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In his first year as a high school football head coach, not only did John Paczowski take over for a Shore Conference legend, he also took over a team with only two seniors on its roster.

Because of that, there was little expectation for overnight success, but a slew of returnees who are stronger, faster and a year wiser have Paczkowski and the rest of the Red Raiders expecting a step forward in year two since the retirement of longtime coach Mike Ciccotelli.

Keyport went 3-7 with its team full of juniors and sophomores and returns a senior core that hopes to close out its varsity career with a resurgent season for Keyport football. The Red Raiders won their final two games of 2014 and will look to carry that winning streak into 2015 with a starting lineup that remains mostly intact on either side of the ball.

“The kids worked hard last year and coming back this year, our work ethic is the same as it always was,” Paczkowski said. “It just seems like our reaction time is better, our technique is better, and it’s a group that’s more physically mature. Add in a full year of experience and it’s fair to say the expectations are higher this year.”

Senior two-way lineman Devon Keegan (51) leads improved Keyport offensive and defensive lines. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior running back Ky’Sun Pryor led Keyport in rushing last season with 614 yards and seven touchdowns and returns to the backfield behind an offensive line that will be bigger and better than a year ago. Seniors Devon Keegan and Travis Alvarez will anchor the line, with Keegan – who Paczkowski said is the strongest player on the team at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds – lining up at guard, and Alvarez moving from tight end to left tackle. Junior Zach Frick played tackle as a sophomore last year and will switch with Alvarez, playing tight end this year.

“Because so many of us played last year, we saw what we had to do to compete, and everyone put the work in,” Keegan said. “Our offensive and defensive lines are both much better as far as our strength and technique, and now it’s just a matter of continuing to work and improve.”

Senior Desmond Underwood spent his junior season running Keyport’s multiple offense, but this year Paczkowski plans to use his speed and athleticism as a wide receiver. Paczkowski’s approach last year was to snap the ball directly to one of the team’s best playmakers, but this year he plans on lining up his best athletes in the backfield and out wide and playing the best candidate to get those players the ball.

“Desmond Underwood is about five-nine, 150 pounds, so there is a lot of speed there,” Paczkowski said. “We think he can create some mismatches for us on the outside, and on the other side, we have a 6-3 kid in Zach Ochs who we can throw the ball up to.”

“Whether it's quarterback, receiver, running back, I feel like I can help the team in a lot of ways, and we have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things,” Underwood said.

At this point in the preseason, the second-year head coach was noncommittal about who his quarterback will be.

“Your guess is as good as mine right now,” Paczkowski said.

Whomever takes over the job under center will have Ochs on the outside at wide receiver. At 6-foot-3, Ochs has the build of a player who can make plays down the field for a team that has a number of weapons in the backfield. In addition to Pryor and Underwood, seniors Evan Smutz and Zach Hansen will also have roles in the offense – Smutz as a wingback and slot receiver and Hansen as a fullback.

Like most Group I schools, Keyport will send its top players out to the field on offense and defense, the latter of which Paczkowski – a former defensive line coach under Ciccotelli – sees as a potential strength of the team. While his ability at wide receiver has progressed over the last calendar, Ochs has impressed the coaching staff most on the defensive side of the ball at safety.

“If you had to pick out one guy who has come back a new man, it’s Zach Ochs. It’s night and day,” Paczkowski said. “He’s a guy who came out last year and was able to contribute some just with his size and athleticism. Now, he’s developed an understanding of the game, and he’s developed physically as well, and that improvement is reaching out to the other players.”

“We’ve been bringing it on defense,” Ochs said. “Guys are flying around, flying to the ball, and I feel like we have a group that is going to make plays.”

Underwood will man the strong safety spot alongside Ochs, and the Red Raiders return a linebacker corps of Pryor, Hansen and Smutz, with Hansen playing in the middle. Keegan will anchor the defensive line at the defensive tackle position, while Alvarez and Frick will flank him at either defensive end. Like the quarterback position, Paczkowski expects to be young at cornerback and is still evaluating a number of options.

Senior Ky'Sun Pryor led Keyport in rushing as a junior last year and returns as a two-way talent. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“There is a lot more confidence in practice this year,” Smutz said. “Guys are more sure about what they’re doing, where their assignments are, hand placement, all those things. Those kinds of things make a big difference.”

Pryor and Underwood will also be threats in the return game as Keyport looks to find a way to put more points on the board after averaging 13.3 per game last year. After a 1-7 start to the year, Keyport ended 2014 with consecutive wins over Keansburg and Wood-Ridge, scoring a combined 66 points in the two victories.

“We have a lot of guys who can make plays,” Pryor said. “Guys have worked hard, and it’s been showing in practice.”

The close to the 2014 campaign began to bear the results that Paczkowski and his staff were working toward. With a host of familiar faces and playmakers back this season, the hope is that the program continues to trend up in a Class B Central division that figures to be deeper with the improvements by the Red Raiders and Asbury Park to go with perennial contenders Shore, Point Pleasant Beach and, more recently, Mater Dei Prep.

“We’re just working hard, trying to getting better,” Pryor said. “We’re trying to do whatever it takes to win games.”

 

Head Coach: John Paczkowski, second season

Career Record: 3-7

Assistant Coaches: Dominic Amoroso (Offensive Coordinator/RB/DL), Scott Messler (OL/DL), Steve Bower (QB/CB), Sean Athans (WR/S), Pete Miller (QB/LB)

2014 Record: 3-7 (1-4)

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Desmond Underwood, RB/WR/DB

Underwood was tasked with replacing dual-threat quarterback Alex Thomson last season and this year will play a role closer to the one that Chase Bright played during an All-Division campaign in 2014, which was as combination slotback and receiver on offense and safety on defense. That the coaching staff is turning to Underwood again to help fill a void shows their trust in him.

X-Factor: Quarterback

Most teams would probably prefer not to have the quarterback position be such a variable at this point in the summer, but the Red Raiders have potential in the backfield, out wide and on the line, so they just need a steady hand running the offense. Who that hand will be is still up in the air, according to Paczkowski.

Glue Guy: Devon Keegan, OL/DL

With so many players transitioning from their junior to senior seasons, Keyport has the look of a bigger, stronger team. The heart of that physical edge the Red Raiders hope to bring is Keegan, the strongest player on the team, according to Paczkowski, and the anchor of both the offensive and defensive lines.

Impact Newcomer: Zach Ochs, WR

There are few real “newcomers” to a Red Raiders team that graduated only two senior starters, but Ochs has gone from a role player to one of the team’s potential top players in just his second full year playing football.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 16 at Asbury Park

Both the Red Raiders and Blue Bishops are hoping to make the leap into the top half of the division, which means that head-to-head matchup will be crucial for both. Asbury Park won last year’s meeting, 31-16, but both teams still finished with losing records.