Football – Shifting Out of Neutral: 2015 Southern Regional Football Preview
With six starters returning on defense, three starters back on offense and a group of young players prepared to make an impact, Southern is looking to put it all together and climb the ladder in Class A South after a pair of 5-5 seasons.
Southern has a reputation for being well-coached and playing tough no matter what its talent level is compared to the opposition. Last season the Rams slugged their way to a 5-5 record against a difficult schedule, and this season they aim to be a factor in the division race while chasing a playoff berth in South Jersey Group V.
“We really have to take it one week at a time,” said senior running back/linebacker Pat Walker. “No game in A South will be easy and everyone knows that. We’ll be in every game. The defense just has to stay tight and the offense has to put up some more points.”
Southern’s identity is its hard-nosed defense under coordinator Matt Abbato, and the Rams will bring back six starters in their 5-2 unit that allowed 20.8 points per game. The teeth of the defense is with the linebacking corps as three of the four are returning starters and the other saw significant action. Walker and 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior Jesse Amirr, both returning starters, are the outside linebackers with sophomore Vin Miele and junior Nick Roman also in the mix. The inside linebackers are sophomore Joe Miele and junior Dane Walker. Senior James Barnett will also see time there.
Joe Miele was a phenom last year when he started on defense as a freshman and led the Rams with 80 tackles and four sacks. Head coach Chuck Donohue Sr. doesn’t like to start sophomores, so for Miele to not just see the field but start as a freshman says a lot about his abilities and potential.
“I’m very, very lucky to have a year under my belt already,” Joe Miele said. “Last year I thought the defense played phenomenal, and I had a lot of the older guys help me out and prepare me for this year.”
Senior Doug Vande Velde returns as a starting defensive tackle along with his brother Devin, a sophomore. Senior Joe Dolphin is the nose guard with junior Joe Poling also at the position.
Senior Nick Simonetti played plenty of snaps in the secondary last season and returns to start at cornerback. Sophomore John Dolphin, sophomore Matt Barnett and senior Brandon Barnetti will also rotate at cornerback based on the package. Senior Anthony Gagliardi is a returning starter at safety and will be joined by junior Matt Bleichner. Senior Kyle Brown is also in the mix at safety.
“Our defense has a lot of depth at linebacker and corners that have experience, so that will help us,” Pat Walker said. “The line is young but (coaches Dylan) Larson and (Andrew) Beckett are tough coaches, so I feel good about it.”
“Coach Abbato always says bend but don’t break, so our defense always tries to follow that,” Miele said.
On the other side, Southern will return just three starters and has to replace its entire offensive line. The defense knows the onus will be on them early in the season.
“The defense is aware of that and we know we have to step up,” Miele said. “We’re reminded of that every day. We want to take as much pressure off the offense as we can.”
Southern’s multiple offense will feature more I-formation looks than in seasons past to take advantage of a deep and versatile group of running backs. It has traditionally been a position Southern has had to piece together. Some years they have had breakout backs, but it usually seems to be a secondary position. There is excitement surrounding the position with the Walker brothers, Pat and Dane, and the Miele brothers, Joe and Vin, rotating at fullback and tailback. Barnetti is also in the rotation and brings speed to the position. Pat Walker led Southern with 643 yards and 11 total touchdowns last season.
“We’ve always struggled at running back in that we had guys that could only do a little bit of stuff,” Donohue said. “Now we have guys that can all block and are playing some phase of defense and are competing against each other. We’ve never really had that. Every rep they’re fighting for playing time, and that’s a good thing. It will also let us substitute a lot.”
“We have plenty of running backs and with different styles,” Pat Walker said. “Brandon is fast, my brother is a great blocker, Vinnie is pretty fast and Joe is a downhill runner.”
Amirr played some at tight end last season and will start there as a junior. Toms River North transfer Rich Schwarting will back him up. Gagliardi will start at wide receiver after seeing some time there last season, and will be joined by senior Kyle McDonnell. In three- and four-wide receiver sets Brown and junior Chris Citerella will play.
Stepping in at quarterback will be either junior Jackson Donahower or junior Sam Cammarata. Donahower is 6-foot-3 with a big arm and Cammarata also throws a good deep ball.
“Both quarterbacks bring different things to the table,” Pat Walker said. “Sam is very smart and has a great deep ball, and Jackson is tall to see over the line of scrimmage and can air it out.”
The challenge on offense will be replacing all five starters on the offensive line. Senior Quinn Smith is the left tackle, 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior Zack Weidenhof is the right tackle and Joe Dolphin is the center. Doug and Devin Vande Velde and senior Brian Weeks will rotate at the guard positions.
“The offensive line just needs to get some more experience,” Donohue said. “Those guys last year were good, and now we have the backs but developing a line will be the struggle. Working in the ‘I’ allows us to have two double teams and have a back in to block.”
Cammarata will be the punter and either Barnetti or McDonnell will be the kicker.
The Rams begin their season with a Week Zero game at home against Central. The Golden Eagles, who had been Southern's Thanksgiving rival, feature 2,000-yard rusher Mike Bickford and defeated the Rams 16-6 in the final game for both teams last season. Getting off to a good start with a win before getting into their division schedule will be crucial.
Head Coach: Chuck Donohue Sr., 18th season (42nd overall).
Career Record: 236-161-4.
Assistant Coaches: Matt Abbato (def. coord.); Andrew Beckett (DL); Eric Fierro (QB); C.J. Tomelden (RB/DB); Dylan Larson (OL); Chuck Donohue Jr. (OL); Joe Fleck, Dan Roy, Rob Barret (freshman); Joe Caucino (athletic trainer).
2014 Record: 5-5 (3-4).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The offensive line
Graduation took all five offensive linemen who started for the past two years. The new group has the task of creating running lanes and protecting the quarterback while developing chemistry. They will be tested by several top defenses in A South.
X-FACTOR: Quarterback play
It’s a chicken or the egg situation with the quarterback and the offensive line, but if Donahower or Cammarata can take the reins and have success early, it will take some pressure off the line, and vice versa.
GLUE GUY: Pat Walker, Sr., RB/LB
A two-year, two-way starter who is the Rams' top returning offensive weapon, Walker will be leaned upon for both production and leadership.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Rich Schwarting, Sr., TE/DL
A transfer from Toms River North, Schwarting gives the Rams another big body up front with his 240-pound frame.
PIVOTAL GAME: September 18 at Brick Township
There’s a good chance the Rams could be 2-0 heading into this game, which begins a very tough stretch of A South opponents. This game will give be a good indicator of which team is going to be a factor late in the season.