VANCOUVER — If the fullback is football’s version of the stuntman, then the tailback is its leading man.
Notre Dame’s Vincenzo Nardulli is never going to back down from the kind of blocking assignments which became his offensive bread-and-butter the past few seasons with East Vancouver’s Jugglers.
Yet as the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior prepares for the final Subway Bowl playoff run of his high school career, it will come with the spotlight pointed clearly in his direction.
And if every good rags-to-riches story worth it salt needs a compelling plot line, you can rest assured that Nardulli’s more than makes the grade.
When the Jugglers (4-6 overall) line up on offence Saturday night (7:30 p.m.) at B.C. Place Stadium for the final game of Subway Bowl’s Triple A quarterfinal round, every eye-ball on the opposition defence of the No. 1-ranked South Delta Sun Devils (9-0) will be trained on the kid wearing jersey No. 2.
And while Nardulli has earned every degree of that respect following a regular-season in which he finished fourth in top-tiered rushing with 1,102 yards in nine games, including 11 touchdowns and a 6.7 yards-per-carry average, even he will admit that it’s been a season which has unfolded beyond his greatest expectations.
“For sure I have surprised myself,” he said Wednesday before a noon film session. “To go from not playing, to being top four in the province? I wasn’t expecting it.”
And when Nardulli says “not playing” he means it.
Not since his Grade 8 season at Notre Dame had Nardulli even taken a live hand-off out of the backfield, and even then it was only for a span of four games.
In ninth grade, he stuck solely to his defensive position at linebacker, and in both Grade 10 and 11, he was deemed more the fullback-type and thus turned his attention to opening seams and providing pass protection. Through all of that, he had no carries for three straight seasons.
“This is rare,” admits Notre Dame head coach Denis Kelly who has coached for decades. “I can’t think of anyone who has done it. Usually, a player comes up through the ranks at the position. With him, we always just used other guys. We just never got around to inserting him there.”
To best describe him, Nardulli isn’t a burner, yet hand him the ball and he just goes about the business of advancing it down the field.
In last week’s 40-13 opening-round road win over the Abbotsford Panthers, all the former fullback did was carry a workhorse 24 times for 145 yards and five touchdowns.
On the season, in 10 games, he’s carried 188 times for 1,247 yards and 16 touchdowns, his 6.6 yards-per-carry average matching that of last season’s RB-1, the talented Teon Alexander-Amour, who this season earned carries as a pure freshman in the AUS with the St. Mary’s Huskies.
Logically, Alexander-Amour was the Jugglers’ sole focus on the ground last season.
Yet with his graduation leaving a gaping hole in the backfield, Kelly and the Jugglers headed into a spring scrimmage with Victoria’s Mt. Douglas Rams having no idea how the void might be filled.
Yet it was pretty apparent that Nardulli had a presence as soon as he tucked the ball under one arm. He rushed for two scores against the Rams and convinced a veteran coach that he was the answer.
“Vinny had Teon back there last year, and (quarterback) Will (Clarke) could run it as well,” said Kelly. “And both of them managed to stay pretty healthy. But when we saw (Nardulli) in the spring scrimmage we knew he was going to be very good. He’s been a pleasant surprise. Boy, has he done a lot of nice things.”
How does the coach describe what makes Nardulli good?
“He’s got deceptive speed,” begins Kelly. “It’s a good, solid speed and he has very good balance. He’s also strong, powerfully-built, and there’s times where he is coming out of piles you wouldn’t think he would.
“He drives his feet, he keeps his balance and he finishes off runs,” Kelly added. “He gets every inch out of every run he makes.”
That, in and of itself, must be a team metaphor on Saturday if the Jugglers are going to defeat the undefeated Sun Devils.
And if that were indeed to happen, then Nardulli would likely have been as big on defence as he was been on offence.
Starting at middle linebacker, he has led the team in tackles this season after finishing second to the now-graduated Cameron Mah last season.
Part of a core of senior ‘backers which also include Ian Marin and Caleb Hoey, the trio will face its toughest defensive test of the season against a Sun Devils’ team who bring a physical edge to their passing game, one whose hallmark is making teams pay with big yards after the catch.
“Their receivers are so good,” begins Kelly, referencing Sun Devils’ Evan Paterson, Jackson Bailie, Ethan Troniak and Rhys Porteous. “They just need the ball to be in their vicinity, and their lineman are so-well versed in pass-blocking. This will be a real test for us.”
Of course no one gave the Sun Devils a better fight this season than Notre Dame, who lost 48-40 at home to South Delta back on Oct. 11.
In that game, Nardulli rushed for three scores, while also throwing a touchdown pass and accompanying two-point convert.
Rush, pass, tackle.
On Saturday, with that spotlight shining on him brighter than ever, Vincenzo Nardulli is ready to take on any role he’s cast to play.
The remainder of Saturday’s Triple A quarterfinal card at B.C. Place: 12 noon — New Westminster vs. Lord Tweedsmuir; 2:30 p.m. — Kelowna vs. Vancouver College, 5 p.m. — Mt. Douglas vs. St. Thomas More. The day under the dome opens with a Double-A quarterfinal at 9:30 a.m. between Clarence Fulton and Langley.
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