City League preview: Defending champion USO has high expectations
Since its inception prior to the 2011 season, the USO football program has dominated the Pittsburgh City League, advancing to the title game in each of its three seasons while claiming the championship twice.
After compiling a 27-7 overall record, including a 15-2 mark in City League play, USO has high expectations.
But while a third league title in 2014 would be a nice accomplishment, that is not USO's ultimate goal. The team wants more.
“Our goals have never been the City championship,” offensive coordinator LaRoi Johnson said. “Our goals have always been we need to make runs at state championships. That may sound a little arrogant. It may sound a little harsh, but that's just being honest. We're tired of City League teams (thinking) winning the City League championship is enough. No, it's not enough.
“We want to become that program that you always give us an opportunity when you talk about making a state championship run.”
USO, a combination of players from University Prep, Science and Technology and Obama Academy, is certainly familiar with the PIAA playoffs, having advanced there in each of its three seasons.
USO suffered two narrow PIAA first-round defeats in 2011 and 2013, sandwiching the team's PIAA District 5-9 Class AAA championship in 2012 after downing Clearfield, 36-22.
“No City League team had ever won a district championship. … No one ever mentions that,” Johnson said. “We were two games away from a state championship. When's the last time you've seen a City League team win a state game?”
In order to get back to that point and beyond, USO will need to rely on its returning starter at quarterback, a signal-caller who, despite his incredible passing statistics, may be one of the best-kept secrets in the state.
That player is Ron Brown, who completed 207 of 342 attempts last season for 3,401 yards and 43 touchdowns. To put that in perspective, last year's state player of the year, South Fayette's Brett Brumbaugh, completed 260 of 379 attempts for 3,917 yards and 41 touchdowns in six more games.
But at just 5-foot-7, Brown has not received any Division I offers despite leading Western Pennsylvania in passing touchdowns a year ago, putting a chip squarely on the senior's shoulders.
“It's a big chip, actually,” he said. “They hear my height and think it's ‘Oh he's not (a playmaker).' But when they see me throw they're going to think something totally different.”
At first glance, Brown might not look the part in pregame warmups, but his play puts to rest any doubt that his size might be a hindrance.
“When you look at him you say, ‘Wow.'… He's not real big, but he throws it as good as anybody I've ever seen,” Allderdice coach Jerry Haslett said.
Added first-year Perry coach Ken Wright: “His accuracy … is unbelievable for his age.”
After transferring from Westinghouse following his sophomore year, Brown has experienced a sharp learning curve since coming to USO, an improvement that Johnson expects him to keep making this season.
“His leadership now, he's calling plays on the sidelines. He understands the offense just being in his second year. Now you're just smarter about where the ball is going to be thrown,” Johnson said. “We're going to really depend on his leadership to take us to even further heights this year.”
After gaining 15 pounds in the offseason, Brown is ready to run with the ball more in 2014. A self-described pocket-passer, one of the senior's goals is to gain more yards on the ground as he leads a younger offense.
“The next part of his game, being at that height he understands he's going to need to show people he can run a little bit and throw,” Johnson said. “I think he's going to mature into an even better player than what he was, maybe not as many passing yards but the overall total yards will be a lot better than it was.”
While USO has the resume of a preseason No. 1 team, rival Allderdice may just have the personnel to dethrone the upstart program. Some believe the Dragons are the team to beat.
“I definitely think Allderdice is the top team to beat right now,” Carrick coach Craig Aguglia said.
Defeating Allderdice for each of its City championships has created a bit of a rivalry between USO and the Dragons, a rivalry that shows no signs of slowing down in 2014.
“They're our biggest rival right now,” Brown said.
But Haslett doesn't quite see it that way, citing USO's dominance in the series with a perfect 5-0 advantage over Allderdice
“We haven't beat them yet, so I don't know what kind of rivalry we really have,” he said. “We've always got good games. We always play them for the most part every year better than everyone else does, but for some reason at the end of the game they sneak up from us and grab it back from us. … (Allderdice's players) don't want that to happen again.”
If the Dragons hope to break that trend, its set of junior twins, quarterback James and wide receiver Tim Jackson will have to play like they did a year ago. The City-wide consensus is they show no signs of slowing down.
After focusing on basketball as freshmen, the twins burst onto the radar as sophomores. James passed for 1,677 yards. Tim grabbed 33 receptions for 1,009 yards (30.6 yards per catch).
USO respects all of its opponents, and despite its resounding 33-20 win over Allderdice in last year's City title game, Johnson said he has the utmost respect for the twins.
“I think they've got that confidence, like ‘you know what, I'm the best player on this field.' When you have that confidence that you think you're the best player on the field … you start believing in yourself that you can do anything,” he said. “That if you have to make 11 people miss, you'll make 11 people miss.”
With elite playmakers on both sides of the ball, USO and Allderdice appear to be on a collision course for a third championship matchup in four years. Their Oct. 10 game at Cupples Stadium will certainly be one to see.
While the Jackson twins were a big part of the Dragons' success a year ago, they are just two of many key returning players Allderdice is counting on in its attempt to claim its first City League crown since 1967.
The offensive line remains almost intact from a year ago as left tackle Robert Smith, left guard Talon Scott, right guard Corey Barlow and Anthony Langford return as seniors.
Senior wide receiver Jamir Powell returns after catching 17 passes for 261 yards last season, and cornerback Joe Graham and safety Dujuan Dugger return to solidify the secondary.
But for Allderdice to achieve its goals of winning the City championship and becoming the first Class AAAA City team to win a state playoff game, it will be the Jacksons who ultimately will be counted on.
“There's something between those two that make them better than everybody else,” said Haslett, who also has a twin brother. “When you watch them practice and when you watch them go about their ways, they're just different than everybody else.
“They know what each other's doing. … If James is in trouble and can't find anyone, he knows where Tim is. It's just a special bond that those two have.”
After each averaged double figures in scoring and lead the Dragons to the City League basketball title last season, the brothers (who each stand around 6-1) rely on their basketball instincts on the field as well.
“They're both basketball players, not that it helps the quarterback, but it definitely helps the receiver,” Brashear coach Rick Murphy said. “If they throw the ball close to him, (Tim) seems to be able to go ahead and go up and get it.”
While Allderdice is being tabbed as one of the league's early season favorites and compared to the rest of the City's elite, Haslett and his players have only one focus.
“I really don't think about those other teams,” he said. “We try to worry about ourselves and what we do and try to do what we do right.”
Coming off a 4-5 season (3-2 City League), the Bulls are hoping to build off their semifinal playoff appearance and return to the championship game for the first time since 2010.
Developing a reputation for producing strong offensive lines, Brashear is hoping to carry on that tradition this year.
“We think we can eventually develop a pretty strong offensive line,” Murphy said.
The line, led by center Jeff Arnold, who the team hopes will be able to return from an early season injury, will lead the way for running backs Khalil Saunders and Ty Powe, who rushed for 696 yards a year ago.
“With the linemen that we think we have coming back and the running backs, we're hoping the running game will be our strong suit,” Murphy said.
Junior Therron Coleman moved over from wide receiver and will start at quarterback for the Bulls after turning heads with his play in the offseason.
“With his ability — I've seen him at a few camps — he's put a lot of good work in. … He looks very good,” Johnson said. “I'm very impressed with him.”
Defensively, Coleman and Powe will start as defensive backs, and D'Angelo Spencer and Cody Wagner anchor the defensive line. Murphy is stressing the need to prevent big plays, a problem that plagued the Bulls a year ago.
Murphy hopes to correct those problems in 2014 and pursue the team's goals, ones that have remained consistent.
“Obviously our goals going into the year are always the same. We want to compete for the league and hopefully be there in the end, get better each week,” he said.
While the Raiders' 1-7 record (1-4 City League) may not have been what Aguglia had hoped for in his first season at the helm, the team believes it's beginning to change the culture at Carrick.
“I believe we've set a precedent and a tone of what we expect with the kids and ourselves, and I think we've built a relationship already with the kids and the community that they know and they respect what we're looking for,” he said.
That type of impact has caused many around the league to tab Carrick as a potential sleeper team as the Raiders aim to step back into the City League playoff picture for the first time since 2007.
“I think Carrick's up-and-coming with coach Aguglia because he's a young guy, and he's trying to bring some enthusiasm and some younger coaches into the mix,” Haslett said.
Murphy added: “Craig's doing some nice things over at Carrick. They're moving in the right direction.”
For the Raiders to get where they want to be, senior quarterback/safety Hakeim McKenzie IV will need to have a big season. Moving to quarterback late last season, McKenzie will give Carrick's offense plenty of versatility.
“Our starting quarterback went down halfway through the year, and we put (McKenzie) in, and I wish we would have used him from the beginning as our starting quarterback because now we feel that we have an impact player,” Aguglia said.
“He's not a throwing quarterback. He's more of your running quarterback. He gives us a lot of different opportunities. He's big and strong also.”
McKenzie will be joined by running back Joey Kalsek as players who Aguglia said the offense is built around.
Junior twins Taylor (WR/CB) and Tyler Thornton (OL), along with junior linebacker Marsai Howard, return to a team that only lost six starters from a year ago.
After claiming seven City League titles in 13 seasons under Bill Gallagher, Perry has a new leading man.
Former Langley coach Ken Wright takes over after serving as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Carrick last season.
While duplicating Gallagher's success will be a challenge, Wright is hopeful he can carry on the legacy of the perennial North Side powerhouse.
“Perry has a long history of tradition, and I want to add my mark to it and get that back,” Wright said.
Many around the league are confident that Wright is the man for the job.
“We think Perry's going to be pretty good with their new coach coming in,” Johnson said. “I'm sure he'll bring them some discipline. Coach Wright is going to do a very good job over there.”
The Commodores will be led by quarterback Shawn Rutherford, a dual-threat who certainly comes from a football family. His cousin, Rod, starred at Perry in the late 1990s before going on to play at Pitt and then the NFL.
Rutherford will be complemented by a wealth of offensive talent as Perry returns wide receivers Amir Newring and Talal Rogers along with running backs Malik James and Rich Giles.
While finishing 3-6 (2-3 City League) last season was a disappointment after winning the championship the year before, Wright wants to take a more simplistic approach into this season as he hopes to build consistency.
“Our initial goal is really just to take one game at a time and win each game, and everything else will take care of itself,” he said.
Because the graduation of key skill players such as running back Abner Roberts and wide receiver Marcus Johnson (65 catches for 1,404 yards) will be tough to overcome, Brown will be called upon to help a younger squad transition early on.
“All the pressure's on me,” Brown said. “I actually like it. It's my time to show people that without everybody I had last year that I can still bring the team to another championship.”
Replacing a player like Johnson — who LaRoi Johnson said was “a player you only get once a decade” — won't be easy, so USO will rely on several players to fill the void.
Kenny Robinson, a 6-3 sophomore wide receiver who transferred from Central Catholic, has the tools to be a successful player. USO also will lean on tailback-receiver Darius Fields.
“Possession guy, big hands,” LaRoi Johnson said of Robinson. “I think he's a Division I safety. … I'm looking for him to give me some of what Marcus Johnson got, but you don't replace Marcus Johnson. You try and fill in with multiple people who have all of his skill sets combined.”
One area USO won't need to fill any voids will be on the offensive line, where the team returns its entire unit from a year ago. Senior center and four-year starter Kevin Williams returns at center, and junior left tackle/middle linebacker Juwan Hutchinson and right tackle Zacheria Sesay return as strong bookends on the line.
“In high school football, if your whole offensive line returns, you're probably going to have a pretty decent year,” LaRoi Johnson said.
With just one league win in the last two seasons, including a winless City League campaign last year (1-9 overall), the last two years have not been kind to the league's smallest school.
But coach Monte Robinson and his Bulldogs remain optimistic about this season, one that comes after the Pittsburgh Public Schools board approved a motion for Westinghouse to join the WPIAL before being denied entry by District 7.
Westinghouse will be led by a trio of returning seniors, including fullback/defensive lineman Kejuan Burg and wide receiver Kameron Watson. The Bulldogs also will welcome senior quarterback Marion Ellis to the team.
The team also will rely on several younger players such as junior linemen Deontrae Boyce and running back/safety Darnell Jordan.
“We feel good about it, even though we're young,” said Robinson, a Westinghouse alum. “We feel like we've still got a core group of guys that could possibly do well.”
Despite their recent struggles, the Bulldogs' goals remain high. But Robinson admits that in order for the team to achieve its ultimate goal of a championship, it needs to first advance into the playoffs.
“Our goal is always to win the City League championship,” he said. “That's who we are as coaches, and, as a graduate of Westinghouse, for me that always has to be the goal. But before we even get there we want to be one of the top four teams in the City so we can get into the City League playoffs, which hasn't happened for us in some years now.”