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With a solid group of returners and a talented sophomore class ready to contribute, Wall is eager to get started on a bright future under new head coach Dan Curcione.

While Curcione took over as the head coach this summer, the team’s adjustment period mainly occurred last year, when Curcione arrived as the defensive coordinator. He switched the team from its longtime 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 he employed to success previously as the defensive coordinator at Toms River North, and the Crimson Knights responded by holding opponents to 14.6 points per game during a three-win season.

New Wall head coach Dan Curcione (at left) will be counting on seniors like RB/LB Rich Eknoian to help the program get back to its winning ways. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“It definitely helps to know all the personnel now,’’ Curcione said. “Coming in new last year was a challenge, not knowing anybody, especially because they were a 4-3 team for 100 years before I came in, so that definitely has been an easier process.”

After revamping the defense last season, Wall will now do the same with the offense under new coordinator Mike Cerminaro. After graduating their leading passer, rusher and receivers, the Crimson Knights are starting fresh by switching from the multiple-I attack they have used for years to the spread offense in order to take advantage of the athleticism of junior quarterback Matt Cluley. He is the younger brother of former Wall star signal-caller Steve Cluley, who is now playing at William & Mary, and hopes to boost an offense that was Wall’s Achilles’ heel in big games in averaging 13.6 points per game.

“I’m excited because it suits my kind of playing style as far as a being a dual threat,’’ Cluley said. “It puts me in a good position to make plays. This offense is a lot more on the quarterback making decisions and reading the defense.”

“There’s more emphasis on the run game and blocking downfield,’’ said senior two-way lineman Jim Onulak. “We definitely have to establish the running game because that will open up a lot of things. Last year we were more of a passing team, but now we’re looking to dominate on the ground and put up more points. (Cluley) is very versatile, and he’s going to be able to move the ball.”

The tailbacks will be senior Rich Eknoian, who started on defense last year, and senior Steven Poss. At fullback will be 230-pound senior Tim McGevna, and senior Paul Calamaras returns as a starter at tight end, where senior Cole Cadigan will also see time.

The wide receiving corps is all new but full of potential once everyone gets healthy. Six-foot-2 senior Liam Ferguson and 6-foot-2 junior Bobby Fletcher are a pair of big targets, and sophomores R.J. Janeczek and Sean Larkin both have great speed to stretch the field vertically. Janeczek was diagnosed with a heart ailment during a physical and has to be cleared by his cardiologist to play, according to Curcione, while Larkin is out with a broken collarbone.

“There’s definitely a lot of speed in that young group, and I’m looking forward to getting those two out there,’’ Cluley said.

Janeczek and Larkin are two of several sophomores expected to see significant minutes this fall.

“The first thing we told the sophomores was that every job was open,’’ Curcione said. “We’re really stressing competition.”

The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Onulak is the only returning starter on the offensive line, where he will be at one of the guard spots. Junior Keegan Nesbitt, who saw time last year, steps in at center, and fellow junior Mike Yard will be the other guard after also seeing some minutes last year. Senior Conor Lyden and sophomore Darryl Valme will be the tackles, with 280-pound senior James Clayton also in the offensive line rotation. Junior Nick Maciejewski has come over from the soccer team and will handle the placekicking and punting.

“We were a possession or two from winning five or six ballgames last year, so if we can create some more offense, we should be right there,’’ Curcione said.

Defensively, the Crimson Knights are now in their second year of the 3-4 under Curcione and have to replace their top two leading tacklers. Onulak is a returning starter at noseguard, where Valme will also see time. Yard and Lyden are the defensive ends, with sophomore Mike Andrejco also in the rotation at that spot.

“Now I can add more pass rushes to what I’m doing because I’m more comfortable,’’ Onulak said about leading the group up front.

McGevna is a returning starter at inside linebacker, and the other inside linebacker spot is being contested between sophomores Chad McClelland and Kyle Dallicardillo and junior Ryan Nickerson. Cadigan will start at outside linebacker, and Eknoian moves to the other outside linebacker spot after starting at inside linebacker last year. Calamaras also will add depth to the outside linebacker group.

Senior Cole Cadigan (#58) will start at outside linebacker and also will play tight end for the Crimson Knights this season. (Photo by Scott Stump)

“(There is) a lot of blitzing (at outside linebacker), so it’s going to be fun,’’ Eknoian said.

“Our linebackers I expect to be better, and we have some young guys expected to step up,’’ Curcione said.

Ferguson will start at free safety after seeing time last year, and senior newcomer Jake VanBrunt will be at strong safety and has looked like a playmaker in the preseason, according to Curcione. Cluley will also play cornerback, and senior Nick Kakascik will be the other corner, with Poss, Janeczek and senior Nick Iezzi also expected to see time there.

The Crimson Knights started 3-0 last year before dropping seven straight, and they have to start this season with a Week Zero game against the Shore Conference’s No. 1 team, Red Bank Catholic, which has won 33 in a row against Shore competition. That begins a challenging Class B North schedule, and the overall goal is to restore Wall as one of the top 10 teams in the Shore, a spot it has enjoyed frequently in the past decade.

“That’s the goal because not too long ago we were definitely up there as one of the solid programs in the Shore, and we’ve got to get back to there,’’ Cluley said. “We had a little lull, and the ultimate goal is to start putting together some winning seasons again.”

“Wall is known for having a tough, hard-nosed team, and we want to get back on the map,’’ Onulak said.

 

Head coach: Dan Curcione, first season

Career record: 0-0

Assistant coaches: Mike Cerminaro (off. coord./QB); Joe Trezza (DB); Tim Heaney (DL); Bill Pietsch (OL); Bill Carasia (LB); Matt Kukoda (DB); Bob Grace (RB); Matt Santoro (RB); Fred Sprengel (WR); Jim Rochford, Todd Schmitt (freshman); Mike Eberhardt (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 3-7 (2-4)

Big Shoes to Fill: Mike Yard, Jr., DE

Yard steps in at defensive end for graduated standout Geoff Horwitz, an All-Division talent who led the team in tackles while playing up front and was one of the Shore’s more underrated defensive linemen. Yard, noseguard Jim Onulak and fellow defensive end Conor Lyden will have to try to replace Horwitz’s production.

X-Factor: The offense.

Wall’s defense kept it right in games into the fourth quarter against quality, playoff-caliber opponents last year, but the offense often struggled to get that crucial first down or fourth-quarter touchdown to finish the job. They are hoping that changes with Matt Cluley running the show in the new spread attack this year.

Glue Guy: Rich Eknoian, Sr., RB/LB

Eknoian returns to help anchor the linebacking group and also will be one of the primary running backs this season, so he has to have a big senior year to help add some more victories to the win column.

Impact Newcomer: R.J. Janeczek, So., WR/DB

The latest in a family that has produced several top athletes in football and basketball at Wall, Janeczek has game-changing speed at wideout and also should see time in the secondary once he gets cleared by doctors to play after having a heart ailment diagnosed.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 12 at Red Bank Regional

After facing a juggernaut Red Bank Catholic squad in the opener, this one will be crucial for Wall’s confidence going forward to help turn the tide. The Crimson Knights will most likely have lost eight in a row dating back to last season by this point, so this is a good opportunity to get the momentum turned back in the other direction and make a push toward a second straight playoff berth. This is Red Bank’s season opener and the Bucs are coming off a one-win season eager to show they have improved, so the Crimson Knights should have a fight on their hands.