New Monmouth head coach Larry Nikola knows the challenge he accepted when he took the Falcons job and that’s something he hasn’t shied away from. He coached at Colts Neck during the dawning of the program, spent time as the head coach at now-closed Cardinal McCarrick, and was the running backs coach at Marlboro last season.

Nikola has embraced fixer-upper teams before and will take over a program that has been looking for answers for the better part of a decade.

“It’s been a long time since there has been a winner here and the kids who come here are fully aware of that,” Nikola said. “There is a stigma that you get stuck with when you lose a lot and it’s our job to get rid of that. The only way to do that is to be positive at all times and to convince the kids that what we’re teaching them is going to work.”

As part of his new coaching staff, Nikola brought in former Toms River East head coach Charlie Diskin as his defensive coordinator and there is little doubt that the emphasis in camp has been on the defensive side of the ball.

From left to right: Jeremiah Clarke, Isaiah Brown, Paula Lopez, Devon Johnson, Patrick Bellucci and Ian Fitzgerald. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

With the speed the new staff has seen on hand, Monmouth has a chance to evolve into a pesky defense with players who can fly to the ball and play in the trenches. It also helps that as last season began to get away, the returning seniors on this year’s team got to essentially take over the starting lineup, giving them a head start on the 2017 campaign.

“We are returning every position except defensive end and a corner, so we feel like we’ve all played enough together to where we can expect results this year,” senior middle linebacker Anthony Guarino said. “Everyone knows what we’re doing, we have a whole new defense, and we’re hungry to win.”

“I think we were all pleased when we got here and saw the talent that was on hand,” Nikola said. “There are legitimate athletes here. They just have to believe in themselves and believe in one another and with a little direction, they can be a special group.”

Monmouth will feature plenty of speed in the secondary with cornerbacks Devon Johnson and Dayshawn Porter and safeties Isaiah Brown and Eli Rife. Porter and Rife will both be juniors this year and combined with the senior leadership of Brown and Johnson, the Falcons have a diverse group that could be in for a step forward.

The senior linebacker tandem of Guarino and Jeremiah Clarke gives the Falcons a mix of athleticism and toughness at that level of the defense, with junior J.T. Plasteras joining them on the outside. Nikola has also liked the toughness he has seen from the front four, which includes senior defensive ends Ricky Voss and Rob Schumacher. Seniors Billy Schumacher and Bradley Pietz will lead the rotation of defensive tackles, most of whom will play both ways.

“Last year, we definitely had a talented team, we just did not show it at times,” Clarke said. “On the practice field, you can see we’re going hard right now. We didn’t show it on gamedays last year but we know in our hearts that we’re good players. We just have to go show it to people.”

Monmouth has remade its offense this season and will give the keys to senior Ian Fitzgerald. After beginning his high school career at Red Bank Regional, Fitzgerald transferred to Monmouth before his junior year, but did not play football. Nikola watched him play for the Falcons basketball team and convinced him to come back to the gridiron.

“He’s strong, he’s smart as heck and he picks up the principles and the concepts very quickly,” Nikola said. “If he concentrates hard this year, he can be a Division I football player because of his speed, his strength and he’s smart. He gets good grades in school.”

Fitzgerald will also be a primary ball-carrier for the Falcons, who will be working out of more big formations that feature multiple backs and tight ends and few wide receivers. Guarino and junior Patrick Bellucci will play the inside wing positions, while Voss, Blaise Moore and Porter work in at the halfback spot next to Fitzgerald. Rob Schumacher, Plasteras and Clarke will comprise the tight end rotation while Brown and Johnson share the wide receiver duties.

Billy Schneider and junior Rob Witkowski will start at guard while junior Tyler Collins occupies the center position. Pietz will lead the line as the left tackle and the right tackle could come from a number of sources, including the extra tight end within the trio of Schumacher, Plasteras and Clarke.

“A lot of us have been playing together and we’ve seen each other have success,” Pietz said. “The last time this team won was in 2008 and they had talent back then. We think we have talent that can bring it too.”

“We have 25 seniors in the program, so everybody is really buying into the program together,” Guarino said. “Hopefully the younger guys can help us to and it will lead to a winning season.”

Getting over the hump in a Class A Central division that includes powerhouse teams like St. John Vianney and Rumson-Fair Haven, as well as decorated ones like Raritan, Red Bank and Matawan will be a tall order for Nikola in his first year. Despite the challenge, Nikola is preaching about doing the little things because he wants his new players to think big.

“We want a 12th game,” Nikola said. “If you play 12 games, it means you reached a state championship game. So we’re telling them, if you improve week by week, you have a chance to play 12 games. If our guys put in the work and believe in themselves, why can’t it be them?”

 

Head Coach: Larry Nikola, first season

2016 Record: 2-8 (1-5 in Class A Central)

Assistant Coaches: Charlie Diskin (Def. Coordinator), Vince Tesi (OL), Ross Dickerson (WR/DB), Mike Dragonetti (OL/DL), Tye Coleman (LB/DB), Jared Morris (QB/DB), Drew Faccone (DL), Rob Micheliche (Freshman), Matt Kempf (Freshman), Leeann Pearce (Athletic Trainer)

Big Shoes to Fill: Devon Johnson, WR/CB

Elijah Walker was Monmouth’s top target at receiver and also an effective cornerback, so finding a worthy replacement to go with returning two-way talent Isaiah Brown. Johnson has emerged as the top candidate to work in at receiver and cornerback, although Monmouth is likely to employ one-receiver sets on offense that feature two tight ends and crowded backfields.

X-Factor: Team Speed

Nikola and his staff are certain there is enough speed in the Monmouth camp for the Falcons to cause their opponents problems this season. The task will be to put those players in positions to make plays, and the x-factor portion will be whether the new coaching staff can cook up the right scheme and how quickly the players can grasp it.

Glue Guy: Jeremiah Clarke, LB/TE

Clark looked like a possible running back option last year and has since evolved into a linebacker who can fill in at tight end or tackle on the offensive side of the ball. Clark’s willingness to play where he is needed and hard-nosed style are a big reason he heads into the season as a senior captain.

Impact Newcomer: Ian Fitzgerald, QB

After suiting up for Red Bank Regional as a sophomore, Fitzgerald transferred to Monmouth and did not play football last year. In his senior year, however, Fitzgerald will not only join the Falcons, but will also take over the quarterback position. Nikola praised Fitzgerald’s speed and intellect, which will help him jump right into the position on his new team.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 22 at Matawan

Monmouth has a legitimate shot to open the season 3-0 and the third game of the season is against a Matawan team that beat the Falcons last year for their only win in Class A Central. If Monmouth is indeed going to make waves in 2017, a 3-0 start is almost a must. If the Falcons can do it, every week from that point on will be a big game.