MERIDEN — This is no Jack Ham & Egg special this morning, no linebacker blue plate.
Our annual “Defenders” feature, which profiles the area’s top defensive football players to whet the Thanksgiving appetite, sees all three levels on the menu here in 2022.
Oh, sure, we’ve got linebackers. Of course we have linebackers, inside and out, strong side and weak.
But we’ve got D-linemen, too, and a couple of safeties, of both the strong and free variety.
It’s a diverse group that, with some of the area’s excellent interior linemen added to the mix — we’re looking at you, Brendon Borak of Maloney and Julian Frias of Platt — would make for one heck of an All-Star team.
Reality is, these boys will be lining up in opposition today in their respective rivalry games, and their play will heavily shape the outcomes.
At least two, and perhaps as many as four, will be playing in the postseason starting next Tuesday. Here’s what they’ve done to get their teams to the doorstep.
We’ll start at the top — the top of the area tackling list. There we find Maloney junior linebacker Zakkai Moore.
A special teams ball of hustle who saw some duty on defense during last year’s run to the Class L state championship, Moore stepped into a starting role at inside linebacker this season and has responded with 101 tackles.
He’s the only area defender, so far, to hit triple figures. Of Moore’s 101 tackles, 41 have been solo and 60 assisted, with 10 coming behind the line of scrimmage.
“He is an outstanding young man on and off the field,” remarked Maloney head coach Kevin Frederick. “A 3.6 GPA, tenacious worker in the weight room. Great leader on and off the field.”
Next in line behind Moore on the area leaderboard are linebackers Shaine Salvador of Sheehan and Aaron Borkowski of Southington. Salvador, a senior, has 94 tackles. Borkowski, a junior, has 91.
Borkowski headlines an impressive unit of junior linebackers at Southington that includes Chris Totonis and Zach Brilla, each of whom played JV last season, or at least started the season on JV. By the end of 2021, Borkowski was starting a couple of games on varsity.
“He had a huge offseason; we knew that he’s a tough, hard-nosed player who’s instinctive when it comes to finding the ball,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said. “He’s just continued to develop this season.”
Borkowski has starred behind the three-man front of Josh Frappier, Luis Matias and Will Chapman.
“It definitely starts with the defensive line, taking up a lot of blocks and opening up gaps that I come through,” Borkowski said.
At Sheehan, Salvador is a returning two-way starter who flips from the offensive line to inside linebacker. Basically, he’s in the middle of every play.
Of Salvador’s 94 tackles, 75 have been solo. He put up a season-high 15 on opening night versus New Fairfield and matched it in Game 9 at Daniel Hand.
Salvador has also picked off a pass, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
“He was a 10-game starter at linebacker last year,” noted Sheehan head coach John Ferrazzi. “Getting somebody back with that type of experience, especially game experience on a varsity football field, is huge. He’s able to recognize things a lot quicker. He’s able to get adjustments and calls in and kind of direct people what to do.”
Salvador is one of those senior players who strives to set the right example for his younger teammates. Acumen and attitude have a way of rubbing off.
“We’ve been knocked around this year, but we keep fighting no matter what,” Salvador said. “I think I’ve been able to induce confidence in the team, as well.”
“That’s why Shaine is a leader on the defense, because he’s able to inject confidence into everyone else,” Ferrazzi said. “Guys look up to him, especially (freshman) Brady Rossacci, who plays next to him on defense. When one guy goes down and another comes in, they look to guys like Shaine to pick them back up and uplift and empower them.”
Platt’s leading tackler is also a linebacker, but he plays out on the edge: senior Rayquan Bradshaw.
The outside ‘backer leads the Panthers with 68 tackles, 56 of them solo and seven for lost yardage.
The tone was set on opening night, when Bradshaw rang up 12 tackles at Berlin. He’s been consistent ever since, with 11 tackles against Avon in Game 5 and 11 again in Game 9 at Bloomfield.
This is Bradshaw’s second year starting at outside linebacker for Platt since transferring from Sport & Medical Sciences Academy after his sophomore year.
“He did a far better job in the offseason, as far as lifting and conditioning, than the year before,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said. “He plays a position where you get a lot of plays coming to you. We ask a lot of him. He has to play pass coverage, run coverage and we ask him to blitz. He does all three well.”
Perimeter prowess is also a hallmark of two of our other top dogs, senior defensive ends Connor Fletcher of Wilcox-Kaynor Tech and Brett Rochford of Cheshire.
Fletcher is a lot like Sheehan’s Salvador: a returning starter who is a good role model for younger players. As Wilcox-Kaynor head coach Alonzo Relaford notes, Fletcher plays like he practices: full speed, no play off.
“His drive, his intensity — he don’t stop; he don’t stop,” Relaford said. “That’s why he’s my guy.”
Fletcher had nine tackles last Friday against. ATI United, which gives him 51 for the season.
And he knows how to get behind the line of scrimmage. Fletcher has four sacks and seven hurries. He’s also blocked a kick.
Rochford is another backfield beast. With 2½ sacks on Nov. 12 against Xavier, he’s now got seven on the season. Of his 49 total tackles, 12 have been for lost yardage.
In tandem with fellow defensive end Evan Russo, Rochford has been “very disruptive,” in the words of Cheshire head coach Don Drust. Opponents might say that’s putting it lightly.
“He’s just played his butt off,” Drust of Rochford. “He had a really good end to last season, made a ton of big plays for us at the end of last season. He had a really good offseason in the weight room and has just been tremendous for us. His leadership — he’s just a tough old-school football player.”
Rochford is part of a very solid unit, one that has Cheshire at 6-3 and on the verge of a Class L playoff berth. Junior linebacker Adam Vernon, with his team-high 59 tackles, and senior safety Mike Simeone, with his 34, are also key defensive players. Junior cornerback Lucas Chymbor has four interceptions.
“It’s a mix of a lot of different guys,” said Drust. “Everyone plays their part.”
Down in Wallingford, today’s Carini Bowl will feature two sharp defensive “quarterbacks” — senior free safety John Gogliettino for Sheehan and junior strong safety Gavin Janowski for Lyman Hall.
Both are two-way players. Janowski is a running back and Gogliettino is Sheehan’s leading receiver with 34 catches for 597 yards.
Gogliettino has also snared five passes from opposing quarterbacks, which makes him the area interception leader. He’s got 42 tackles, 34 of them solo.
“We knew he was going to be one of our main playmakers on both sides of the ball,” said Coach Ferrazzi. “As a receiver and as a safety, he’s done some great things this season. He might even get overlooked for his play on the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s almost a complete player on defense in terms of the way he supports the run and how good he is in pass coverage,” Ferrazzi added. “Yes, he has five interceptions, but it’s how he plays the run that really separates him and sets him apart.”
In that regard, Gogliettino will probably see Janowski coming his way from time to time today. Janowski has rushed for 265 yards and seven touchdowns this season while also making 30 tackles.
“We’ve had numerous defense sets that have been built around Gavin this year,” noted LH coach C.J. Monroe. “Whether it has been taking away the other team’s top player, whether it’s helping out other guys on our defense, he’s been the heart and soul of our defense. He’s done a lot of different things this year.
Janowski started varsity a year ago as a sophomore. His role on defense took on greater urgency when safety Michael Fisher was lost to injury early this year. Janowski has been asked to adapt and he’s responded.
“It’s been awesome to watch Gavin from the start. All the way to Week 10, he gets better each and every week,” Monroe said. “The understanding of what we’re trying to do has been a big part of his improvement. Physically, there was never any doubt he could play the position with the ability that he has. Now that he has a better understanding, it’s a big part of why our defense has been really good the last four weeks.”
Sean Krofssik, Ron Buck & Ellis Santoro contributed to this story