Football – The Band is Back Together: 2015 Ocean Football Preview
Ocean faced its share of adversity during the 2014 season but was able to rally and reach the semifinals of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
First it was quarterback Royal Moore transferring to Neptune before the season started. Then, in a Week 7 loss to Red Bank Catholic, star running back Tyler Thompson broke his leg. The Spartans found out what they were made of, and the silver lining to having players thrust into the lineup is that those same players are now prepared to make a major impact in 2015.
“One of the things we talk about is perseverance through adversity, and we did a good job getting through those things,” said Ocean head coach Don Klein. “When you have a group of talented athletes getting experience in big games there’s usually a positive carryover the next year.”
The return of Thompson in the Spartans’ spread offense is huge. He was a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman and a sophomore, and boasts multiple FBS offers. He was on his way to a third consecutive 1,000-yard season before being injured and still finished with 808 yards and four touchdowns. He should be among the best backs in the Shore Conference this season.
“Tyler is a great kid, and when you doubt him he becomes a competitive animal,” Klein said. “He had so much success so early, and for people to question whether he would be the same coming back from the injury has really fueled his fire. He was a full participant in our offseason conditioning program and he’s bigger, stronger and faster than he’s ever been. His mindset is to attack this thing.”
“He has worked his (butt) off and I give him a lot of credit,” said senior offensive lineman and linebacker T.J. Saldutti. “He’s going to do big things. His goal is to get 2,000 yards.”
Just having Thompson back would be reason enough for excitement, but what has the Spartans believing their offense could be balanced and dangerous was the emergence of quarterback Kenny Pickett. With Moore transferring, Pickett was forced into the starting role. He flourished, completing 58 percent of his passes for 1,438 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds and still growing, Pickett has already received an FBS offer from Temple and has generated interest from the likes of North Carolina, Virginia, Pittsburgh and Old Dominion.
“Getting the experience last year was huge,” Pickett said. “There’s nothing like it. You can’t duplicate it in practice or scrimmages. You need to get out there under the lights to be ready to go.”
“There’s no doubt having two (FBS) prospects in the backfield will help the team,” said senior linebacker Tyler Rossback. “Nobody works harder than Kenny and having him back there with Tyler is big.”
Pickett will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. The tight end will be senior Quadratullah Qadiri, a returning starter, with 6-foot-2 junior Joey Aldarelli and senior Greyson Stoothoff each back as returning starters at wide receiver. Aldarelli had 35 receptions for 294 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore, and the Spartans are expecting a big year from him. Senior Erik Rant will also play receiver along with senior Ruquan Dean, who will also see time at running back.
The offensive line has two returning starters with junior Chris Vivian at left tackle and Saldutti at right tackle. Junior Anthony Tedesco is the left guard, sophomore Andrew Worthington is the center and senior Brian Olesen is the right guard. Olesen is the Spartans' starting heavyweight wrestler and brings the most size at 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds.
“Ruquan has really stepped up, Aldarelli hit the weight room hard and Greyson is back as a starter, and of course we have Tyler,” Pickett said. “There are a lot of elements to worry about when you scout us.”
Juniors Anthony Mazza and Lance Zaragoza are also competing for spots along the offensive line. Sophomore Jasher Pena will also see time at wide receiver and senior Jeff Andre will serve as an offensive utility player.
The Spartans are hoping all the pieces will allow them to vastly improve on their 19.8 points-per-game average from last season.
“Since Tyler stepped foot in our program as a 14-year old kid, teams start their gameplan with how to stop him,” Klein said. “Now you add Kenny as an extremely talented kid, and he changes the way teams have to prepare for us. If you try to take away Tyler you’re going to be hurting because we have the kids on the perimeter to make plays through the air. It’s probably the first time in my nine years we have that element to this degree.”
Defensively, Ocean will run a multiple four-man front that features a strong group of linebackers. All three are returning starters with Saldutti as the middle linebacker and Rossback and Rant as the outside linebackers.
“Everyone thinks we’re small but we work together very well,” Saldutti said. “I’m the hitter, Rossback is the smart one and Erik has the speed. We all have different talents, and it works out in the end.”
“For our defense to have those three building blocks in the middle is fantastic,” Klein said. “I agree with what T.J. said. He is the hammer, Tyler is the cerebral one of the group and Erik is a great athlete who runs around very well. All three are very bright so they get us checked and aligned in the right spots. I’m very excited to build our defense with those guys.”
Tedesco is a returning starter at defensive end with Vivian as the other end. The defensive tackles are Olesen, Mazza, Worthington and Zaragoza in a rotation.
Dean is a returning starter at cornerback and will have Aldarelli opposite him. The safeties are Stoothoff and Thompson with Picket and freshman Billy Levy also available.
Senior Matt Fisher is a three-year starter at kicker and will also handle the punting duties with Pickett also a possibility at punter.
The Spartans came within a field goal of reaching the state championship last season after most people had probably written them off. Now with their star tailback returning and talented players a year bigger, stronger and smarter, the Spartans feel they are in place to make a championship run.
Head Coach: Don Klein, 9th season.
Career Record: 48-35-1.
Assistant Coaches: Fred Stengel (off. coord./OL); Marc Tomo (def. coord.); Pat O’Neill (QB/DB); Mike Salum (WR/DL); Brian Kmak (DL/RB); Jim Simonelli (LB); Mike Lambusta (OL); Cip Apicelli (quality control); John Bosmans, Hankarlos Limardo (freshmen); John Desimini (athletic trainer).
2014 Record: 5-6 (3-3).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Greyson Stoothoff, Sr., WR/DB
Stoothoff will step in at safety, where Frank Henry was a monster for the Spartans last season, making 134 tackles with 12.5 sacks. He likely won’t be used in the same manner as Henry, but the position itself needs someone to fill the void.
X-FACTOR: Tyler Thompson
Thompson’s return from a broken leg will be closely monitored by fans and opponents. If he is back to his old self or even better, the Spartans will be in good shape. If he struggles, so will they.
GLUE GUY: T.J. Saldutti, Sr., OL/LB
An undersized lineman who plays with tenacity and is also a ferocious hitter at linebacker, Saldutti will be crucial on both sides of the ball.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Billy Levy, Fr., DB
Levy has a chance to see time at safety as a freshman. Any time a freshman has a chance to see varsity action it says something about his potential.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 11 at Neptune
The Spartans open their season on the road against the Scarlet Fliers, who defeated them 30-27 last season. This will be the first look at Tyler Thompson coming off his injury and a chance for Ocean to show what it feels can be a prolific offense against a tough defense.