"We didn't do a good job against the run [last year]," BBA coach Jason Thomas said. "And if you look around the state and the teams that are successful, you have to be able to stop the run. You have to be able to run the football and stop the run. That's been our focus this year. That is what we need to hang our hat on."
The Bulldogs finished last year with a sub-.500 record at 4-5. All four wins were blowouts, with the closest a 43-17 win over Milton. Of the five losses, three were by 14 points or less. Two of the three came by a point, and if BBA had won either, the team probably would have made the playoffs.
"[Defense] has been a huge point of emphasis," Thomas said of the team's preseason focus. "I haven't done a very good job with the defense since I've been here. When we went to the state finals, we had very good personnel, so they did a good job. My first year here we had good personnel. We need to manage in times where we don't have a million seniors. So I need to do a better job of putting a scheme together that our kids aren't thinking as much, they are just playing."
To do that, Thomas has ditched the 3-3 stack defense the Bulldogs have used over the last few years. Instead, Thomas is focusing on stacking the line more and trying to slow down the running attacks the Bulldogs see during the season.
"We really feel like this defense is putting us in a position where we are going to be reading [plays] better, we are going to be flowing downhill faster and being a little stouter up top," Thomas said.
The hope is that BBA can force teams to drop back and throw more, something Thomas says teams are "uncomfortable" with and a concept the Bulldogs are very familiar with through their no huddle offense.
A bulk of the responsibility lies with the boys in the trenches, but while the Bulldogs will have to replace linemen lost to graduation, Thomas has a few linemen to work with.
Tyler Pearce, one of the four BBA captains, will anchor both lines, while Jimmy Lomuscio returns from last year's line. Sophomore Dylan Kapusta saw some game action last year, and transfer Will Tucker will help solidify the line. Murray Senecal will also get a shot at the guard position after sitting out last year with an injury and junior Remy Albert will add depth on both sides of the ball.
There is also an emphasis on finishing this year for the Burr and Burton defense. Another senior captain, Ryan Smith, said that a lot of the problems with last year came down to focus on the defense.
"We just have to play harder," Smith said bluntly. "I think too many times we relied on too many of the older guys or one of the best players on defense. We can't have one guy making tackles, we need seven to 11 guys making a tackle every play. I don't think we played hard enough on defense last year to help our offense, and that was a big burden."
Thomas also said that he wants to better utilize rotations on defense. With his no-huddle offense working players quickly to score, Thomas wants to be able to keep as many players fresh for as long as possible.
"We aren't that deep in terms of numbers," Thomas said. "We have to do a better job of spelling kids on defense and getting them the rest they need during the game."
And if the Bulldogs can get the things right on defense that they want, the offense should continue to take steps forwards.
Sophomore Griff Stalcup returns under center, and the newly minted captain will lead an offense that scored 265 points last season.
"I wouldn't say he mastered [the offense], but he has a real firm grasp," Thomas said of his signal caller. "We are not limiting anything in the playbook for him. He has a good control of everything that is going on and how the pieces fit together on a given play. From that standpoint, he is just taking it to another level mentally." Assessing his own development, Stalcup said he can see the progress.
"Last year, I was just learning everything. Ryan [Smith] helped me a lot with the plays," Stalcup said. "Last year it was kind of like the seniors led the team, I just went along and learned. I think it will be a better year without starting with the learning aspect of it, just going and playing."
Around him, Stalcup lost some stalwarts, all four BBA captains last year played at the skill positions, but he does possess a few security blankets.
Smith, a third captain, will be one of Stalcup's most important weapons. A multi-tool player that will see snaps all over the field on both offense and defense, Smith should have a large role to play for the BBA offense. The fourth captain this year is Will Tucker, a junior running back/defensive back that will pick up a majority of the carries lost to graduation. Senior Nicky French also returns in the backfield, while Smith can also carry the ball for BBA.
Out wide, senior Wilson Vickers and his brother, sophomore Carter Vickers, both saw the field last year and Cody Roberts has stepped up as a solid backup to Smith at tight end. Thomas also pointed out the development of junior Dylan Little and sophomore Sean Apps as viable options on the outside of both units. There will also be a few new-to-football faces, as senior Tom Morgantini and junior Jacob Bazyk look to integrate at wide receiver and defensive back.
"We are experienced and inexperienced at the same time," Stalcup said. "A lot of people are seeing where they can fit in. They are learning a lot, so we just have to keep up the speed. We are a fast offense. The faster they can learn, the faster we can go."
Thomas said that on the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs have to focus on being prepared for anything.
"Our kids better believe they can handle anything and that's what we are coaching them. We've seen teams totally change what they do to play us," Thomas said. "We have to be ready for anything."
If the team can get all of the moving pieces to work together, a shot at the playoffs is not out of the question. While the players admitted that, as always, a spot in the postseason is the goal, the way they want to get there has changed this season.
"Our goal is just to win today," Pearce said. If we accomplish what we want today we can focus on tomorrow. If we get everything done that day, hopefully we can get to the playoffs. But we can't worry about the playoffs now, that's skipping."
With the preseason scrimmages over, the Bulldogs have their sights set on a Week 1 game at Lyndon Institute, a team that ruined BBA's home opener last year. The Bulldogs travel to Spaulding in Week 2 before back-to-back home games against North Country and Mount Anthony, the latter of which will be the Homecoming game on Sept. 20.