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Even longtime Long Branch head coach Dan George admits there is no player on this year’s Green Wave roster capable of fully replacing running back Dahmiere Willis, who was last year’s Shore Sports Network Offensive Player of the Year and set the Shore Conference single-season rushing record with 2,589 yards during his senior campaign.

While the Green Wave can’t replace Willis’ production with any single running back, they have replaced it with something else: a chip on their shoulder.

“We like when people doubt us,” senior middle linebacker Brandon Lane said. “It’s just fuel for the fire.”

Under George, the Long Branch program has routinely competed for division titles and chased NJSIAA sectional championships, with or without a 2,500-yard back. A team that was identifiable by one player last year hopes to get back to being defined by its attitude.

“Dahmiere was the kind of player that comes around once every 10 or 20 years, and when you have a kid who is that special, you cater your offense to make sure he is getting the ball a certain number of times,” George said. “I don’t want to make it sound like it hurt us, but we didn’t do as many things as we usually like to do on offense because we didn’t have to. I think with this group, we’ll have more of a traditional, balanced offense, and we like the talent we’ve seen out here.”

Lane’s breakout junior season flew under the radar to a degree thanks to the huge season from Willis as well as senior All-Shore second-team linebacker Hunter Baillie playing alongside him. Now the senior linebacker will be a team leader and will also contribute to the offense as a tight end.

“Guys have been getting after each other, and it’s just been a really positive feel at practice,” Lane said. “We’re a physical group of guys, and we’ve been competing from Day One.”

The Long Branch offense will have a new look to it without Willis, but the Green Wave still expect to use speed to its advantage. Junior tailback Keith Cooper has opened eyes in camp with his straight-line speed. He also is running behind an offensive line that returns three senior starters – tackle Nick Stoia and guards Cameron Hills and Joe Jasio.

“He’s faster than Dahmiere, and Dahmiere was pretty fast,” George said. “Obviously (Cooper) is still learning the position, and our job as a coaching staff is to figure out how to create space so he can use that straight-up speed.”

Senior John Tomlinson and sophomore Peter Wersinger will join the returning trio on the line, which George and his staff believe to be the strength of the offense.

“We had guys step up on the line last year and this year, we’ve been playing well as a unit,” Stoia said. “Even though we lose a great running back to graduation, we still have that mentality that we’re going to run it right at you.”

Senior wide receiver Jamar Foster returns after missing his junior season with a knee injury. (Photo by Matt Manley)

In addition to losing a star running back, Long Branch will also have to replace quarterback Jordan Rodriguez while also piecing together a mostly new group of receivers and tight ends. George and offensive coordinator John Jasio are currently evaluating three players to potentially take over at quarterback: senior Brandon Williams and sophomores Mitchell Demytrk and Juwan Wilkins. Williams has an edge in experience and athleticism (he is also a starting defensive back), while Demytrk brings more size (5-11, 188 pounds) than the mobile Williams (5-7, 146 pounds).

While the receiving corps is inexperienced, it also has a chance to be explosive. Senior Jamar Foster missed last season with a knee injury and has emerged as a starting receiver opposite 6-foot-4-inch sophomore T.J. Fosque.

In addition to using Lane as a pass-catcher, Long Branch will also turn to sophomore Kaymar Mimes at tight end. The younger brother of John Mimes – the tight end on last year’s team – Mimes stands at 6-4, 200 pounds and has already drawn heavy interest from Division I schools, most notably Rutgers, according to George.

“We lack experience, but we have some real talent and a lot of size and strength at the receiver spots,” George said. “Mimes and Fosque don’t really look like sophomores out there, and Foster is a physical kid who is starting to get his explosiveness back.”

Just like the offense, the Long Branch defense will be strong up front, with depth on the defensive line and Lane and Stoia returning at linebacker. Mimes and senior A’Dahndray Jones will both play defensive end, with Jasio, Tomlinson and senior Sean Madison rotating between the defensive tackle spots. Senior Ryan Daniels will play the other outside linebacker spot.

Despite the unsettled quarterback position, new-look backfield and young receiving corps, the biggest challenge facing the Green Wave might be replacing an entire secondary. Williams leads a group that also includes Foster, Fosque and senior Ptah Reynoso. At this stage, George and his staff have not decided where each will play within the scheme, and they expect those four to move around in the secondary.

“Our preference is for the guys in our secondary to be able to play all over,” George said. “So even as we get settled there, you’ll still probably see us move guys around.”

Sophomore Kaymar Mimes looks to make an instant impact on both sides of the ball for Long Branch. (Photo by Matt Manley)

For a team with playoff aspirations year-in and year-out, Long Branch’s schedule is unforgiving, particularly considering how many new players are working into the starting lineup. Despite some new faces, the Long Branch players are welcoming the challenge of a schedule that, in addition to its loaded Class B North slate, includes defending NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III champion Matawan and defending CJ Group II champion Rumson-Fair Haven.

“Expectations don’t change here,” Lane said. “This is Long Branch. We expect to keep winning games.”

 

Head Coach: Dan George, 17th season (19th overall)

Career Record: 129-64

Assistant Coaches: John Jasio, Nick Tranchina, Chad King, Terry King, Kris Parker, Greg Penta, Ben Woolley.

2014 Record: 8-3 (4-2)

Big Shoes to Fill: Keith Cooper, Jr., RB

Dahmiere Willis posted one of the greatest rushing seasons of all-time among Shore Conference running backs, so anyone trying to follow that act has his work cut out for him. The Long Branch coaching staff is adamant that Cooper is just as explosive as Willis – if not more so – with respect to his straight-up speed, but turning that speed into yardage will be a process.

X-Factor: Quarterback

There is a three-way competition for the quarterback spot, and which direction Long Branch goes will dictate what the offense will look like. Brandon Williams is the senior of the group and likely the best athlete, while sophomores Mitch Demytrk and Juwan Williams will be more projects whose best days will likely be in years to come.

Glue Guy: Brandon Lane, Sr., LB

After a breakout year at linebacker, Lane returns to captain the defense and will also play a role on offense as a tight end who can both be a threat in the passing game and contribute to the running game as a blocker.

Impact Newcomer: Kaymar Mimes, So., TE/DE

With John Mimes graduating, Long Branch welcomes in his younger brother to fill both the tight end and defensive end roles. Kaymar Mimes is already drawing FBS interest and according to coach Dan George, Rutgers has already offered the 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound sophomore based on what Mimes showed over the summer.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 16 vs. Ocean

Every game in Class B North game is critical, and throw in nondivisional games against Rumson and Matawan, and Long Branch has as tough of a schedule as anyone. Ocean is expected to be a Class B North public title contender, and a mid-season match-up against the Spartans could have major ramifications in the division and for state tournament positioning.