2015 Lakewood Football Preview: Doing It The Right Way
As he continues to build a solid foundation at Lakewood in his fifth season, head coach L.J. Clark has been stressing doing things right away from the field as much as on it.
During the preseason, he piled the entire team into a couple cars and brought them to his father’s house for a pool and pizza party as he tries to build cohesion among a talented group.
“My kids come from unstructured environments and for some, football is their only structure,’’ Clark said. “We are trying to show them that doing the right thing in everything they do will help things work out. We are not preaching wins and losses, but we are saying that that will come with hard work.”
Clark is looking for his team to take the next step this year. The Piners have made the playoffs the last three years, including their first state playoff win since 1986 in 2013. This year they have their sights set on a state playoff home game and playing that 12th game for a state championship, but first their concentration is on winning Class B South. They hope to kick off that campaign with some excitement as they will play their first night game in history on Sept. 19 when they bring out temporary lights for their divisional showdown against Pinelands.
Lakewood returns a large number of talented players, mostly from their offensive and defensive lines. Senior two-way lineman Elijah Gill (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) leads the way up front, while senior running back/safety Amir Tyler is one of the Shore’s top returning players.
Tyler has offers from Syracuse, Temple, Pittsburgh and multiple FCS schools after rushing for 816 yards on 125 carries as a junior. He looks to step in and shoulder the load that Temple recruit Chappelle Cook handled for the last two years. Tyler is a three-year starter who will be counted on to be a leader as much as a playmaker
“I am trying to give the underclassmen the same thing that the seniors gave me when I was younger, and that is doing it the right way,’’ Tyler said.
The offense will have a new face calling the plays this year. Len Zdanowicz, last year’s offensive coordinator, is now the head coach at Brick. Stepping in for him will be Wall alumnus Evan Baubles, who will also coach the offensive line.
The Piners will run continue to run the shotgun Wing-T that began six years ago under the legendary Warren Wolf, who came to Lakewood after 51 Hall of Fame seasons at Brick.
“We are still teaching Coach Wolf’s Wing-T offense, but we went to some clinics and put some things in that fit our kids,’’ Clark said. “You don’t invent anything new in football. You just mimic what others do.”
Replacing Cook at quarterback will be sophomore Zyhier Jones, who comes up from the junior varsity. The plan is to bring him along slowly and not put too much on his plate too early with Tyler in the backfield.
“He will be a very special player and everyone will know him by the time he graduates,” Clark said.
Taylor will be at halfback and next to him will be senior Sheldon Cobbs, who is another threat capable of burning defenses that are geared up to stop Tyler. Senior Kemar Chambers and Ja’Shaun Fisher are also pushing for some snaps at halfback and fullback. Returning at split end is junior Adi Plamer, who had a strong offseason and showed playmaking ability in the team’s 7-on-7 tournaments. Senior Captain Jaquel Hunter, a three-year starter, returns at wingback, with Chambers and Fisher moving outside in certain sets.
The offensive and defensive lines return six starters, led by Gill, a Division I prospect coming in from a strong offseason. Playing alongside him is 6-foot-1, 250-pound sophomore Josh Lezin, who played varsity as a freshman. Freshman Tye Pierce steps in as the new starting center, and senior Ryzson Barnes, sophomore John Paul Rodriquez and junior Isiah Francis are fighting for the guard and tackle spots on the left side.
The Piners will line up in a 3-4 defense, where they return six starters. Just like on offense, they will be led by their captains, with Tyler at free safety and Gill at defensive tackle. Isiah Calhoun, Daquan Butler, Archie Jackson and Fisher are all fighting for minutes at the two inside linebacker spots. Adi Palmer returns at outside linebacker, along with senior Dimitri Toombs, who is returning from a torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season
The corner positions will be a rotation of Jakin Tunes, Honore Richardson and Elijah Miller. The defensive line returns Lezin, Gill and Barnes and looks to be a strength. Lakewood, which routinely went for two last season, looks to have found a placekicker in Richardson, with Palmer or Tyler handling the punting.
The goal now is to make the leap from a playoff qualifier to a state championship contender while also making a run at their first division title since 2000.
“We lost two Division I football players, but we are ready to move on,’’ Clark said. “We have limited numbers, but the ones we have are working hard and trying to do things the right way – the Lakewood way.”
Head coach: L.J. Clark, 5th season
Career record: 19-22
Assistant coaches: Evan Baubles (off. coord/OL); Jamil Jackson (def. coord.); Kyle Watson (WR/LB); Al LaMura (QB); Tim Brown (DB); Lew Peccarelli, Bobby King, Mike Muh, Frank Harrison, Jay Grahman.
Big Shoes to Fill: Zyhier Jones, So., QB
Jones steps in as a first-year starter for the graduated Chapelle Cook, the engine of last year’s offense, who is now at Temple. The last sophomore to start regularly at quarterback for Lakewood was current Stony Brook standout Tyrice Beverette.
Glue Guy: Jaquel Hunter, Sr., RB/LB
A three-year starter, Hunter is expected to be an impact player at multiple positions.
Impact newcomer: Zyhier Jones, So., QB
While the Piners look to bring Jones slowly with Tyler shouldering the load in the backfield, if they want to make that leap to a championship team, he will have to make plays down the stretch. Coach L.J. Clark sees him as the next potential breakout star at Lakewood.
Pivotal game: Sept. 11 at Central
The Piners go on the road to face the defending Class B South co-champs, who look to be the preseason favorite this fall. A win in that game would send the message that the Piners have a good shot at claiming their first division title in 15 years.