2014 Keport Football Preview: Red Raider Rebirth
The Keyport coaching position in 2014 entails both replacing a Shore Conference legend while coaching a team that returned eight players with varsity experience and three seniors in the entire program.
New head coach John Paczkowski considers both of those conditions more side notes than obstacles as he takes on his long-awaited first head coaching job. While the wait was longer than he would have liked, it was one that landed him at a program he believes in.
“This is a special program,” said Paczkowski, the successor to 36-year Keyport head coach Mike Ciccotelli, who retired in April after 231 wins and six NJSIAA titles. “It’s special because Keyport and Union Beach produces a special kind of kid. The kids here have a blue-collar, bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work mentality and that’s a source of pride for the people here. Football is part of that."
Paczkowski takes over after spending the previous two years coaching the defensive line for Ciccotelli. During his playing days, he was a defensive lineman at The College of New Jersey before spending time as a high school assistant, as well as a stint as a graduate assistant at the University of Maryland under former Terrapins coach and current Rutgers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
“I’ve been coaching for a while now and ultimately I wanted to get a head coaching job, but I wanted to make sure I took the right job,” Paczkowski said. “This is the right job.”
Under its new coach, Keyport will look different this year in more ways than one. In addition to featuring a new quarterback and a roster with only three seniors, the Red Raiders will move away from the traditional Delaware Wing-T offense to a multiple offense. Paczkowski said the team will operate out of a base 4-3 defense after being more of a 4-4 team in past years, but will also use multiple looks.
On offense, Keyport will turn to junior Desmond Underwood at quarterback with standout Alex Thomson having graduated in the spring. Thomson threw for nearly 1,000 yards, accounted for 17 touchdowns and set 11 school records, leaving Underwood with some big shoes to fill after he rushed for 310 yards as a running back last year.
Senior wide receiver Chase Bright will be a top weapon for Underwood and the offense, as he is the lone senior starter back from last year. Bright is also the team’s fastest and strongest player, according to Paczkowski, and his athleticism has earned him some looks from both Temple University and Wagner College.
Although he is slated to line up out wide more this year, Paczkowski said they will look to get him the ball in a number of different ways, especially considering he rushed for 544 yards and three touchdowns on 94 carries last year. Bright also caught eight balls for 203 yards and a touchdown last year.
“I was surprised to see the schools that were interested in me. It just kind of came out of nowhere,” Bright said. “All of a sudden, I’d be going to camps and coaches knew my name already.
“It’s definitely motivated me to work even harder, especially being a senior on this team. I have a great opportunity and so do a lot of these other guys out here, and I want to make sure I do everything in my power to make sure we get the most out of this year.”
The Red Raiders' offense will also benefit from returning leading rusher and junior running back Ky’Sun Pryor, who rushed for 596 yards and five touchdowns on 105 carries.
With Pryor, Bright and Underwood, the Keyport offense has three skill players with experience back to spearhead the offensive attack. Paczkowski has also been pleased with senior Dan Williams, who will play both tight end and linebacker in his first varsity season while also adding some senior leadership to a young team.
“On and off the field, this team is like a family,” Williams said. “We’re always together and we’re always on the same page at practice, and I think that’s more important than how many seniors we have.”
The line on either side of the ball will be comprised completely of players who will be back next year, led by returning two-way junior lineman Evan Smutz. Junior Devon Keegan has also emerged as one of the Red Raiders’ top linemen on both sides of the ball and the group as a whole is already taking on the attitude of its head coach, the former defensive lineman.
“I like coach (Paczkowski) because I’m a lineman through and through and that’s the same thing he is,” Keegan said. “He definitely has that defensive mentality and that’s rubbed off on the linemen the last couple years, and I think it’ rubbing off on everybody now that he’s the head coach.”
Bright and Pryor will both be key cogs in the defense as well, with Bright leading the secondary at safety and Pryor manning the middle linebacker spot. Junior Travis Alvarez, a 6-foot-7 defensive end and tight end, gives the Red Raiders some further intrigue on either side of the ball as well.
Regardless of how Keyport performs on the field, this season will be a transitional one for the Red Raiders. There has been one name and one voice associated with the Keyport program for the better part of three decades and Paczkowski and his players will look to continue to pick up where Ciccotelli left off while providing their own imprint.
“You learn a little bit from every coach and every program you’re around, and I certainly took a lot from what (Ciccotelli) did,” Paczkowski said. “I think the thing coach Ciccotelli leaves behind is a culture and an attitude and just an overall pride for the way things are done on the field and in the classroom. We’re going to do our own thing on the field and we’re going to play a little differently, but that pride and that culture of being hard workers and good citizens in the school and in the community is the legacy we want to continue.”
Head Coach: John Paczkowski, first season
Career Record: 0-0
Assistant Coaches: Micah Bender (OL/DL); Dominick Amoroso (RB/DL); Steve Bower (WR/Secondary); Dean Athans (WR/Secondary); Pete Miller (QB/Secondary)
2013 Record: 5-5 (2-3)
Big Shoes to Fill: Des Underwood, Jr., QB
Underwood is not new to the starting lineup, but he will be new to the quarterback position as he looks to fill the shoes of standout quarterback Alex Thomson, who accounted for 17 touchdowns last year and set 11 school records. Underwood rushed for 310 yards on 66 carries last year and did attempt three passes so he is used to having the ball in his hands.
X-Factor: The junior class
Keyport has only three seniors on its roster, so for the Red Raiders to stay competitive in Class B Central, they will need the underclassmen from last year to grow up quickly and play like seasoned veterans.
Glue Guy: Evan Smutz, Jr., OL/LB
A returning starter on the line, Smutz has stepped up as a junior leader on a team that has only three seniors on the roster.
Impact Newcomer: Dan Williams, Sr., TE/LB
Williams is one of the three seniors on the team and he did not play on the varsity team last year. Despite that, Williams has embraced his place as a senior on a young roster and has also showed he is ready to be a factor on both sides of the ball now that he is finally getting his shot.
Pivotal Game: Oct. 4 vs. Mater Dei Prep
With games against Class B Central favorites Shore and Point Beach accounting for two of the first three games and another against a solid South River team, Keyport could be looking at a must-win game against an upstart Mater Dei Prep team in the fourth game of the season.