Todd Lambertson and Michael Thomas Showcase Crucial Donovan Catholic Aerial Attack
TOMS RIVER - There was a clear first order of business after a sluggish first half for Donovan Catholic against visiting Long Branch on Friday night.
Get No. 1 the ball.
Michael Thomas III is one of the most electrifying wideouts in New Jersey, but the junior with offers from the likes of Michigan and Penn State didn't touch the ball once in the first half, which the Griffins led by six over the undermanned Green Wave.
On Donovan Catholic's first play of the third quarter, Thomas came across the formation, took a handoff and sped 16 yards to get the crowd fired up. They gave it to him again on the next play, and he took it for 20 yards.
"First touch, I was trying to break one," Thomas said. "And then I kept going and going. They promised me they were going to give me the ball, so I had to get it done."
"It was the first thing we said at halftime," Griffins coach Dan Curcione said. "He's too good to not get him the ball."
The 70-yard drive ended with senior quarterback Todd Lambertson lofting a 20-yard touchdown pass to Thomas that sent the Griffins, ranked No. 4 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16, on their way to a 41-13 rout of No. 8 Long Branch (1-1) in a nondivisional game.
Thomas finished with three catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns, while Lambertson threw a career-high three touchdown passes and also ran for a touchdown.
More than anything, those two showed what the Griffins (2-0) can look like when everything is running at full tilt. Make no mistake, they're still mainly a running team, as they only attempted 11 passes on Friday night, but when they hit big plays in that area it makes them almost impossible to stop.
"The passing game was great tonight," Lambertson said. "I feel like it really opened up, and the receivers did a good job."
"As you saw, when (Thomas) touched it, good things happen," Curcione said.
It was an aerial performance that displayed the extra gear the Griffins can reach to give them balance with their formidable running game. They need it in order to go from a very good team to the type of great team that can slay the other giants in its way and ascend to the No. 1 spot in the Shore Conference.
In its four losses against a relentless schedule last year, Donovan Catholic averaged only 8.3 points per game. The Griffins struggled to make teams pay for loading up the box to stuff the running game led by star sophomore Najee Calhoun, who had 110 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the win over Long Branch.
Given the caliber of opponents they face this year in the ruthless Shore Conference American Division, plus their out-of-division slate and the talent-packed Non-Public A state playoff bracket, it's hard to be one-dimensional on offense and try to beat teams like Toms River North, Bergen Catholic, Red Bank Catholic, St. Joseph's-Montvale and others.
That fact makes the passing game critical, which is why Friday night's win at Griffin Stadium was an encouraging sign heading into one of the biggest home games in Donovan Catholic history coming up on Sept. 15.
"I think it's coming along," Curcione said about the passing game. "I think we need to continue to get better. I thought Todd did a really nice job throwing it around tonight."
In two weeks, the Griffins will welcome No. 1 Toms River North, their rival from right down Route 37 in Toms River. The Mariners are an American Division opponent, a team they compete with for talent, and the program Curcione and Griffins offensive coordinator Chip LaBarca Jr. once coached to state sectional titles.
Lambertson's ability to make throws at crucial times against a ferocious Mariners defense looks to be a huge factor in the game. On Friday night, he went 7-for-9 for 86 yards and three touchdowns, making the most of his opportunities.
He threaded the needle between two defenders for a 19-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Emanuel Gerena, lofted the TD pass to Thomas and then hit Thomas with a quick screen pass that he turned into a 38-yard touchdown in the second half with a wicked spin move in a phone booth of defenders.
Lambertson threw for 1,232 yards, 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year in his first season as the starter against one of the toughest schedules in the state. If he can take it up a notch against high-level competition this season, it could be the key to unlocking the Griffins' full potential.
"Mentally, he's been really good," Thomas said about Lambertson. "His body got bigger. You look at the film, and he looks comfortable."
"I don't really feel the pressure, but I think that's true, I have to play good football if we're going to be the No. 1 team," Lambertson said.
In the cutthroat world of non-public football in New Jersey, quarterbacks often aren't allowed to struggle or learn on the job. A receiving talent like Thomas, who had 43 catches for 544 and 4 touchdowns as a sophomore to earn SSN All-Shore honors, always has feelers being sent his way from rival programs. Come play for us, we've got this FBS recruit at quarterback. But he has stuck by Lambertson and his teammates.
"It did happen in the middle of last year, but I didn't want to go," Thomas said about a rival school reaching out. "I've got everything right here, so why go away? DC's my home."
The extra wrinkle for Lambertson this season is that he does not play the whole game. He rotates with sophomore Zach LaBarca, the son of the offensive coordinator.
"Sometimes it's tough, but I do my best," Lambertson said.
LaBarca has been a change of pace to throw defenses off because of his running ability. He picked up 98 yards on 7 carries in the win over Long Branch, including a 64-yard run that set up a 1-yard score by Calhoun.
However, the part that's always a challenge when you play two quarterbacks is knowing when to put one or the other in the game and when to ride the hot hand.
The team, and the quarterbacks, are making it work.
"It was hard at first, but I definitely can trust both of them," Thomas said. "Both can run, both can pass the ball."
"I think it worked well tonight," Curcione said.
Both quarterbacks will be dramatically overshadowed in the matchup with Toms River North by their counterpart - Mariners superstar Micah Ford, the reigning New Jersey Player of the Year.
The Griffins will try to counter with their own gamebreaker, Thomas, against arguably the best secondary in the Shore. They saw the lengths teams will go to blanket Thomas when Long Branch devoted much of its gameplan to trying to slow him down on Friday night.
"They were doubling me, tripling me, doing anything they could to stop me, so we came into the second half saying, 'We're going to try to get you the ball anyway,'" Thomas said.
The Griffins moved him around more in the same formations in the second half to get him free.
"Outside, slot, anywhere, I'm trying to do my thing," Thomas said.
Now comes the challenge of taking down the No. 1 team in the Shore and the top-ranked public school in the state. Despite all the Griffins' impressive talent, they still find themselves in the shadow of the team down the road that went 14-0 last year.
"We're kind of like the second fiddle now," Curcione said. "We're kind of like the forgotten team. We have a lot of games where we can prove ourselves, so either that's going to be true or we're going to be what we want to be."
Lambertson and Thomas look to be two crucial keys to help the Griffins snatch that spotlight for themselves.
"I think we are under the radar," Lambertson said. "It's not a bad to place to be. But we've got a lot to prove."