|« Thornton’s Time to Step Forth at Chattanooga||Hard work paying off for FAMU's Sands »|
North Shore Trio Slated to Start for Ambitious UMass
AMHERST — Armando Cuko of Beverly has bulked up for his junior season with the University of Massachusetts Amherst football team. He’s bigger and stronger than he’s ever been.
Of course, Cuko is the team’s placekicker, so even at 5-foot-11, 192 pounds he looks puny compared to nose tackle Kyle Harrington of Salem and fullback Chris Zardas of Wakefield, who played at St. John’s Prep.
“Wait until you see Harrington,” Cuko said on the eve of UMass Media Day here yesterday. “He’s monstrous. He’s beyond big. I mean, he’s just humongous.”
Harrington was a workout warrior in the offseason and has built himself up to 6-foot-3, 285 pounds. Meanwhile, Zardas, who spent the last eight months recovering from a torn ACL (left knee), is a sturdy 6-foot-1, 230 pounds.
So the North Shore connection to UMass football remains intact this season, but with one important difference: For the first time since they arrived in Amherst, all three of these juniors are listed as starters.
That’s not bad for a team that is always ambitious to play on the national stage in the postseason. The Minutemen went 10-3 last season and made it to the quarterfinals in what was formerly known as Division 1-AA.
Cuko was the heir apparent to an outstanding kicker, Chris Koepplin, for two years, but now it’s his turn to shine and he plans to make the most of it. Harrington was brilliant at times last season, starting six games, and now he has some beneficial experience. Zardas has been snakebitten with injuries, but the coaching staff has enough faith in him that he’s listed as the first string fullback.
Ready to contribute once again
Among the North Shore trio, Cuko had the biggest impact early in his career. He was the team’s No. 1 kicker as a freshman in 2005, hitting 6 of 13 field goals and 27 of 32 extra point attempts for 45 points, making him the second-highest scorer for the Minutemen.
Then he suffered a groin injury his sophomore year and lost his job to Koepplin, who was simply fabulous last year (11 for 15 field goals, 48 for 49 PATs) as a senior. But Cuko is completely healthy again, a much better kicker than he was three years ago, and has established himself as someone that UMass wants to count on in every situation.
“Armando is all about preparation,” said UMass head coach Don Brown. “He leaves nothing to chance. He’s a great weight room guy and meticulous with his routine. When you have guys like that who prepare so well, you know you’re going to get the best they have to offer. It makes it easier (for a coach) to sleep at night.”
It wasn’t easy to play a backup role for two years after such a promising start, but Cuko used his time wisely. He’s increased his range and changed his style to a two-step delivery, enabling him to kick field goals more quickly. And he never grumbled about his status or thought of transferring after Koepplin took over as the top kicker.
“I thought I’d play a little more (the last two years), but I was hurt for an entire season and the coaches went with the older player. I just tried to use the practice time to make myself a better kicker,” he said.
“Leaving (as a transfer) wouldn’t have been worth it. I’m comfortable here and I was too far ahead in my studies to think about something like that. It’s not just about football; it’s also about school and the people you know. But I felt I was making progress all along, and now I’m ready to go. You live for those 11 games on the schedule.”
Brown said Cuko doesn’t have to try to outdo Koepplin.
“The only pressure on Armando is to help us win,” said the coach. “He can’t worry about what he did for us as a freshman or what Koepplin did last year. He has to live in the moment and be ready for each scenario.”
Answering the bell
Harrington was ready for most scenarios last season, playing in 13 games, starting six times and finishing with 43 tackles, including four sacks. He played tough in the marquee game against Boston College (a 24-14 loss) but was at his best against Rhode Island with 10 tackles, including a safety.
“I couldn’t be happier (with Harrington),” said Brown. “Kyle has been playing at an extremely high level. He’s an all-conference (caliber) defender inside (who) leads by example. We were standing here last August making a commitment to play him and he was untested at the time. The concern was how he’d perform when the lights go on — and he answered the bell in a big way.”
Harrington indicated that he was tentative at times last season, just like any rookie starter. It was never easy, but he was more comfortable as the season progressed.
“It’s really difficult at first to be in a starting role for a team like this, but then you get to know the people around you and what they do for the defense,” he admitted. “It’s really beneficial to have a year’s experience. It’s amazing, really. You trust the other defenders to make plays.
“Our defensive motto is to create chaos. We want to create problems for the opposing offensive line so that our linebackers can come up and make plays. It starts up front and hopefully we come out on top at the end of the day.”
Looking to stay healthy
Zardas has had the hardest road to the starting lineup. He was extremely durable at St. John’s Prep, scoring 48 touchdowns and surpassing 4,000 ground yards, but he’s been banged up at UMass. He had a shoulder injury at fall camp in 2005 and didn’t play at all in 2006.
He was just starting to come into his own last year, playing special teams and exploding for a 47-yard run in a 49-35 first round playoff win over Fordham when he blew out his left knee.
“You know, Zardas is running right by me (against Fordham) and I was thinking that this is a guy who’s going to play a lot of tailback for me (this) year. Then three plays later, he tears the ACL,” Brown said. “The worry was how he would respond (to surgery and rehab), but he’s been practicing. Chris played valuable minutes last year and has no limitations right now.”
Zardas pointed out that he hurt himself on the 47-yard run, not on a subsequent play. The rehab process was long, taking eight months to reach the stage where he feels like his old self.
He doesn’t curse his bad luck. The way he sees it, he has two potentially productive years left.
“I’m trying not to think about the injury,” said Zardas, who shared the team’s Offensive Most Improved Award with Rasheed Rancher last season. “I just want to pick up where I left off, do some solid blocking and get some carries in the backfield. Just trying to help the team win, really. We have high standards as a group.”
Zardas still rooms with Harrington, who is one of his biggest boosters.
“Just watch,” said Harrington. “Chris will be a huge contributor on offense. He’s had a great offseason, and he’s playing fast. It’s unfortunate that he was hurt, but he’s bouncing back. He’s faster and more athletic.”
Zach Johnson, a freshman placekicker from Marblehead who attended Marblehead High and Lawrence Academy, is also listed on the UMass roster, but is currently not with the team as he deals with an NCAA clearinghouse issue. He’s expected back in about a week.
North Shore Trio Slated to Start for Ambitious UMass
By Mike Grenier, The Salem News (MA)