Chris Papadopoulos is the offensive coordinator of Wootton, which had one of the most dynamic and explosive passing attacks in the state. They were also only team to play Damascus and Walkersville in the regular season. Papadopoulos has a sharp football mind and was kind enough to answer the phone and answer some questions about Friday’s highly-anticipated game between Damascus and Walkersville for the 2A West region title.
Damascus (11-0, 39-game winning streak) is ranked third in the Maryland state poll while Walkersville (11-0, 25-game winning streak) is ranked fourth. USA Today, meanwhile, has Walkersville ranked fourth and Damascus 10th.
The showdown between the two reigning state champions will kickoff at 7 p.m. Friday at Damascus High School. You can pre-order tickets here.
Kyle: Let’s start with Damascus. What are the biggest challenges defensively they threw at you guys and what do you think they do the best?
Chris: For sure. Going into the game, obviously it’s Damascus, we know they’re going to be great. I think they’re a little bit different than year’s past. I think their line, their defensive line, is by far the best we’ve played all year.
Kyle: When I watched film of the first half of your game versus Damascus, I counted 15 hurries in Grant Saylor’s 35 pass attempts.
Chris: Yeah, that sounds about right. And it wasn’t even that. Yeah, of course he was hurried, but there were times Grant would come over to me and say, “Chris, I can’t see.” Bresee is what, 6-foot-4? Funk is probably 6-2. Their d-line is phenomenal.
Kyle: [Michael] Jurgens is 6-4.
Chris: Exactly. I think Bresee, and I said this earlier when I was watching film, I think he’s the best defensive player I’ve seen all year that we’ve played against on film. Obviously he’s a huge recruit and everything like that, but every single play, he brings it; 110 percent every single play. Him going full speed like that is impossible to stop. But yeah, I think their d-line is phenomenal. I think their linebackers are very solid and I think their secondary, I mean it’s good, but it’s the weak part of their team. That’s where you can attack them. Comparing them to Walkersville: D-line is Damascus, definitely. Linebackers: Walkersville. Secondary: Walkersville. Walkersville’s secondary, I didn’t expect them to be nearly as good. They have a corner who is 5-8, and I’m like, “Elijah, we’re going against this kid. We’re going to attack this kid all day. He’s so much smaller than you. He’s not a Division I recruit, you are. We’re going to beat him.’ ”
Kyle: You’re talking about Aaron [Jahnke], No. 3.
Chris: Exactly. That kid, gosh. I’ll tell you more about him later. But yeah, I think Damascus’s secondary is the weakest part about their team. Again, it’s still good; better than most. But I think it’s the weak part of their defense.
Kyle: Interesting you say that. I agree with you there. Now, before pivoting to Walkersville’s defense, when you envision the Damascus defensive line going up against the Walkersville offensive line, how do you think that’s going to play out? Because, Walkersville, they’re very adamant with its ground-and-pound game; they’re not going to shy away from that. They run the ball close to 90 percent of the time. So, how do you see that shaking out?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, Walkersville is completely different than us. I think if we tried to ground-and-pound 90 percent of the time, we’d average negative-five yards a play. Walkersville, though, I think they will have some success against Damascus, because, again, the d-line is great, but Walkersville has a great o-line, too. I think if they can get past that d-line, the linebackers and secondary are a little weaker; linebackers are good, but again, a little weaker. I think Walkersville is going to be able to run on them. These teams are both extremely strong. It’s clear they lift weights 11 months out of the year. They’re lifting all the time. While I do think Damascus has a great d-line, Walkersville’s line is going to be strong, too. They’re going to be able to push them a little. Again, going back to Walkersville, Wetzel, he’s the best kid I saw offensively on film all year. He reminds me — and you’ve said it, a bunch of people have said it — of Jake Funk a little bit.
Kyle: Yes he does. Personally, I think the trench game can go a variety of ways. Now, Walkersville’s defense. Can you go back to its secondary? I think its secondary is extremely underrated, because they don’t get the exposure most teams get. I know you and Damascus run completely different offenses, but what did Walkersville throw at you and how do you think they’re going to shape up against the Damascus offense on Friday?
Chris: I think, defensively for Walkersville, there’s not really a weak spot, I’d say. But if you had to pick, the d-line is the weakest on that defense. When we watched film, and I told a couple of our coaches, I said, ‘Look, this is the best team I’ve ever seen on film.’ But I was not expecting their secondary to be that good. [Jahnke], he’s like 5-7 or 5-8. Elijah Trent — our Division I receiver — we throw him a hitch, we throw him a screen, he’s good for at least five to six yards every time. He can also make people miss. But against this kid, and when we’d line up, we’d have two or three blockers, we’d throw a screen or a hitch, it might be a five or eight yard gain, but the second they hit us, we’d be tackled. There’s no breaking tackles. They tackle phenomenally. They don’t miss tackles, whereas Damascus, we made some people miss. Everybody on their team can tackle. Walkersville? It’s like running into a brick wall. The d-line is probably the weakest part. Their linebackers are great and their secondary is great, too. They play Cover 2, and they play it phenomenally sound. It’s tough to beat.
Kyle: While I was watching film from both of your games versus Damascus and Walkersville, I kept track of some advanced analytics that I wouldn’t be able to keep from the sidelines, just out of curiosity. On Damascus, you guys averaged 3.0 yards a play after contact. On Walkersville, you only averaged 1.06 yards a play after contact. I know two yards may not sound like a whole lot, but that could be the difference in picking up a pivotal first down.
Chris: Exactly. And that’s what people don’t understand. The reason why we moved the ball, I think we were in the red zone two or three times other than the one time we scored, we were able to get the ball out quick, get positive yards on every play and don’t get to third-and-long, because they’re gonna tee-off on us; the damn d-line is so good. We had some success doing that. We’d catch the ball; we’d get a couple yards; we’d get a first down; we’d get a run here and there. Against Walkersville, we couldn’t run, and a play that’s usually four or five yards for us is one or two. We’d ge to second-and-nine, third-and-eight, and when you’re forced to throw the ball downfield and not get it out in two or three seconds, you have to be able to block that, and that’s why we couldn’t move it against Walkersville. And their secondary was good.
Kyle: Going back to the defensive line, Canden Krenzer, Walkersville’s top defensive lineman is out for the year. He did play against you guys before getting hurt in Week 10.
Chris: He was very good. That game was such a wash for us, it was tough to get a look at him. I know [Jerimiah Sweet] was very good, the [defensive] end. He got pressure on us a couple times. [Ethan Parrish] played both ways; o-line and d-line. He was good. And [Krenzer] was someone we’d have to worry about. Similar to the Damascus game, we went in knowing we weren’t going to be able to run. Let’s throw it and get it out quick. We avoided the d-line in general. But their secondary was so damn good, we couldn’t do anything. They have another corner on the other side; he transferred from Gaithersburg — Hunter Cleaver. He’s a really good-sized kid. Good athlete, strong kid. Literally, our game plan for both teams was pretty much the same. Damascus, we did move the ball. We probably should’ve scored two, three, four more times. Walkersville, their secondary was not crackable.
Kyle: I know it’s a very small sample size, but people do this naturally anyway. What Walkersville did to you guys and then what Damascus did — or what you could’ve done; put up close to 28 points. How much should people look at that game, or those halves, into consideration?
Chris: I’d put some stock into it. Obviously, you can’t say because Walkersville beat us by 70, they’re going to win handily. They’re a completely different team. They’re being matched-up completely different. I think from a defensive perspective, we stopped Damascus once or twice. We did not stop Walkersville once. And we weren’t going to. They could’ve scored in three or four plays every single time. Now, our defense isn’t that good. Damascus’s defense is way better. I think, the one thing, though, that Walkersville did against us, they did pass a little. I guess they were working on a couple things. But I think their pass-game is underratedly pretty good. It’s not Dunbar or Oakdale, but it’s better than Damascus’s. [Gant] has played for three years now. And they do have everyone going both ways, but Damascus has some guys going both ways, too, but I’d give the pass game edge to Walkersville; if they do have to pass. If Damascus is really stuffing them, I think they’ll be able to get them a little bit, whereas Damascus, if Walkersville is really stuffing them, I don’t — and I could be completely wrong — I don’t think they’re going to be able to pass. Now, if they’re having success with running the ball and Walkersville is doing everything they can to stop the run, then, yeah, that’ll open up the pass play a little for Damascus. But if they’re getting stuffed and need to pass, I don’t think they’re gonna be able to.
Kyle: Yeah. Now, shifting to both offenses, as an offensive coordinator yourself, what do you like out of Damascus and what do you like out of Walkersville?
Chris: With Walkersville, you gotta love [Wetzel]. The kid’s a beast. Best offensive player I’ve seen all year. Then they have [Policelli], who runs the ball really well. Even if Bresee or Funk or whoever gets through, they have to get through him again, too. And [Policelli’s] a helluva player. I know they rotate [Littleton], too. He had some big runs against us. They’re offense is ground-and-pound. Like I said, though, the quarterback, [Gant], can throw the ball. He actually threw a pick against us in the red zone.
Kyle: I saw that on film. That was a really bad throw. He had Cleaver open in the left corner, wide-open, but decided to force it into double coverage in the slot.
Chris: I don’t think he’ll make that throw again. I think their offensive line is strong. Now, looking at Damascus’s offense, I think their offensive line is the best in the state. Gotta give them the edge there. I don’t think their backs are as good. [Ayo-Durojaiye] is solid. [Gage], who didn’t play against us, but I’ve seen him, he’s solid. And I think [Ben] Lokos is really, really good. He’s going to have his hands full on defense, so I don’t know how much they’re planning to run him. But I think I saw Gage is going to be back this week. Again, they have three good backs, too. I gotta give the edge to Walkersville. I also have to give the edge at quarterback to Walkersville. Receivers? Ehhh. To be honest, I didn’t see enough. They don’t pass enough. So I can’t really decide there. But, Damascus, the thing is with them, they can line up Bresee; they can line up [Matt Betterelli], the tight end …
Kyle: Oh yeah. Talk about a heavy set.
Chris: Yeah, and they can run behind those dudes and Jurgens and Funk and Philbin and whoever else they got. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bresee get used a little bit on the offensive side of the ball. The last game they played, it was kinda close, they played Seneca Valley, and that was a closer game than people expected. Bresee played a little offense, just blocking. But there’s a video of him and Betterelli pancaking two guys into the endzone.
Kyle: Those are some big dudes. Alright, before we get to your prediction, what does Damascus need to do to win and what does Walkersville need to do to win?
Chris: Well, with a game this close, and this hyped up on this big of a stage, the biggest thing for both teams is going to be to not turn the ball over, because both are so well-coached and so discipline. One turnover can decide the outcome of the game. For Damascus, they need to stay getting chunks of yards on the ground. They can’t let it get to third-and-long like we did, because that secondary is not giving it up. But if they can consistently get four to six yards on the ground, move the chains, run behind that big o-line, it’ll be good. For Walkersville, the huge thing for them is they gotta stay fresh and they gotta stay healthy. Like [Policelli, he’s the lead blocker on offense and takes a couple carries and is the leading tackler. Wetzel, playing strong safety, coming down in the box and making tackles and he’s carrying the load on offense. Littleton plays both ways. [Josh Polce], the receiver and safety, plays both ways. And Cleaver, obviously, is playing both ways at receiver. And then you mentioned, [Krenzer], that’s one less guy. I think, Walkersville, if they can stay fresh, stay healthy and not turn the ball over, they’ll be good, whereas Damascus, they just have to keep on pounding; doing what they do best and run the ball right up the middle.
Kyle: Before I get to your prediction, what is it about playing at Damascus that gives them an upper hand? They haven’t lost at home since 2013 and lost by more than one point at home since 2011.
Chris: Well, have you been to a game at Walkersville before?
Chris: They have that whole fire truck thing, which is pretty cool. But Damascus, they have that country music warmup. Walking in, our game was at 6:30, when we walked down for warmups at around 5:35 to 5:40, and it was a little different because Damascus is going through the warmups early because it was senior night. But they have the country music blasting, it’s an hour before the game, and they already have 60 percent of the bleachers filled up. They’re running through the scout team, first team [offense], first team [defense], and you’re just walking by them, and see these huge, big country boys staring you down as you walk in. Of course I’m not intimidated. I’m not playing, but I think it’s cool. I think it’s awesome. I love going into stuff like that. But I’m not going to lie, I think some of our kids were a little intimidated. I don’t think that’ll be the case with Walkersville, though. I think their fans are going to travel really well. I think they love the challenge. People have been talking about this game since the realignment when Damascus moved down to 2A. So, homefield is going to help Damascus a little, because they’ll have more fans on their side; the home bleachers are bigger. But I don’t think it’ll play as big of a factor as everyone thinks. Walkersville has a grass field, too. It’s not like Walkersville is going from turf to grass or vice versa.
Kyle: Alright, so who do you got on Friday night?
Kyle: It’s tough, man, I know.
Chris: I got Walkersville by 10 — 24-14. It’ll be tough. I’ll be at the game. I’ll probably be rooting for Damascus. It’s Montgomery County. I’m from Montgomery County. But I just think Walkersville is a little better. I just think their run game is a little better, their defense is a little better. And if they do have to throw the ball, I think they have the edge there. Damascus definitely has the edge on both lines, but there’s ways you can get around that. And, again, we couldn’t. We’re not nearly as strong as either of the teams. Our strongest offensive lineman benches 225-230 pounds. Damascus’s strongest linemen probably reps 225 pounds 20 times. With Walkersville, the strength is a lot more even. If a kid is a little stronger, that’s fine. The strength won’t be as big as a mismatch. I think they’ll be able to control that d-line a little bit and have some success, and same thing goes on the other side. I expect Damascus to come out and go heavy and pound it. I expect Walkersville to do the same. I just think they’ll have a little more success. I think it’s going to be a great game. I’m excited.