Johnny Helff started his high school varsity career on a zero-win team at a program that had trouble simply keeping the score close.

A three-win season was not quite what Helff and his teammates on the 2016 Marlboro football team had in mind when they set out to turn around the program four years ago, but in many ways, it marked a turnaround that compares favorably to some of the best reclamations in the Shore in recent years considering the Mustangs’ divisional schedule.

Although Marlboro finished 3-7, there were a few positive secondary headlines: the three wins were the most since 2012 and below the surface, there is more to like about what the 2016 team did vs. the 2012 squad. Last year’s team lost by more than two scores just once (on opening weekend vs. Manalapan), while the 2012 did so four times.

The other thing to like about the 2016 team is that it had more players set to return in 2017, which brings us to present day. For all the starting lineup vacancies the Mustangs have to address, they are in just about the best shape heading into a season in a long time.

“Personally, nothing is ever enough for me,” senior running back, linebacker, and four-year starter Johnny Helff said. “We could go 8-1 and I’d still want that one game back. Foundationally, last year was an important year and compared to what the culture was when I got here, we have definitely built up a foundation and the program is in a position to take the next step. We just need to do it on the field.”

Left to right: Justin Marcus, Johny Helff, Anthony Damato, Kyle Moore and Chris Manginelli. (Photo by Paula Lopez/PALImages)

It remains to be seen whether or not this year’s team will be better than last year’s team was, but they enter the season a more proven squad. Following a 49-12 opening-weekend loss to Manalapan, the Mustangs were in the game against every team on the schedule and bring back a collection of players who now understand what it’s like to play a competitive A North season from start to finish.

On the flip side, the Mustangs would like very much to start pulling some of these A North games out. They went 0-6 in the division last year despite boasting one of the best rushing attacks in the A North.

“We took that step where we won a few games and we were in every game,” fifth-year Marlboro coach Jason Dagato said. “In years past, there were games where it wasn’t even a competition after the first quarter. Last year, we had shootouts, we had leads in the fourth quarter, things that haven’t been done around here all that often. But we have to take the next step.”

Marlboro graduated leading rusher Cameron Caorsi, but return the other head of the dragon in Helff. While Caorsi outrushed Helff 1,382-to-1,059 in 2016, he did so in 48 more carries. In fact, the average yards per rush for each back was nearly identical – 6.43 for Caorsi and 6.34 for Helff. This year, Helff will be the featured back in the offense and while that will certainly give his numbers a boost, Dagato would like to find another player to take some carries off of his potential workload.

Senior Raheem Bolden, junior Eugene Graves and Steven Cassidy are among the candidates to play the role of No. 2 running back to Helff, with Bolden and Cassidy profiling more as fullbacks and Graves more as a tailback. Graves might be best suited as a second tailback, but Bolden and Cassidy might be on the field more since they could play fullback with Helff as the tailback. Of course, Helff, can also play fullback, which would allow Graves to share the backfield with him as well.

“We’ll be able to pick up the slack in the running game,” Helff said. “Whether it was Cam running or me running, it was a collective effort in the running game. It was five guys working together to clear the way, I was at fullback kicking people out and he was able to finish the plays.”

One way the coaching staff plans on taking some work off of Helff’s plate is by expanding the passing game, which will rest on the right arm of returning quarterback Kyle Moore. Last year, Moore took over the position early in the season due to injuries to Jaret Wright and Mike Wolff and held it for the rest of the year. With a better feel for the offense and a skillset more suited to a pro-style attack, Moore could end up leading an offense heavier on the pass than it has been in recent years.

“I do think we gave him a full plate last year, but we’re still expanding the offense a little bit,” Dagato said. “He’s a real heady quarterback. His biggest attributes are his mechanics and his knowledge of the game. He’s been quarterbacking pretty much his entire life.”

“I spent most of last year learning the playbook,” Moore said. “This year, I know everything that we’re doing. I know all the checks, I know all of the assignments, so I’m ready.”

It also helps the prospects of the passing game that 6-foot-4 senior Justin Marcus returns at wide receiver. He projects as the No. 1 target in the passing game this year, while junior Neptune transfer Malik Carey, senior Mike Weiss and junior Alex Schutzer make up the rest of the wide receiver corps. Junior Billy Delaney and sophomore Dom Palumbo will compete for time at tight end.

“I think we still have the opportunity to put up numbers and put points on the board,” said Marcus, who was part of Marlboro’s program overhaul in boys basketball that culminated with a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament final last season. “Our personnel is different, but the guys who are back are better than we were last year and we have guys competing and stepping up at the other positions.”

The offensive line has some question marks heading into the season considering how effective the group of graduates was last year, but two starters from that unit return to lead this year’s front. Senior Chris Manginelli is back as the starting left tackle while senior Anthony Damato returns at right guard. Sophomore Alan Valant won the center job and will replace Riley Keating on the line, while the left guard and right tackle spots could be written in pencil for at least a few weeks. Junior Jordan Hanley and senior R.J. Boyce have spent camp battling for the left guard spot, while junior Charlie Marinello and senior Josh Margolies are the leading options at right tackle.

“We have core experience coming back,” Maginelli said. “I’m back, the right guard’s back, the quarterback’s back, a running back is back – we’ve got the experience to do it and to show the other guys what to do. Last year, I had the senior to fill me in on what to do and that prepared me to do the same thing this year. That’s a big part of building a program.”

Marlboro will be relying on a host of two-way players this year, although the Mustangs have enough competition on the offensive line to allow Dagato to run a rotation on the defensive line. Manginelli and Damato are likely to be regulars on both lines, but the other defensive line spot will be a rotation between the other offensive lineman, as well as Palumbo and Delaney.

Helff will play inside linebacker along with a combination of Bolden and Cassidy, while the outside linebacker spots will be a share between Graves, senior Tom Chernivani and senior Dan Wein.

Marcus and junior Josh Larys will be the safeties with Carey working in, while Weiss, Matt Budveit and Schutzer work at the corners.

Last year’s team might have had more returnees in the fold, but Dagato and his staff hope this year’s group still has enough experience to build on a three-win campaign and the groundwork that last year’s team laid toward becoming a contender in A North and a qualifier for the NJSIAA Playoffs.

“We had zero wins my freshman year, one win my sophomore year and three wins last year,” Helff said. “This year, we’re looking for anything four and up. The goal from day one was the change the culture and get this program on the rise and if the seniors leave here with that kind of improvement for the next wave of players to come in and build on, that’s something we can hang our hat on.”

 

 

Head Coach: Jason Dagato, fifth season

Career Record: 6-34

2016 Season: 3-7 (0-6 in Class A North)

Assistant Coaches: Jim Papalia (LB/Special Teams), Reid Stapp (Defensive Coordinator/LB), Tom Caporale (DB/WR), Justin McGhee (QB), Alex Vasilenko (DL/OL)

Big Shoes to Fill: Alan Valant, C

Riley Keating was a polished center who had a lot to do with the success of the running game, so if there is a spot on the line that will be under the microscope, it is likely to be at center.

X-Factor: Kyle Moore, QB

Moore is a pro-style quarterback who enters this season more prepared to run the offense on opening day against Manalapan. If the senior signal-caller can find his groove early in the season, it will give the Mustangs a much-needed extra dimension to the offense, which managed to put up points last year.

Glue Guy: Johnny Helff, RB/LB

A four-year varsity starter, Helff was somewhat overshadowed by the season Cameron Caorsi had. Helff, however, did his part by turning in a 1,000-yard rushing season while also leading the defense as the middle linebacker, which he will do again this season.

Impact Newcomer: Raheem Bolden, RB/LB

Marlboro returns one half of its tailback tandem last year, but must replace the leading rusher of the two. Graves is the leading candidate to backup Helff as the tailback, but Bolden is the fit as a starter because he can play fullback in front of Helff while also taking some carries.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 28 at Colts Neck

The Mustangs made an incremental improvement with three wins last season and now they want to make more noise in Class A North play, in which they went 0-6 last year. Colts Neck and Neptune were the two teams right ahead of Marlboro last year and the first of those two that the Mustangs will play is Colts Neck. That game will be played just five days after another divisional game against Freehold Township.