Local flavor at Colonial Clash; Dartmouth's Mello, Assonet's Jablonski ready for Colonial Clash
FOXBORO -- For college football fans, this Saturday's Colonial Clash at Gillette Stadium is the perfect opportunity to see one of New England's biggest college rivalries play out in an NFL venue: The University of New Hampshire vs. the University of Massachusetts. It'll be even more intense playing on the home field of the New England Patriots for the first time.
For former Dartmouth High star Justin Mello, it's a return trip to Gillette Stadium. The Indians lost to Everett in the Super Bowl back in 2007 in Foxboro, and Mello is hoping to get out on the Gillette turf once again. Now a redshirt freshman with the University of New Hampshire, Mello is a wide receiver who doesn't see much time for the Wildcats but is trying to earn a role on special teams.
"I'm hoping to get on the field, but we'll see what happens," Mello said. "I'm behind a couple of other local guys on the depth chart at receiver, and I've been alternating between starting punt return team and second-string punt-return team."
Special teams is a good fit for Mello, who returned 13 punts for the Indians his senior season with an average of 15.5 yards per return. He also broke an 85-yarder that year against Bridgewater-Raynham. It's a slightly less glamorous role, however, for a guy who owns the Dartmouth High records in receptions and receiving yards for both a single season and for a career.
"I knew coming in it would be a challenge to get playing time, but I'd just have to figure out what I could do for the team," Mello said. "It's pretty exciting to get a chance to be on special teams."
"Our team throws the ball really well, and we like to show off our attributes," Mello said of the spread offense the Wildcats employ. He said that in practice, the No. 1 and No. 2 receiver practice with the first string offense, and he practices with the second stringers.
"The biggest part for me is the mental effort," he said. "I have to watch what goes on, pay attention, learn the playbook. I have to understand my job in case my number is called."
Assonet's Nick Jablonski is on the UMass roster, and although he probably won't suit up for Saturday's game, he's happy to be in the mix with the Minutemen. He was a wide receiver on some very successful Apponequet teams, but wasn't overwhelmed with college offers. Originally planning to attend prep school, he was instead recruited by UMass to play tight end. He redshirted as a freshman and has seen limited action this season.
"I was automatically undersized for the position," said Jablonski. "Now, we're just working to get me bigger and get me ready for when my number is called."
Jablonski is the fourth tight end on the depth chart, but he did get some playing time in a 31-7 blowout win over Holy Cross last month.
"It was definitely a great experience to take my first snap of college football. The college game really is much faster than high school," he said. "On that first snap, the quarterback set me up and I turned around to catch the ball and just got absolutely lit up by a linebacker."
Jablonski believes he'll have a chance to move up the depth chart next season, but for now he's just glad to go to the school he fell in love with upon his first visit, one that two cousins, an aunt and an uncle all attended.
"It's a great group of guys this year," he said. "I feel so much more accepted than I did last year. I feel like we've got a great team skill-wise and we're really coming together as a team."
Mello and Jablonski never played against one another in high school, although each knew of the other and they played together in the Shriner's Game.
"We actually played against each other in CYO basketball in the eighth grade," Jablonski said. "I just know that he's a tremendous athlete who has great hands and the ability to turn every play into something spectacular."
UMass and UNH are among the top teams in Division 1-AA's Colonial Athletic Association. Although Delaware sits atop the conference at 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the league, UMass (4-2, 2-1) and UNH (4-3, 2-2) aren't far behind.
"We lost two of those games by a combined total of six points," Mello said. "Those games could have easily gone the other way, and we'd have only one loss. Unfortunately, we can't change what happened."
The most recent FCS coaches poll ranks UNH at No. 9, up from No. 15 a week ago after earning their second straight victory, and UMass at No. 12, down four spots from last week following an 11-10 loss to Richmond.
For SouthCoast football fans, next year's Colonial Clash could be the one to watch, as both Jablonski and Mello figure to be in the mix for more playing time. For now, though, the game itself is the draw, even without the local contingent on the field.
"It's a big rivalry. Last year it came down to the last play," Jablonski said. "Playing against UNH is always a hyped-up game, but it's even bigger now because it's at Gillette."