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By John Bennett – Shore Sports Network contributor

Asbury Park is adjusting to its third new head coach in three years, but the players have found the transition to new coach Bill Hill to be a smooth one at a program that has won four state titles in the last seven years.

“We got the chance to get to know him during off-season workouts and in the weightroom,” said junior wide receiver Jaedon Stephens. “From day one he expected us to be discipline, work hard and always pay attention to detail.”

Bill Hill takes over as head coach at Asbury Park, where he previously was an assistant with the Blue Bishops in the 1990s. (Photo by John Bennett)

“It’s definitely been a great learning experience since he’s been out here,” said senior quarterback Sal Swain. “If I have any doubts with anything I just listen to him and take heed to everything he says.”

Hill was an assistant with Freehold Boro last year after previously serving as the head coach at Toms River South. Now he returns to a familiar place where he roamed the sidelines in the 1990s. He takes over for Keith Killea, who stepped down after leading Asbury Park to a seven-win season and a trip to the Central Jersey Group I semifinals.

“I coached here in the past,” said Hill. “This is my third go-round here in Asbury Park, and I’ve always enjoyed coaching here.”

The move back to Asbury Park has been a comfortable one for Hill, and he credits that to the fact that his staff will be made up of a group of veteran coaches who’ve been working with the players over the last several years.

“All the coaches are in place so it’s been an easy transition,” Hill said. “The coaches know all the guys on the team and everyone is on the same page.”

Hill inherits an offense with five returning starters that will be led by Swain, a first-year starter at quarterback. Swain replaces three-year starter Robert Barksdale, who now plays for Delaware Valley College.

Senior Sal Swain (at left) takes over at quarterback for Asbury Park following the graduation of three-year starter Robert Barksdale. (Photo by John Bennett)

“It’s been a lot of pressure, and I have to continue putting in plenty of work to fill his shoes,” said Swain.

Up to this point, Hill has been very impressed with Swain’s development as the signal-caller.

“Sal is very smart and he’s picking up things really fast,” Hill said. “He wants to learn. He wants to get better and works hard every minute on the field.”

Swain will have some experienced offensive weapons at his disposal, which will help take some of the pressure off of him as he settles into his new role. Returning in the backfield will be senior starter TyQuis Davis, who rushed for 381 yards on 47 carries, scoring five touchdowns on the ground a year ago. Also returning to carry the ball will be junior fullback Charles Sanders, who saw plenty of time last season, rushing 35 times for 289 yards and three touchdowns.

On the outside, Stephens returns for his third season as a starter at wide receiver. Last year Stephens pulled down a team-high 24 catches for 396 yards and three touchdowns.

Junior Jaedon Stephens returns as one of the Shore Conference's top wideouts in his third season as a starter. (Photo by John Bennett)

Hill believes that having those three key weapons along with more depth at the skill positions will be a team strength. It’s in the trenches on the offensive line that Hill feels the team needs to be strong in order to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Class B Central powers  Point Beach and defending division champion Shore Regional.

“I always feel that tackle-to-tackle play is the main thing you need in order to control the line of scrimmage and be successful on offense,” Hill said.

Up front, the Blue Bishops return two senior starters, left tackle Josue Williams and right tackle Imani Stephenson. Rounding out the rest of the starting offensive line will be senior center Keshawn Samuels, sophomore left guard Calvin Simmons-Carter and junior right guard Keith White.

A standout defense was a major reason why last year’s team was able to keep games close in their two losses to Shore Regional and one loss to Point Beach. The Blue Bishops return five players from a unit that gave up an average of 9 points per game last year.

Of those five returners, Davis is the one who made the most impact. He finished the season second in the Shore Conference in sacks with 15 from his outside linebacker position.

“Our defense will continue to put pressure on teams from every angle on the field,” said Davis. “Having a new quarterback running our offense this year, it is important to get our defense off the field with stops as fast as possible so that our offense can have more opportunities to score.”

The Blue Bishops will play with multiple fronts on defense in an attempt to keep opposing teams off balance. The philosophy of playing fast and swarming to the ball will stay the same.

The linebacking corps also returns another starter in senior weakside linebacker Devon Moore, who registered 47 tackles, 6 sacks and 2 forced fumbles last year. The biggest question mark will be who replaces third-team All-Shore middle linebacker William Wells. The two inside linebacker spots are still being settled. Sanders, White and promising sophomore Cishium Simmons will all see time. Simmons also has the ability to play on the outside.

“The new guys have been doing a good job reading, reacting and flying to the ball,” said Moore. “We know it’s going to be hard losing Wells but these guys are gaining the team and coach’s confidence very fast.”

The defensive line only has one player, Williams, who saw significant time with the Blue Bishops a year ago. Simmons-Carter and junior Jamarri Harbison, a transfer from Ewing, have been doing an excellent job this preseason along with Stephenson and Samuels. All four are expected to rotate during the course of games to keep fresh legs throughout all four quarters.

In the secondary, two returning starters will lead the way. Senior cornerback Karon Rigby and Stephens at strong safety have both been leading by example to help the progression of a pair of newcomers, senior cornerback Marcellus Booze and junior free safety TyQuere Davis.

Senior leadership will be a key factor as the Blue Bishops attempt to add their seventh state championship flag to Asbury Park Stadium. They have to fill the leadership void left by Daquane Bland-Bennett, who now plays slot receiver and return specialist at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Given his talent and experience, Davis is looking to step up and take over that role.

“I will miss playing with my bro Daquane,” said Davis. “We both started playing together as Mitey Mites, and I always knew this day was going to come when he would leave me. I look forward to embracing that same leadership role and making sure that our squad comes out on top this year.”

 

Head coach: Bill Hill, 1st season (4th overall)

Career record: 0-0 (7-23 overall)

Assistant coaches:  Rob Ward (OL/DL); Tim Fosque (OL/DL); Matt Ardizzone (WR/DB); Tron Goldfarb (QB/LB); Syron Davis (RB/DB); Leroy Hayes (WR/LB); Barry Baity (RB/DB); Nancy Saphow (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 7-4 (3-2)

Big Shoes To Fill: Sal Swain, Sr., QB

For the past three seasons the offense was engineered by quarterback Robert Barksdale, who led the Blue Bishops to a state title as a sophomore and then a pair of consecutive playoff semifinal appearances in his last two seasons. Swain is certainly up for the challenge and has shown great leadership traits in the preseason.

Impact Newcomer:  Trevor Saunders, Jr., RB/CB

Saunders saw action late in games last year and showed flashes of what he can do as a change-of-pace back to Davis and Sanders. Saunders also has the ability to give the Blue Bishops a threat as a return specialist.

X-Factor: Offensive Line

It all starts up front with the five guys who don’t get the glory. In order for Asbury Park to regain its position atop B Central and Central Jersey Group I, the offensive line has to be able to open holes for their ground attack and protect its first-year starting quarterback.

Glue Guy: TyQuis Davis, Sr., RB/OLB

Davis has been seeing time on both sides of the ball since his sophomore year. This offseason he put on more muscle and improved his speed to become a major weapon out of the backfield. He also looks to better his mark of 15 sacks last season.

Pivotal Game:  Sept. 12 vs Pt. Beach

If the Blue Bishops can get a win over the defending Central Jersey Group I champion Garnet Gulls at home on opening night, they will be sending an early statement to the rest of the B Central division that they will be serious threats to regain the crown.