and Northwestern, if all goes according to plan.