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Football has taken Darian Barnes many places, and not only has the former Toms River North standout and NFL fullback experienced the sport at the highest level, but he has also been a part of the league’s highest high and the lowest low.

He won a Super Bowl with the 2002 Tampa Buccaneers and later played for a 2008 Lions team that is the only NFL team to ever go 0-16 in a single season.

As the new head coach of the Colts Neck football team, Barnes is a credible source of football knowledge for the Cougars players, not just because of the greatness he was a part of, but also for the failure he witnessed firsthand.

“I’ve been part of a team that won the Super Bowl and I’ve been part of the Lions team that went 0-16 and a Rutgers team that went 0-11,” said Barnes, who began his college career at Rutgers in 1997 before transferring to Hampton after two seasons. “Obviously, there is a difference in the talent that was on those rosters, but for the most part, it’s really all about the fundamentals and being disciplined. Winning teams do the little things right, and losing teams tend to mess them up.”

Colts Neck went from a 10-2 team that reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game in 2013 to a 1-9 team that lost its first nine games of the season. Barnes joined the coaching staff as an assistant at the beginning of 2014 and took over as the interim head coach after eight games before being named the permanent head coach in January. Since then, he has tried to convey to his team that while a lot needed to change, they are not that far away from where they want to be.

“We didn’t have any discipline as a team last year,” senior quarterback Max Mullaney said. “This year, the number one thing for us has been focusing on the task at hand and staying disciplined in our principles, and having Coach Barnes here for the full year and teaching things his way has really helped.”

Plenty of teams go into a season confident that they will bounce back from a losing season, but what makes Colts Neck somewhat unique is that many of its players had not experienced the level of losing that comes with a 1-9 season.

“No one expected to go through a season like that. I certainly didn’t,” Mullaney said. “It was a learning experience and something no one here wants to go through again.”

Mullaney enters his second year as the starting quarterback for the Cougars, and he will also double as a starting outside linebacker this year after only playing quarterback last year. According to both Barnes, Columbia University has offered Mullaney as a linebacker, which has prompted the 6-foot-4, dual-threat quarterback to get an early start on his transition to defense.

Quarterback Max Mullaney will play both sides of the ball for Colts Neck this year, doubling as a linebacker on defense. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“He met with me and the coaches, told us colleges were looking at him as a linebacker and that he wanted to play defense, which I was all for, obviously,” Barnes said. “Max is a football player first and foremost, and he’s got all the tools to play the position and make us a lot better. He might be the best all-around football player in the Shore Conference. I really believe that.”

With leading rusher Abdul Quddus gone to graduation, Mullaney could end up leading the Cougars in rushing, although Barnes and company are hoping to have a balanced attack led by junior Carmen Catena, who is the front-runner for the starting running back spot.

Colts Neck will also look to use junior Steve Barsky and senior Nick Gargiulo in the running game, with Gargiulo mostly as a lead blocker. The senior played on the offensive line last year and also led the team in tackles as a junior, but Barnes sees him as a natural fullback – a subject on which the seven-year NFL veteran would certainly be an expert.

“(Barnes) had a big impact on me last year, and I think everybody is feeling that this year,” Nick Gargiulo said. “He’s had so much experience in football that when he says something, you’d be crazy not to listen to every word.”

Barnes expects the offensive line to be young but with some promise, which could still leave the door open for Gargiulo to work in on the line. Junior Liam Abujawdeh and senior George Kokinakas are also getting looks at running back, and if one or both continue to prove useful, there may be more of a need on the offensive line.

“I’m prepared to play wherever the team needs me,” Gargiulo said. “I like playing fullback, but I’ve played on the line at the varsity level so if that’s where I need to play, coach knows I can.”

Junior Vinny Gargiulo returns to the offensive line as the lone returnee who was a starter for all of 2014. Seniors Troy Bass and Joe Ferrandino also saw time on the line last year and sophomore Evan Imbesi is among the newcomers to the offensive front.

Senior Jordan deGroot and junior Matt Volk lead the receiving corps on a Colts Neck offense that will offer more of a pro-style look this season with remaining elements of the spread, according to Barnes. Kokinakas can also work in at receiver, and 6-foot-2 junior Bryce Campbell will add some depth to the group. Senior Mike Post will also look to contribute at tight end.

“Having a full year to work with Max in the offense and now being a more experienced group, I think we’re going to be able to make more plays in the passing game,” Volk said. “I know for me, I wasn’t really sure what to expect last year as a sophomore, and I think that experience motivated me and a lot of other guys to work harder.”

Nick Gargiulo leads the returning defensive unit after finishing 11th in the Shore Conference with 114 tackles last year while playing outside linebacker. He and Mullaney will play on the outside with Barsky and Vinny Gargiulo slated to play on the inside.

“It’s been fun having Max on that side of the ball,” Gargiulo said. “We’re going to make some plays with him over there.”

Most of Colts Neck’s interior defensive line rotation will consist of players from the offensive line, while Post and senior Khaled Mostafa line up at defensive end. At 6-foot-6, Mostafa has moved around the field on both sides of the ball and is now settling in at defensive end, where Barnes expects him to make an impact now that he is a year stronger and more experienced.

Volk and deGroot will anchor the secondary, with Catena and Campbell also figuring in prominently, while Abujawdeh and seniors Travis Kirk and Nick Sallecito are also part of the defensive back mix. Abujawdeh is also the leading candidate to kick for the Cougars.

The Cougars faced plenty of uncertainty with a late hire of coach Pete Shaw last season, and the stability of having Barnes around over the offseason could make a significant difference in their play this year. The B North schedule could still make it challenging for Colts Neck to climb the standings, but with talk of winning a state title being thrown around camp, going through a tough slate of games is par for the course for a team thinking big.

“I played on the team that was one win away from winning a state championship, so I never expected what happened last year,” Gargiulo said. “My goal is to win a state championship my senior year and so far, this camp has felt a lot more like my sophomore year than last year.”

 

Head Coach: Darian Barnes, first season

Career Record: 1-1

2014 Record: 1-9 (0-6)

Big Shoes to Fill: Carmen Catena, Jr., RB/LB

The Cougars would not so much like to fill the shoes of last year’s team as much as they would like to buy new ones. One bright spot was the effort of running back Abdul Quddus, who ran for 667 yards after contributing as a change-of-pace back during Colts Neck’s 10-2 season in 2013. Catena will take over as the starting running back and will look to help reignite the running game behind a new-look offensive line.

X-Factor: The offensive line

With three seniors gone to graduation and senior Nick Gargiulo expected to play fullback, the Colts Neck line will look different this year, which might not be such a bad thing. If the influx of talent turns out to be an upgrade, this Colts Neck offense could get running in the right direction again.

Glue Guy: Nick Gargiulo, Sr., FB/LB

As a junior in 2014, Gargiulo led the team with 114 tackles, which was also good for 11th in the Shore Conference. He also helped out on the offensive line and will be used in the backfield as a fullback this year, which is significant considering his head coach played the position in the NFL.

Impact Newcomer: Khaled Mostafa, DE

After playing sparingly last season, Mostafa returns having seemingly found his niche as an athletic, 6-foot-6 edge rusher and could be a nice weapon for the defense.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 18 at Red Bank

After opening with a non-divisional game against a Howell team that went 3-7 last year and beat Colts Neck 20-16, the Cougars open their B North season at Red Bank against a team expecting to have its best season in a while. If Colts Neck is going to meet its expectations of returning to the postseason, knocking off Red Bank to improve to 2-0 would be a good start.