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ISL/PREP FOOTBALL PREVIEW

More and more, big-time colleges look to ISL for football talent

Tony Muse (right) in a game vs. Phillips Andover.
Tony Muse (right) in a game vs. Phillips Andover.(Jon Chase/Lawrence Academy)

On Saturday, many of the top football recruits in New England will take the field for the first games of the Independent School League season and the rest of the programs in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council.

A number of these players received offers from Division 1 colleges when they were only freshmen.

Some have been angling to play college football since they put on pads for the first time and even hope to earn a crack at a professional career, while others, such as Lawrence Academy’s Tony Muse, have been suddenly swept into the whirlwind of early recruiting.

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A running back from New Haven, Muse transferred to Lawrence Academy last year after a standout freshman year at West Haven High. At first, the 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pounder was blown away by the scale of ISL competition.

“I was coming from a league where some linemen were like, 5-9, 190,” Muse recalled. “Seeing the size of the lineman [at Lawrence], I didn’t think I’d be able to compete. I thought I’d be third string. But I gave it my all and decided that whatever happens will happen.”

Not only did Muse win the starting job, he carried Lawrence Academy to an undefeated season with 19 touchdowns and more than 1,500 rushing yards as a reclassified freshman, capping his breakout year with a 373-yard, six-touchdown performance in the NEPSAC Kevin Fleming Bowl last November.

“Some kids get overwhelmed early on,” said former Lawrence Academy coach Paul Zukuaskas. “We had maybe five freshmen play in my seven years as head coach, but [Muse] was the most ready.”

Soon after the season, Muse received a scholarship offer from Michigan.

Unlike many of the top recruits in the ISL, the 17-year-old Muse never expected to play college football. He never participated in any camps, played travel football, or tried out other sports, sticking to the Connecticut Pop Warner leagues.

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Yet through his hard work, he has garnered heavy interest from a number of FBS programs, including Boston College, which currently features eight Lawrence Academy graduates on the roster, including reigning ACC Rookie of the Year AJ Dillon.

A few days before the ISL season began, Milton Academy juniors Kalel Mullings and Mitch Gonser observed a practice at BC and saw the local players.

Mullings, a star linebacker and running back from West Roxbury, is the No. 8 prospect at outside linebacker, according to the national ESPN300 recruiting board. He was offered by Michigan and BC as a 13-year-old freshman but declined to verbally commit.

Kalel Mullings is among the many Eastern Mass. prep players fielding offers from major football colleges.
Kalel Mullings is among the many Eastern Mass. prep players fielding offers from major football colleges.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

“When I was kid, you see the guys that play on Saturdays and Sundays and they’re like gods,” said Mullings. “Getting offered makes you realize you’re one step closer. It’s something you dream about your entire life. I just want to make the best decision for me.”

Milton Academy hosts St. Sebastian’s and Lawrence Academy visits Buckingham Browne & Nichols in a pair of notable opening-day matchups Saturday.

The 6-2, 215-pound Mullings is eager to get back on the field after missing most of last season with a dislocated shoulder. He’ll join Gonser (Medfield transfer), safety Zach Brooks (from Bishop Hendriken, R.I.), former Everett quarterback Jake Willcox, and returning captain Eddie Duggan to help Milton Academy contend for a league title.

Kevin MacDonald, who is entering his 23rd season as Milton Academy’s coach, has seen the ISL transition to more of a recruitment-based league.

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“Years ago we were just like any other high school league,” MacDonald said. “Now there are very few players that just come through the system. They’re sought out and recruited. Everybody’s in the same boat, and in order to stay competitive, you have to keep up.”

Mullings, however, was not recruited. He said that his mother, a Cornell graduate, planned for him to attend Milton Academy since before he was born, and helped him enroll in sixth grade. Throughout middle school, Mullings attended national football camps and played in events held by Football University, which holds training camps and showcase events.

“The ISL is kind of a family in general,” Mullings said. “As soon as that first game hits, we hate each other, but after that last game it’s all love. Anything we can do to help each other and get to the next level.

“Each guy getting offered helps the situation for all the guys in the ISL.”

Milton Academy’s Mitch Gonser.
Milton Academy’s Mitch Gonser.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

On the Cambridge campus of BB&N, sixth-year coach Mike Willey has a loaded offensive line to try to improve on last year’s second-place finish in the ISL.

Senior right guard Zak Zinter of North Andover was recently offered by Ohio State. Junior left guard Andrew Nee (Walpole), left tackle Danny Matos (Allston), and center Isaac Ayyud (Stoneham) also have garnered significant interest from colleges, and tight end Tommy Maloney has verbally committed to Brown.

After leading BB&N in tackles as an eighth-grader last season, Acton’s Tyler Martin also received an offer from Michigan this past spring.

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The 15-year-old linebacker could have verbally committed before signing a letter-of-intent his senior year, but for now he’s focused on his high school career.

“It opened a lot of other doors for me,” said Martin. “But when BB&N football starts up, I put that stuff to the side, and it’s not a distraction for me or the other players.”

Martin first turned heads at FBU tournaments in sixth and seventh grade. By the time he transferred to BB&N for his eighth-grade year, he stood 6-3 and weighed 227.

Willey welcomed Martin onto the varsity team and will help guide the freshman through the recruiting process.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve had a few of those guys come through our system and we kind of have a playbook on how to handle the recruiting now,” said Willey. “We help student-athletes balance their academic and athletic performance with the noise that can come from the outside.”

According to MacDonald, the FBU circuit has become a staging ground for recruitment, allowing private school coaches to identify the best players in the state.

With high-profile prospects all over the ISL, including Bryce Gallagher and Alex Cherry at St. Sebastian’s, Cam Large at Nobles, and Shane Rockett at Belmont Hill, recruitment has become something of a game within the game.

“It’s fun seeing these kids turn into these big-time athletes so early,” Muse said. “Every week you have a competition: This kid got offered from here, this kid from here. It’s like a game out there. I love the league I’m in. It’s changed my life.”

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Milton Academy’s Kalel Mullings (left) and Jake Willcox.
Milton Academy’s Kalel Mullings (left) and Jake Willcox.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Nate Weitzer can be reached at nweitzer7@gmail.com.