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January 4, 2011

Eagles ends form deadly pass-rushing duo

Penn Charter (Pa.) quarterback John Lougherty literally had no time. As soon as he dropped back to pass, a 6-foot-6 quarterback-eating giant from McDonogh High in Owings Mills was nearly on top of him. Panic-stricken, Lougherty pulled the ball down and hightailed it to his left.

Bad move. Coming off the opposite edge was another orange-clad monster, this one a 6-4, 260-pound bull intent on snapping the tiny signal caller like a flimsy string bean.


At that moment, Lougherty undoubtedly experienced one of those sinking feelings you get when you know the ugly outcome but are unable to prevent it. So he covered up the ball and waited for impact.

The 6-6 giant got to him first, ripping the defenseless quarterback like a dog with a rag doll.

"I got the sack, but it was a combined effort," said McDonogh junior Allen Jackson, who teams with classmate Roman Braglio to form one of the deadliest returning defensive end tandems in Maryland. "We were just making plays all game. There were so many moments like that throughout the year where we both broke down the play and contributed to each other's success."

Jackson (6-6, 240) and Braglio (6-4, 260) are the high school version of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Starters since their sophomore years, they are two-time all-MIAA selections and surefire Division-I prospects (both have an early offer from Maryland). Jackson and Braglio combined for 140 tackles and 19 sacks in a conference widely considered to be the most difficult in Maryland.

"We were able to set the edge and get to the quarterback all year," Braglio said. "We worked hard all summer on our hand motions, shedding blocks, driving off the ball, and lifting so we could do our thing this year. We controlled the tempo."

There is a strong argument that the defensive end is the most valuable player on the field other than the quarterback. When a team has a dominant end, the rest of the defense feeds off of him.

In run defense, an effective edge rusher can keep outside contain by funneling tailbacks to the middle and allowing those big tackles and charging linebackers to stuff him. In passing situations, a solid end can break down an offensive lineman and force a quarterback into hurried decisions, resulting in more interceptions for the secondary.

Now, imagine there are two defensive ends like this on the same team.

"They're a load to handle, that's for sure," said McDonough coach Dom Damico. "Roman and Allen brought pressure pretty much every down last year; not many people could block them one-on-one. We won six of our first seven games last year with our defensive front. Most teams just didn't have a lot of time to pass. Roman and Allen made our whole defense look better."

Granted, McDonogh's defense wasn't exactly lights out in 2010; they gave up 20 points per game. But most of that came in two dud performances against Loyola and Gilman. For the most part, however, Braglio and Jackson helped the Eagles hold teams to two touchdowns or less in half their games.

On their most effective nights, the duo practically lived in opposing backfields. They each had at least one sack in all but four games last season. Penn Charter felt their wrath, for sure, but so did Landon, Loyola, Gonzaga, Woodberry Forest and Haverford.

As Jackson's and Braglio's stat-line ratcheted up, they began competing against one another, two warriors unwilling to let the other reign supreme.

"It became a game between us," Jackson said. "We always wanted to one-up each other and push each other, whether that was turnovers, sacks, hurries, tackles for loss -- everything."

For the record, Jackson finished with 83 tackles and nine sacks, while Braglio had 67 tackles and 10 sacks.

"I got him with the tackles," Jackson said, "but it is always nice to have 10 sacks. Don't worry, I'll get him next year."

But just because they compete doesn't mean they don't admire one another's talents. In fact, both are quicker to compliment each other rather then laud their own games.


"Allen is terrific; he can play inside and outside, and he's so long he pretty much towers over the offensive line," Braglio said. "He's so fast and strong off the ball he can beat his man at will."

Jackson was just as effusive in his praise.

"Roman has unbelievable desire; he flat-out outworks you," Jackson said. "His main goal is to sack the quarterback, and he'll do anything to get there."

Although their numbers are fairly similar, Braglio and Jackson are completely different players. The former is a ferocious beast, a wrestler who uses his strength and leverage to overpower linemen. The latter is a technician, a finesse player who takes advantage of his long arms and cat-quick first step to get around tackles.

"You can tell they're different players almost instantly," Damico said. "Allen is real tall and rangy and he just has an incredible motor. He plays with his hands well; he gets good push off the line and he creates separation.

"Roman is a different animal," Damico continued. "He wants to bite your head off; he's a real in-your-face type of guy. He has awesome strength and toughness. He's a grinder with 4.6 [40-yard dash] speed who will not give in."

The differences don't stop there. Braglio doubles as an offensive lineman whose stout, sturdy frame allows him to battle down in the trenches 120 snaps a game. He's a vocal presence who can rally his team in the huddle one moment and mix it up with an opposing lineman the next.

Jackson, on the other hand, lines up as a pass-catching tight end, where his height and dictionary-sized hands make him the perfect target for McDonough quarterback Joel Jorgensen. Unlike Braglio, he's a quieter kid, preferring to let his actions do the talking.

Differences aside, both are equally effective, especially on defense. When they're playing end, the tandem turns into ruthless bounty hunters -- with the quarterback in the crosshairs.

"We get it done," Braglio said. "When it's game time, we flip a switch and play with a mean-streak. We've got a job to do."

They're similar in one other respect, too: Desire to win. Sack totals pale in comparison to walking away with a victory. Both would gladly surrender all of their individual accomplishments for a shot at an MIAA championship.

McDonough finished just 1-4 in the conference last year, but with a pair of Division-I defensive ends anchoring a senior-laden squad, the Eagles believe they have a legitimate shot to challenge for a title in 2011.

"We're aiming high," Jackson said. "When we leave school, we want to say we were the best - that we restored McDonogh to greatness."


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