Step One of Long Island's potential defensive advantage over New York City in tomorrow night's Empire Challenge all-star football game begins with the blur that is the first step of defensive end Joe Percival from St. Anthony's.
"He's virtually unblockable," said Long Island coach Rick Punzone of Babylon, who throughout practice drills repeatedly has had to bark out the words, "Who's blocking this guy!" as the Princeton-bound, 6-2, 225-pound Percival has disrupted many an offensive play with his blow-by speed off the edge.
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"His first step is one of the quickest first steps I've ever seen in my 10 years of coaching," defensive line coach Kevin Shippos of Massapequa said. "He's got an unbelievable motor, he's deceptively strong and he's a gifted athlete who will give the city kids problems on the edge."
Percival, a Newsday first-team All-Long Island selection last fall for the CHSFL champion Friars, credits his burst to pairing football with track, where he recently won CHSAA titles in the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay. "Ever since I started running track, I've seen improvement in my starts and my explosiveness," he said.
Even though he said he will play outside linebacker at Princeton, Percival's greatest value to the Long Island team is as an edge-rushing defensive end. The game's rules prohibit blitzing by linebackers, meaning quarterback pressure must come from the line.
"Pass rushing is the key to this game," Shippos said of the 19th edition, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium. Proceeds for the game benefit the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which raises money for cystic fibrosis research. "You've got to get it from your front four."
Shippos said he likes the athleticism of his eight-player group that also includes DT Rob Hansen (Roosevelt), DE Jawan Jenkins (Floyd), DE Raymond Jones (Roosevelt), DE Jahsheem Martin (Freeport), DT Connor McDaniel (East Islip), DT Joe Pesce (Eastport-South Manor) and DT Patrick Sheppard (Islip).
So does Percival. "It's an honor to have the opportunity to gauge your skills with these guys. It's a humbling experience," Percival said. "We all kind of had an idea about our talents. We were all picked for a reason and we have pushed each other."
They hope to push around the New York City offensive line and extend Long Island's three-game winning streak in the series. "Most definitely," Percival said. "Our defensive ends are amazingly athletic. I think we will have a good day."
The next step for Percival is college, where he embraces the position switch. "At Princeton, they run a 3-4, with the fourth linebacker being a hybrid," he said. "That's where they said I'd play. I like that. You have the opportunity to chase the quarterback, tackle a running back or drop back in pass coverage."
And even after all that running around on autumn afternoons in the Ivy League, Percival said he'd like to also run track for the Tigers. "If they let me," he said.
His smile was quick, too.