In a division as unforgiving as Class A South, being young and inexperienced usually translates into a season of struggles. That was the case for Southern in 2015 as the Rams went 4-6 playing in a division that featured two state sectional champions and another state finalist.

The good news for Southern is that most of its roster is back for the 2016 season, and the Rams hope the combination of talent and experience has them back in the playoff race.

“The bottom line is we took five beatings on the line of scrimmage last year,” said Southern head coach Chuck Donohue. “We were just outmanned and out-experienced, and this division was outstanding on the line of scrimmage. But we benefitted from that and we knew what we had to do in the offseason.”

Photo by Robert Badders.

“We knew last year that we were inexperienced, but we were tough,” said junior linebacker/running back Joe Miele. “We’re bringing that toughness back this year but now we all have the experience.”

Southern enters this season, which begins Friday Sept. 2 with a Week Zero game against rival Central, in much better shape than last season in terms of returning starters. There are 10 players that either started or played significant snaps in the Rams’ multiple offense and nine back in their 50 front defense.

Offensively, senior Sam Cammarata is back at quarterback after starting the second half of last season. It was just five games, but Cammarata gave the Rams plenty to look forward to this season by throwing four touchdowns and leading a pair of game-winning drives.

“He came in and played probably better than we thought he’d play,” Donohue said. “He was in games we had to come back in, and all four of our wins were in either overtime or the last minute, and he was a factor in all of those finishes. The expectations for him this year are big. We expect him to not only be a solid quarterback but for him to make plays and helps us out of situations.”

The last two times Southern had two-year starters at quarterback - Dan Higgins and Todd Kaiser - the Rams made the playoffs.

“We’re expecting the same,” Donohue said. “The quarterback has to be a factor in this league (A South).”

“Last year I just worked really hard every day and when I got my opportunity I said to myself I don’t know if I’ll get another one, so I ran with it,” Cammarata said. “That built a lot of confidence. This preseason I think I have good command of the offense.”

At fullback is junior Joe Miele and senior Dane Walker, while juniors Vin Miele, John Dolphin, and Matt Barnett will play tailback after seeing time their last season. Seniors Chris Scucci and Will Gallagher will also see time in the backfield. Joe Miele, who is a two-year starter at linebacker, missed the first four games last season with an injury and only had 12 carries all season, but will see a much larger load this year.

“Nobody has seen this kid run the ball yet, and he has an awful lot of potential as a running back,” Donohue said.

“I’m really excited to play on both sides,” Miele said. “Last year even when I was back I didn’t run the ball much. I’m hungry. I want the ball. I want to help my team as much as possible.”

Senior Jesse Amirr will start for the second year at tight end and is a three-year varsity player. He brings good size at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. The Rams are deeper at tight end than they’ve been in years with seniors Dylan Lane and Shane Drayton also at the position. Lane started toward the end of last season and Drayton is a 6-foot-4 volleyball standout who brings great leaping ability and athleticism.

The wide receivers are seniors Chris Citarella, Deric Vincent and Jackson Donahower. Citerella is one of the team leaders, Vincent returns to the gridiron after missing two years with knee injures and Donahower is a 6-foot-5 target who is a gifted athlete. Donahower began last season as the team’s quarterback but moved to wide receiver and started the final four games.

Southern seniors Chris Citarella (6) and Dane Walker (20). (Photo by Ray Richardson).

The offensive line features two returning starters in senior Ryan Bakker at left tackle and junior Devin VandeVelde at left guard. The center is junior Bill Rolenc, the right guard is senior Dylan Smith and the right tackle spot will be manned by juniors Mike Levine and Dave Lowman. Also working in at guard are senior Mike Conforti and junior Zach Otte.

Defense has been the calling card for Southern’s most successful teams under Donohue, and if the Rams are to turn in a bounce-back season defensive coordinator Matt Abbato’s unit will have to improve on allowing 25.1 points per game last season. The horses are there to make it happen in the 50 front base with nine starters back, including the entire secondary.

Otte and Amirr are back as the defensive ends while VandeVelde is a returning starter at defensive tackle. Stepping into a starting role at the other defensive tackle spot is 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior Terrick Grace, who saw some time last season. The nose guard is 6-foot-2, 290-pound sophomore Sean MacGillivray.

Joe Miele and Walker are the middle linebackers and could both be on the field at the same time depending on the formation. Junior Derek Wilson and sophomore Trevor Guglielmo could also see time there. The outside linebackers are Amirr and Otte.

Miele led the Rams in tackles as a freshman with 80 but managed just 29 last season due to an injury-shorted sophomore campaign. He has the ability to be a breakout player as a junior.

“He has to be,” Donohue said. “He has too much talent and ability, and the defense fits him. We can keep people off him up front so he can roam back there. And Dane compliments him really well. We feel we’re as good as anybody at inside linebacker.”

Amirr is also a key player on the edge for the Rams’ run defense.

“He gives us a solid off-tackle player in a league that runs off tackle a lot,” Donohue said. “His range is good and he plays down the line of scrimmage very well.”

Barnett and Dolphin return as the starting cornerbacks while the safety spot has Vin Miele and Citarella, who both started games last season. Vincent and Gallagher will serve as backups in the secondary.

“Southern has been known for its defense and it’s preached here,” Amirr said. “Defensively, we are sound. Everyone knows their assignments and we have everything under control, and you’re going to see that Friday night.”

“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” Walker said. “There are a lot of running teams in A South so we have to be good against the run.”

In the kicking game, Barnett is the placekicker and Cammarata is the punter.

Southern’s season certainly isn’t riding on its Week Zero game against Central on Friday Sept. 2, but the Rams know how crucial it is to start 1-0. Not only do they want to get the ball rolling, but with No. 2 Toms River North and No. 3 Manalapan lurking in the following weeks the schedule is very tough the first month.

“We have a bitter taste in our mouths from the overtime loss last year so this year we’re not going to let that happen,” Amirr said.

“Since sophomore year when we lost to them on Thanksgiving that trophy has been in their school for two years, and it really ticks us off and puts a chip on our shoulders,” Cammarata said. “We’re ready to go and win on Fridays.”

RELATED: Southern Regional 2016 football schedule

Head Coach: Chuck Donohue Sr., 19th season (43rd overall).

Career Record: 240-167-4.

Coaching staff: Matt Abbato (def. coord.); Andrew Beckett (DL); Dylan Larson (OL); Eric Fierro (QB); Eric Sharkey; C.J. Tomeldon (RB/DB); Chuck Donohue Jr. (OL), Evan Osborne (volunteers); Joe Fleck, Dan Roy (freshmen); John Kaszuba (Director of Football Operations); Joe Caucino, Art Margulies (athletic trainers).

2015 Record: 4-6 (2-5).

BIG SHOES TO FILL — Chris Citarella, Sr., WR/DB: Citarella is a returning starter on defense, but on offense he will step into a starting role at wide receiver where last season Nick Simonelli was the top pass catcher.

X-FACTOR —Sam Cammarata, Sr., QB: If Cammarata can build of his solid second half last season and become a reliable playmaker the Rams can compete with everyone on their schedule.

GLUE GUY — Dane Walker, Sr., RB/LB: One of the team’s senior leaders, Walker will play significant roles on both sides of the ball.

IMPACT NEWCOMER —Shane Drayton, Sr., TE/OLB: A standout from Southern’s juggernaut volleyball program, Drayton could be a sleeper as a playmaker in the passing game.

PIVOTAL GAME — Friday Sept. 2 vs. Central: The Rams have had this one circled on their calendar since last season’s overtime loss.

 

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.