ND-Fairfield football: Starting from scratch
FAIRFIELD - For John Johnson, the feeling of déjà vu had to be overwhelming.
The faces might have changed but the job is still the same - build a program, despite almost starting from scratch. Again.
The first time Johnson was faced with this challenge was over a decade ago, at Bullard Havens. Taking a program that has just 17 players on the roster at the start, Johnson molded them into a team that made the CIAC playoffs four times, three of those appearances coming in the last four years. Now, the task is doing the same at Notre Dame-Fairfield where Johnson was named head coach back in February.
One week into fall practice and the déjà vu is everywhere. As the Lancers go through their workouts, just 28 players are on the field. Give or take an injury or two (or three) and when the season starts against Bunnell on September 8, Johnson might have 30 kids to start building the program around.
“We are kind of starting from scratch again (like Bullard Havens) and we knew that coming in,” Johnson said. “The coaches that I brought over from Bullard Havens were excited about that, just like when we started over at Bullard, we do have talent here, it’s just obviously, the lack of depth that’s going to be an issue, especially as we get into the season and go against some of the larger programs.”
According to Johnson, getting the players to come together as one unit was the primary goal over the course of the off-season as he looks to keep Notre Dame-Fairfield on a forward track.
“The thing I wanted to accomplish this summer was to get these guys to buy into the whole team concept,” Johnson said. “The 30 guys you see out here were at lifts every day, we’re at camp every single night, so I accomplished the goal this summer of getting these guys to buy into that team concept. They’re all taking responsibility for the success of the program.”
Deciding not to participate in spring practice, the Lancers did compete in some summer passing leagues, allowing junior quarterback John Fassett - who was the junior varsity QB last season - to become more familiar with the Notre Dame playbook.
“We were able to work out and get into some passing leagues and things like that, so we could run some our base stuff,” Johnson said. “We came in here in pretty good shape and they’re progressing very well with what we’re throwing at them, because we’re throwing a lot at them.”
Especially at Fassett.
“He kind of took control of the playbook we put together for our summer passing leagues,” Johnson said. “He was able to pick up the offense pretty quickly where he was able to tell the guys what to do. He has a successful summer in the passing leagues.”
Adding to that experience at quarterback, running back Zaire Williams, who missed half of last season with an injury, returns as does junior wide receiver Jeremy Reed, giving Johnson some decent skill weapons. Also, Johnson is expecting big things - literally - from his offensive and defensive lines.
“We have some beef up front, which I like,” Johnson said. “We have like, six or seven guys at 250 or more, so we should be able to pound the rock, control the ball and as the defense starts to adjust to that, we’ll be able to go over the top against some of these guys.”
Of course, staying healthy will be huge.
“We have a pretty good rotation,” Johnson said. “We’ve run a pretty heavy conditioning program, so they’re getting there. That was all new to them, but they bought into it and I’m kind of excited about that and I think we’re going to surprise a few people this season.
“Our goal this year is to have a winning season, they haven’t had one here in a decade. We only have five seniors, but we have a lot of guys coming back and I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Bullard Havens certainly went in the right direction under Johnson, going 34-10 over the last four seasons and making the Class S playoffs in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Why leave an established program to try and build another?
“I’ve known a lot about Notre Dame. I went to college at Sacred Heart, I played football over there and I knew about Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “We’ve always scrimmaged them … the one thing that I saw here (at Notre Dame) that was a little bit different than what we had at Bullard, was having an administration and an entire school that puts athletics up there with academics. They see how important athletics are, the academic process, so the fact that we’re going to have some support, that was kind of enticing.”
Currently, Johnson is working with athletic director Rob Bleggi and the other boys’ head coaches at Notre Dame to try and get the word out about the football program.
“What we’re doing here, I’m very close with the other coaches in the building, they’re all kind of getting the word out now,” Johnson said. “I have a good relationship with the local Pop Warner programs. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get some of those kids in. We were able to do a youth camp, we had kids from all the neighboring towns here, so doing things like that, getting the boys out into the community, some community outreach, let people know in the neighboring towns that Notre Dame football is here and it’s a viable option for them to come here.”