August 27, 2017

Worcester-area football stars to watch on Saturdays and Sundays

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Sun illustration / courtesy photos

Tyler Catalina, Davon Jones, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kevin Mensah and Obi Melifonwu are among the Worcester-area gridiron stars to watch on Saturdays and Sundays.

Central Massachusetts may not be one of the nation’s biggest football factories, but the region does produce its fair share of talent every year.

This season, Worcester County had five players in NFL training camps, including the only player from the commonwealth selected in the 2017 NFL Draft (Grafton High School alum Obi Melifonwu was taken by the Oakland Raiders in the 2nd round, 56th overall).

On top of that, CMass natives litter rosters of Division I collegiate football programs across the country — including eight set to suit up for UMass-Amherst — and it isn’t far-fetched to believe that some of them could gain national notoriety this season.

So, if you want to keep track of the Worcester County boys now playing at football’s highest levels, you’ve come to the right place. Here is a handy alphabetical list of, and outlook for, every CMass native playing in the NFL and the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.

NFL

Tyler Catalina, OL, Washington Redskins (Wachusett Regional)

Twitter / Tyler Catalina

Tyler Catalina, a former Wachusett star, sees game action in the 2017 preseason with the Washington Redskins.

Outlook: As we noted in Part 1 of the Sun’s Football Forecast, the Wachusett alum has played in multiple systems at multiple positions, so it’s no surprise that he’s made the transition from tackle to guard with ease.

Related: Catalina treks road-less-traveled toward NFL dream

Running with Washington’s backup offense, Catalina has impressed coaches with his toughness and work ethic, and just might complete his long journey with an NFL roster spot. [Update: According to reports and social media Saturday, Sept. 2, Catalina did, indeed, crack the Redskins’ initial 53-man roster.]

Washington Redskins schedule [Note: The Redskins are scheduled to play the Raiders and Obi Melifonwu (see below) at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, on NBC.]

Obi Melifonwu, S, Oakland Raiders (Grafton)

UConn Athletics / Steve Slade

Obi Melifonwu

Outlook: After putting on a show at the NFL Combine, Melifonwu was selected by Oakland in the second round of the draft, but the UConn alum has been slowed by injury this preseason. That said, Melifonwu is currently penciled in as the backup at strong safety, and has the speed to play free safety, as well.

If he can get healthy, it’s hard not to see Melifonwu seeing extensive action this season. As a part of Oakland’s youth movement in its secondary, Melifonwu should get every chance to help the Raiders improve a pass defense that ranked 24th in the league a year ago.

Oakland Raiders schedule

Patrick Ricard, DE, Baltimore Ravens (David Prouty)

Outlook: The former David Prouty star signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent after a stellar career at the University of Maine. At 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds, Ricard certainly has the size NFL teams look for in a defensive lineman, but making Baltimore’s regular-season roster will be a challenge.

Still, Ricard was active in his first two preseason games, registering three tackles, and getting some work in as a fullback on offense, throwing a huge block in Baltimore’s second preseason game in Miami. If he can continue to impress on both sides of the ball and as a special teamer, Ricard may prove too versatile to cut.

[Update: Ricard was one of three undrafted rookie free agents to make the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster.]

Baltimore Ravens schedule

Richard Rodgers, TE, Green Bay Packers (St. John’s)

Wikimedia Commons / Flickr, by Kyle Engman

Richard Rodgers is having his best preseason, according to coach Mike McCarthy.

Outlook: Until this season, Rodgers was the only Central Mass. high school alum on an active NFL roster, and he’s already made one of the biggest catches in recent NFL history.

Despite battling a broken fingertip during camp, and new teammate Martellus Bennett for reps, Rodgers is having his best preseason as a pro, according to Packers coach Mike McCarthy. Expect the man who helped lead St. John’s to a state basketball title in 2009 to again have plenty of opportunities to make big plays.

Green Bay Packers schedule

Canaan Severin, WR, New York Giants (Worcester Academy)

Outlook: After signing an undrafted free agent deal with the Steelers, the University of Virginia graduate spent 2016 on injured reserve, then was released by Pittsburgh Aug. 14. However, it may have been a blessing in disguise, as the Giants, against whom Severin caught two passes earlier this preseason, signed the former Worcester Academy standout, and give him a much less crowded receiving corps to compete against (the Giants waived two of his fellow receivers).

[Update: Severin was waived by the Giants on cutdown day, Sept. 2.]

New York Giants schedule [Note: The Giants will play the Patriots at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 31, in the final preseason game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (on WBZ-TV).]

Division I FBS College Football

Brian Abosi, OL, UMass (St. John’s/Worcester Academy)

Outlook: The 6-foot-8 Abosi may be UMass’ most intriguing freshman, after a post-graduate year at Worcester Academy earned him a scholarship in Amherst. Now playing offensive tackle, Abosi also played on the defensive side of the ball during his days in Shrewsbury, but is likely headed for a redshirt season as a freshman lineman.

Alfred Adarkwah, WR, UMass (Doherty)

Courtesy UMass Athletics

Alfred Adarkwah hauls in a catch during a 2016 UMass practice.

Outlook: The Worcester native helped Doherty win a state title in 2013, and earned a walk-on spot at UMass in the process. Since arriving in Amherst, Adarkwah has bulked up and hopes to see his first bit of extended action this year as a redshirt junior.

And while his on-field fortunes remain uncertain, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Adarkwah was surprised by college officials and coaches last week with an announcement that he’d earned a full football scholarship at a team meeting.

Jarell Addo, LB, UMass (Leominster)

Outlook: Now a redshirt junior, Addo is in the mix for some playing time on the Minuteman defense. It would be the first bit of extensive action of the former Blue Devil’s college career, but his coverage ability, as a former safety, could give him an edge.

Jake Byczko, DL, UMass (St. John’s)

Outlook: Only a freshman, Byczko has the speed and motor to find his way on the field somewhere for the Minutemen this season. After playing a pair of seasons at St. John’s, the Auburn native transferred to Lawrence Academy, where he drew D1 interest from a number of schools. Now in Amherst, Byczko will likely compete to be a backup at defensive end and special teams contributor.

UMass Minutemen schedule

Bobby Denaro, OL, Iowa State (Nashoba Regional)

Outlook: Only a freshman, Denaro is expected to get a redshirt year — particularly considering he’s a non-scholarship walk-on — but keep an eye out for this physical Chieftain in the coming seasons. A two-way star for Nashoba’s state championship squad in 2015, Denaro has the toughness and work ethic to be a starter someday.

Iowa State Cyclones schedule

Basit Dennis, DL, UMass (Holy Name/Worcester Academy)

Outlook: A solid post-graduate year at Worcester Academy in 2013 got Dennis to UMass after a fine career at Holy Name. While Dennis has yet to see extensive action, he did force a fumble last season on his only tackle for a loss, and now has the experience to earn some playing time.

Noah Gray, TE, Duke (Leominster)

Joe Parello / SuiteSports.com

Noah Gray in 2016 with coach Dave Palazzi, a notable CMass quarterback in his own right.

Outlook: Gray, who played most of his standout scholastic career at quarterback, proved late last year that he was a big-play threat as a receiver and tight end, and he came to Duke already looking the part of a college football player. Still, getting on the field as a freshman is never easy, but don’t count out the 6-foot-4, 235-pound former (and also current) Blue Devil.

Duke Blue Devils schedule

Davon Jones, RB, Boston College (St. John’s)

Courtesy Boston College Athletics

Davon Jones has dived right into his new role as on of BC’s top running backs.

Outlook: After starting his career as a defensive back, Jones made his presence known last season as BC’s physical hammer out of the offensive backfield, and helped the Eagles save their bowl hopes with a game-winning touchdown pass against NC State. The 5-foot-10, 214-pound sophomore broke out for a career-best 90 rushing yards on 12 carries in the Eagles’ 42-10 win over Wagner Sept. 24.

More Sun sports: Jones rushes in to fill Eagles’ void

BC’s backfield is crowded this season, with returning starter Jon Hilliman and freshman phenom A.J. Dillon, but Jones — after carrying 91 times for 361 yards last season — has carved out a role on the Eagle offense.

Boston College Eagles schedule

Connor Lemieux, WR, UMass (Fitchburg)

The former Red Raider star is listed as a receiver, but has earned a reputation as one of UMass’ best special teams players. Expect that to continue for the Fitchburg native in 2017.

Alec Lindstrom, OL, Boston College (Shepherd Hill Regional)

Outlook: A redshirt seems inevitable for the younger Lindstrom on BC’s roster, as freshman Alec will be afforded the time to bulk up to a more traditional college playing weight from his current 260 pounds. Both he and his brother Chris are following in the footsteps of their father, Chris Sr., who was a Boston-area collegiate standout (at Boston University) before a brief NFL career and then a successful run coaching his sons and several other star players [see below] at Shepherd Hill.

Chris Lindstrom, OL, Boston College (Shepherd Hill Regional)

Outlook: The elder Lindstrom brother was never afforded that time, as Chris was thrown into the fire as a true freshman, but never blinked. Now a junior, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Lindstrom is arguably the Eagles’ most versatile lineman — though he’s started 22 straight games at right guard — and could end up again starting at guard, or move outside to tackle.

Jon Lucier, TE, UMass (Wachusett Regional)

Outlook: Playing time could be hard to come by for the Holden native, as Lucier sits behind Mackey Award (given to the nation’s top tight end) contender Adam Breneman at his position. Still, at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, the former Wachusett star could find a role somewhere for the Minutemen.

Cole McCubrey, LB, UMass (West Boylston/Tahanto Regional)

Courtesy Joe Parello / SuiteSports.com

Cole McCubrey

Outlook: While he was one of the most prolific running backs in Massachusetts history at West Boylston, McCubrey will play linebacker for the Minutemen. At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, he already has the look of a D1 ‘backer, but it’s hard to see any freshman getting extensive action at that position. That doesn’t mean McCubrey won’t see the field, however, as his physicality and motor could make him an ace on special teams.

Sean McKeon, TE, Michigan (Shepherd Hill Regional)

Outlook: McKeon is currently engaged in a three-way battle for Michigan’s starting tight end spot, and the competition will be fierce for the sophomore. Even if McKeon doesn’t win the starting job outright, expect to see a bunch of the former Ram, as Wolverine coach Jim Harbaugh is known for featuring multiple tight end sets, and for moving his tight ends all over the field.

Michigan Wolverines schedule

Aaron McLean, WR, UConn (St. Mark’s)

Outlook: After a sterling career at St. Mark’s in Southborough, both on the football field and basketball court, the 6-foot-5 McLean made his way to UConn, and hopes to break through this season as a red zone receiving threat. Already a contributor on special teams, McLean, a junior, could see more work on offense, as returning coach Randy Edsall hopes to utilize more three- and four-receiver formations.

UConn Huskies schedule [Note: UConn is set to play Boston College at 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, at Fenway Park (CBS Sports Network).]

Ifeatu Melifonwu, DB, Syracuse

Joe Parello / SuiteSports.com

Melifonwu led the Indians to a 2016 state title matchup at Gillette Stadium.

Outlook: After emerging as the most electric player in the state for Grafton last season, Melifonwu applied his older brother Obi’s work ethic to the weight room, pushing himself to get stronger, and increasing his vertical leap to an absurd 40 inches.

More Sun sports: Melifonwu and McCubrey head for the big-time

With all the physical tools, it will be about adjusting to college life and learning the playbook for the younger Melifonwu. If he does both quickly, there’s no reason he can’t see the field this year.

Syracuse Orangemen schedule

Kevin Mensah, RB, UConn (Holy Name, Shepherd Hill Regional)

Courtesy Kevin Mensah, Twitter

Mensah, training in 2015.

Mensah was a late addition to UConn’s 2017 recruiting class, after a transfer from Holy Name to Shepherd Hill led to potential eligibility issues. But after a year of hard work in the classroom and on the field, Mensah cleared the NCAA Clearinghouse, and is now turning heads in Husky training camp.

First in the Sun: Mensah’s odyssey leads to UConn

Word out of Storrs is that the Worcester native has seen some time running with the second-team offense during scrimmages, so Mensah may be on the field when UConn faces off against BC, and some of his old Worcester County buddies, Nov. 18 at Fenway Park.

Sean Ragan, OL, Boston College (St. John’s)

Outlook: After redshirting and bulking up last season, Ragan finds himself fighting for a backup spot on BC’s veteran-laden offensive line. The Westborough native will be one to watch in the trenches over the next few years.

David Steinmetz, OL, Purdue (Grafton)

Outlook: A graduate transfer from Rhode Island, Steinmetz played alongside Tyler Catalina in 2015. He will now follow in his teammate’s footsteps, transferring from Rhody to a major conference team, and like Catalina, could be in line for a starting job. The Boilermakers have big questions at offensive tackle, and Steinmetz may be the answer.

Purdue Boilermakers schedule

Rhakim Williams, LB, UConn (Doherty)

Outlook: A Worcester native who starred for Doherty, Williams enters his redshirt freshman season hoping to carve out a role. The Huskies have plenty of questions at the position, so perhaps he could follow in the footsteps of another Doherty great, Yawin Smallwood, and takes Storrs by storm.

Isaac Yiadom, CB, Boston College (Doherty)

Courtesy Boston College Athletics

Isaac Yiadom

Outlook: After leading Doherty to a state championship in 2013, Yiadom became an immediate contributor at Boston College.

More Sun sports: Coach sees big things ahead for Yiadom

Now a senior, Yiadom is firmly entrenched as a starter at cornerback, and is even getting some preseason all-conference hype from BC coach Steve Addazio.

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