Cognition meets connection, carrying Southmoreland offense to new heights

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019 | 8:36 PM


Receiver Riley Comforti knows how the route is supposed to be run.

Quarterback Zach Cernuto understands where the football should be thrown.

When the two converge, when cognition meets connection, it’s pure, big-play magic for Southmoreland.

“The more reps they get, the better they are,” Southmoreland football coach Dave Keefer said of his pass-and-catch combination. “They are both very intelligent kids, and that goes a long way. They understand each other. Our team is leaps and bounds better than it was last year, and so are Zach and Riley.”

An uptempo offense predicated on timing saw the Scotties roll up 33.2 points per game last season.

A 6-foot, 175-pound junior, Cernuto threw for a school-record 1,909 yards and 19 touchdowns with Comforti (6-3, 185) pulling in 47 receptions for 714 yards and six scores.

The pair was a chore to defend.

“I know if I throw it to a spot around Riley, he’ll get it,” Cernuto said.

Comforti, a senior, can make athletic, leaping grabs, even against double teams.

“I have to be there when I’m supposed to,” Comforti said. “He gets rid of it in a split-second. I turn around on a curl (route) or something and the ball is right there in my face.”

Comforti said he and Cernuto both were quarterbacks in middle school. Comforti ran the ball on almost every down with Cernuto out wide. While that passing combo never took shape, the reversal of it did.

“It didn’t take us long to get chemistry,” Cernuto said. “We’ve known each other for a while.”

A quick release could be Cernuto’s top attribute. But given time, he can spread the wealth.

“Zach has all of the physical tools,” Keefer said. “He isn’t real tall, but he is a strong kid. He knows when to put something on it and when to put touch on it.”

Cernuto isn’t all about breaking records or padding numbers. He wants to be the quarterback who breaks the curse.

Southmoreland showed improvements last year when it went 4-6 and averaged 33.2 points (it scored 72 in one game), but missed the WPIAL playoffs for the 39th straight season.

“That’s always the goal,” Cernuto said. “We hear it all the time from other teams: They’re not expecting a game from you. Southmoreland is an automatic win. We want to change that.”

Comforti can be a deep threat or an over-the-middle target. He finished last season three catches shy of the school single-season record of 50 held by Connor McKlveen.

“Riley not only is one of the best athletes on the team,” Keefer said. “But he also is one of the hardest workers.”

Senior Brandon Petersen (6-4, 205) is another big target. He had 25 catches last season.

“We have a lot of other guys who can make plays,” Cernuto said. “It’s not going to be all Riley.”

Cernuto is well ahead of pace to break the school’s career passing record of 3,174 yards set by Dakota Datz.

The big numbers are nice and can light up the big board at Russ Grimm Field, but the key for the Scotties is to somehow cross-pollinate the momentum from that fast-track offense with a defense that can disarm opponents.

“We need to put in the work on defense,” Cernuto said. “We know what to expect from our offense. We just want to keep getting better each year.”

Comforti and Cernuto could be just as valuable on defense as they are on offense. That’s a big ask but could be the reality of the situation.

The Scotties allowed 33.5 points a game. The Class 2A Interstate Conference had five teams score 30 or more points — three put up 40 or more — but seven of the eight teams gave up 20 or more a night.

“Our focus is to stop people, yes,” Keefer said. “But last year in our conference I don’t think anybody stopped anybody. That was the culture; it was all offense.”

Cernuto played limited downs on defense last year but is expected to start on that side of the ball, as an outside linebacker/strong safety. “It’s frustrating to not stop teams but we understand it’s part of the process.”

Comforti said a change in the team’s defensive mentality depends on its willingness to get tougher.

“It’s about aggression,” he said. “We tackled horribly last year. That was our falling point, and we have to get better there.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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