Tom Kelley had high expectations for his Framingham State football team, the defending Bogan Division champs in the New England Football Conference, entering the preseason.
The offense in particular.
Yet in August, offensive execution on the practice field resembled chaos. The unit was struggling, and out of synch.
“I was concerned,” recalled Kelley. “Even though I’m a defensive guy, our offense has been pulling the train for us the last few years. But they couldn’t get anything going. I didn’t like the way we looked.”
He pulled his staff together and, after breaking down film, it didn’t take long to identify the problem: James Muirhead (inset below) was dominating the Rams’ offensive line and causing havoc with the entire unit.
“Muirhead was disrupting everything we tried to do,” Kelley said of the senior defensive tackle from Middleborough. “We had to pull the reins in on him somewhat so our offense could get going. Nobody could block him. The offensive linemen are intimidated by him.”
Senior right tackle Joe Masucci battled Muirhead every day in practice for four years.
At 6 feet 2 and 300 pounds, Masucci has a considerable size advantage over the 6-foot, 255-pound Muirhead. But size does not always help. “Strength is another story,” he said. “James is one of the strongest guys I’ve ever played against. He’s one of those kids who just works hard on every play. He made us all better players. He made it tough some days, but come game day we knew nobody else was playing at his level.”
Certainly, no defensive player in the NEFC.
With Muirhead dominating the line of scrimmage this fall, the Rams yielded the second-fewest yards in Division 3 (221 yards per game) on their way to a 10-2 record, the program’s first conference title, and its first NCAA playoff berth.
Muirhead was in the middle of it all, piling up an NEFC-high 10.5 sacks, a team-high 89 tackles, including 59 solo stops, and 23 tackles for loss, despite being double-teamed by most of the Rams’ opponents. He also forced five fumbles, recovering one, and had an interception.
And postseason honors are starting to pile up.
Named the Bogan Division’s Defensive Player of the Year, Muirhead is also one of two Framingham State University players selected to the Division 2-3 All-New England team by the New England Football Writers organization, joining 1,790-yard junior back Melikke Van Alstyne.
On Thursday night, Muirhead will receive the Division 2-3 Gold Helmet Award, presented to the best player in New England, at the football writers’ annual Captains and Awards Banquet, being held at the Montvale Plaza in Stoneham. Harvard senior quarterback Colton Chapple is the Division 1 recipient.
“I’m honored because it’s such a prestigious award,” said Muirhead, a 2009 graduate of Middleborough High, where he was a two-time state champion as a wrestler. “I was shocked when my coach told me. I just couldn’t believe that a defensive player got the award, not to mention that it was me. I’m honored.”
For his college career, Muirhead owns the program records for sacks (27.5), tackles for a loss (55.5), and solo tackles (149). His work on the defensive line played a major role in turning around a program that went without a winning season for more than 20 years (the Rams finished 9-2 in 2010, his sophomore season).
Over the last three years, the Rams were 26-8.
“He didn’t play a whole lot as a freshman,” said Kelley, “but as soon as we moved him from linebacker and put his hand in the dirt, I knew he’d be a special player.
“He might be our best lineman of all time here. His first couple of years here he was always lobbying to get back to the linebacker spot, but he settled in during his junior year and he just got better and better as a D-lineman.”
Muirhead was the MVP of the NEFC championship game against Salve Regina, and in his final college game, he had six solo tackles, including two for lost yardage, in a 20-19 loss to SUNY Cortland in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
It’s a rarity for Division 3 players to pursue football after college, but Muirhead plans to tackle the challenge. He has been selected to appear in a pair of all-star games that will allow him to showcase his talents for pro scouts.
On Sunday, Muirhead will play in the third annual National Bowl in Allentown, Pa., which features seniors from all three college divisions. Two weeks later, he will head to Minneapolis, where he will play in the All-American Bowl.
“There will be a lot of professional scouts at both games and hopefully I can put together a good game and I can get noticed and play professional football somewhere,” said Muirhead. His goal is to earn a spot as an undrafted free agent, perhaps on a special teams roster or even a practice squad. “You’ve got to start at the bottom,’’ he said. “All I need is an opportunity.”
Kelley has been around Muirhead long enough to realize that anything is possible.
“He’s the real deal,” said Kelley. “Hopefully something will come of his being invited to these all-star games. We’re hoping for the best.’’