When Lakewood Public School’s financial problems threatened the existence of the Lakewood football program, head coach L.J. Clark and his players never doubted they would return to the field for the 2017 season.

Whatever the cost to bring back the football program would be, Clark knew it would get covered because he know those in the community understood what the football program meant for so many of the players who passed through it and what it can still mean for the players in it.

“We were never not going to have a football team,” Clark said. “I was going to do everything in my power to get it done and I had some people lined up that would have helped make it happen. So it was always going to happen because I made a promise to guys.

“You have a guy going to Temple and two more guys who should be FBS players, not to mention other guys who could play in college. Where are they going to go? We’ve got kids who love coming out here every day. If there’s no football, what are they doing? I think people understand how important football is for these kids and they know that we do it the right way here, and I’m glad the Township saw it that way.”

Left to right: Jean Paul Rodriguez, Khari Jenkins, Zyheir Jones, Jyheir Jones and Johnny Webb. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

Lakewood Township came through with the funds, allocating $84,000 to the school board to pay for the football season, guaranteeing the Piners will have a chance to pursue a Class B South championship as well as an NJSIAA sectional title.

“The day of the Township meeting, it was graduation day,” senior offensive tackle and Rutgers commit Jean Paul Rodriguez said. “As soon as graduation was over, we all went over to the courthouse to see what was going to happen. We were all following it really closely.”

There are still hardships to endure, according to Clark, but when it comes to play on the field, the seventh-year head coach has very few concerns about what he has coming back. Even in the face of program elimination, Lakewood did not lose a potential returning starter to a transfer.

“We love this community,” senior quarterback Zyheir Jones said. “They’ve always supported us. It’s our home town. I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else. I just know I’m thankful for the opportunity because it could have been taken away from us.”

Lakewood returns a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball this year, led Rodriguez, Jones and senior defensive standout Josh Lezin.

Offensive skill positions and secondary talent have been common at Lakewood over the last decade or so, and this year is not much different. Jones enters his third year as a starter at quarterback and was an All-Shore selection as a junior in 2016. Although the Piners need him to captain the offense, Clark said he will try to find spots to play Jones in the secondary in order to showcase him for college coaches while also improving the depth and dynamism of the defensive backfield.

“This group is unique for me because it’s the first group that has only been a part of winning here,” Clark said. “The seniors on this team came in in 2014 when we won the division, so that’s been their expectation from Day one, whereas the guys who came before them were part of some rebuilding years.”

Senior Khari Jenkins will take over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at tailback this year and is one of several weapons on whom Jones will lean. There is also Zyheir’s twin brother, Jyheir, who will line up at wide receiver again this year after emerging as a primary target for his brother last year.

Senior Johnny Webb is another explosive returnee for Lakewood and will play mostly in the slot on offense. When Lakewood goes to bigger packages, Lezin will become a factor as a fullback or tight end, although Clark prefers to limit his use on offense to keep him fresh on defense.

“He’s so valuable for us on defense that we don’t want to mess with that at all by trying to play him the whole game,” Clark said. “We could easily be our best player on offense too, but when he’s fresh and you get him out there hitting people, there’s not really anybody who can stop him. There are going to be games where we’ll use him at guard or maybe fullback, but my hope is we’ll only use him in spots on offense.”

Two newcomers have caught the eye of the coaching staff in the summer time. Junior Sincere Moore is a transfer from Georgia who will be a speed threat on the outside, while freshman Haaziq Barksdale – who is the younger brother of current Temple defensive back Amir Tyler – has shown plenty of promise already.

Senior Drayton Bonaparte is also a returning skill player, but is dealing with a shoulder injury that might cost him time during the early part of the season.

While most of the focus has been on Lakewood’s athleticism on offense and in the secondary, the offensive and defensive lines have generated some noteworthy players in recent years. Defensive end Adi Palmer graduated this past spring, but the Piners still bring back Lezin, Rodriguez and a host of potential linemen on either side of the ball.

“We have young, big guys on the line,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to be good. I think it’s probably the best offensive line I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here.”

On the offensive side, senior Tye Pierce returns as the team’s center for the third straight year, while juniors Kevin Rodriguez and Eric Rice occupy the guard spots. The right tackle position involves more competition, but Clark likes the size of all the candidates and will use the ones who are not starters in the defensive line rotation.

“We still don’t have a lot of guys in the program for a Group III school, but the 30 or so guys we have are all going to contribute,” Clark said. “Nobody is here to hold a clipboard. If you’re in the program, we’re trying to find snaps for you and we expect everybody who gets on the field to know how to handle themselves, because that’s what we prepare them for.”

Speaking of the defensive line, Lezin and junior Donte Morris will be the two ends in a three-man front for Lakewood and will look to cause the same kind of damage that Lezin and Palmer did. The nose guard will be a rotation of players battling for time on the line, as well as Pierce – who is entrenched as a starter.

Jenkins will be the middle linebacker, while Rizjoun Smullen and senior Dylan Butler are in line two start on the outside. Bonaparte will also play among the linebackers once healthy.

Lakewood is again deep in the secondary and should construct a formidable five-man backfield with the talent it has. Jyheir Jones will move from cornerback to the free safety spot, with Moore and Webb playing the two hybrid spots. Elijah Miller will play on one corner while the other is up for grabs.

With a renewed sense of appreciation for the game following a tumultuous summer for the entire Lakewood athletic community, Clark’s team is on a mission to finish of a B South title and make a deep run in the South Jersey Group III bracket, led by a potentially imposing line to go with its usual mix of skill-player talent.

“It feels normal again,” Jones said. “We’re back out on the field everyday so everything else that’s going on is just in the background. We’re grateful for the opportunity, so now it’s time to focus back on football.”

 

Head Coach: L.J. Clark, seventh season

Career Record: 32-29

2016 Record: 7-3 (6-1 in Class B South)

Assistant Coaches: Evan Baubles (Off. Coordinator), Noel Kavanaugh (Def. Coordinator), Lew Peccarelli (LB/RB), Al Lamura (QB), Gary Salerno (FB/DL), Nick Taylor (Freshman), Steve Peacock (Freshman), Tim Brown, Mike Muth, Tim Redann

Big Shoes to Fill: Donte Morris, DL

Defensive end Adi Palmer bookended Lezin last year to form a dominant defensive end duo, and with Palmer gone, Morris will be play on the other side from Lezin.

X-Factor: Offensive line

Lakewood has had a steady flow of position-player talent make its way through the program, but the Piners have not had the same fortune on the offensive line. This year, however, Lakewood not only has size, but the Piners have more depth that they typically do and that could make them even more dynamic than they have been.

Glue Guy: Josh Lezin, DL/FB/TE

A first-team All-Shore defensive lineman, Lezin returns as Lakewood’s defensive end and will also make himself available to contribute on offense and dare his head coach to turn down the offer.

Impact Newcomer: Sincere Moore, WR/DB

A transplant from Georgia, Moore will make an impact on both sides of the ball. He has a chance to affect the game as a wide receiver, but he will most definitely start at one of the two hybrid safety positions in Lakewood’s 3-3-5 defense.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 14 vs. Point Boro

There are a number of potential stumbling blocks in the Class B South schedule, but there is only one defending champion. Lakewood finished one game behind Point Boro for the B South title in 2016 and while there are six other divisional games to survive, the one against Panthers is the one that will likely carry the most weight when it comes to deciding the division title.