As starters along Staples High's defensive line, they see it run by the state's highest-scoring offense each day during practice, and have been drilled extensively on how to stop it.
In some ways, practicing against it at Staples is a challenge for the defense. In many other ways, it's a luxury.
"Our offensive line has definitely made our defensive line and linebackers what we are today," said Hoets, who is second on the team in tackles with 85, and is tied with Levi for the lead in sacks with seven. "Going against an offensive line of that caliber makes us ready for practically anything."
Staples' defense is hopeful that on Sunday, practice truly does make perfect--or close to it. The top-seeded Wreckers (10-0) will meet No. 5 Norwich Free Academy (11-0) in the Class LL state semifinals in a clash of spread option offenses that are operating at another level.
The two offenses combined to score 105 points in quarterfinal wins on Tuesday. Staples scored touchdowns on four of its first six plays from scrimmage and took apart No. 8 West Haven 42-20. NFA exploded for 35 points in the third quarter and destroyed No. 4 Newtown 63-21.
"They're similar to us in a lot of ways. They are very similar to us," Staples head coach Marce Petroccio said of NFA. "They've got a quarterback that can run and they've got two backs that can run. You've got to really be on top of your game (on defense). You've got to be disciplined."
As explosive as NFA has been offensively, averaging 41 points a game this season, Petroccio doesn't expect his defense to be caught off-guard by the spread option. The Wreckers have practiced against it countless times this year.
"The kids should have some form of comfort level with it," he said. "Now it comes down to who's more physical--their offensive line or our defensive line. ¦ Every single play will be a major battle."
"We'll be prepared for whatever we're going to have to face," Levi added. "But (familiarity) is going to work in our favor as well."
While Staples has torched defenses on the ground with the spread option, rushing for 3,641 yards (third-most in the state), NFA isn't far behind. The Wildcats have an 1,110-yard back in junior Marcus Outlow and weapons to complement him. Senior quarterback Joey Paparelli has rushed for 871 yards and sophomore running back Khaleed Exum-Strong has gained 633 yards on the ground. The three have combined to score 39 touchdowns this year.
Staples' defense has been tested the last three games against some top backs, including Westhill's Davell Cotterell, Greenwich's Alex McMurray and West Haven's Ervin Phillips. Petroccio ranks Outlow in the same class as those backs but he believes the Wreckers are prepared for what they'll see.
"Whether it's Cotterell, it's McMurray, it's Phillips, we feel like we've seen backs of his caliber," Petroccio said. "While we think he's a great back, we think some of the games we've played already have prepared us to face this type of back."
Staples is trying to reach the state championship game for the second straight season and the ninth time in program history. NFA has made the state final just once, back in 1998.
NFA's defense has been sturdy this year, holding opponents to single-digits in scoring six times. Although the Wildcats have also had the luxury of routinely practicing against the spread option, head coach Jemal Davis pointed out that it's near impossible to replicate what his defense will see on game day.
"You can only hope to show as much as you possibly can during practice to simulate it, but it's nothing like the real thing in terms of what they do," Davis said. "We hope, in a sense, that we can match up athletically with them and hopefully prevent some big plays from happening, or minimize them at least."
With a surplus of options in the ground game, including senior running back Joey Zelkowitz (1,040 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) and junior quarterback Jack Massie (578 rushing yards, nine touchdowns), Staples' spread option attack has been electric. Eighteen of the Wreckers' touchdowns have come on plays of at least 50 yards.
There's a familiarity on offense on both sides, but familiarity only goes so far if the right decisions on defense aren't made.
"You've got to play assignment football," Davis said. "The thing that (Staples has) done is teams have not been able to play assignment football against them. We're hoping that we can change that a little bit and be successful, making sure our kids know exactly who has who on each play."
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