Football – The Next Wave: 2016 Long Branch Preview
Replacing the all-time single-season rushing leader in Shore Conference history would seem to have been the most glaring challenge for coach Dan George and the Long Branch football team heading into 2015, but finding the heir to Dahmiere Willis was not George’s major concern, nor is it his this season.
More than finding someone to rush for 2,000-plus yards, he wanted to find a quarterback to manage the offense. After mixed results last season, he’s refined his want ad: he wants a quarterback who can make plays.
Long Branch returns an array of skill talent this season and more experience on the defensive side as compared to a year ago, but there remains one variable that George keeps coming back to when considering the prospects for the Green Wave in 2015.
“We’ve got to make more plays on offense this year and we have to get more plays out of the quarterback,” George said. “With the schedule we play, it’s not enough to just do your assignment every play and think you’re going to beat some of those teams. Guys have to step up and make the play when they have the chance, and you’ve got to have a quarterback who can make a lot of plays.”
Likely starter Juwan Wilkins was only a sophomore last season and his primary competition, Marc Dennis, was just a freshman. The youth of the two players competing for time is one of the reasons George is optimistic that Long Branch can improve at the position with the same personnel as last year.
“We’ve got some great competition there right now, which we haven’t had,” George said. “They’re making plays. I don’t care what level you’re talking about, if you don’t have a quarterback, you can’t play. We’re starting a whole step higher there.”
Another reason a developing quarterback can have success playing at Long Branch this season is the weapons he will have at his disposal. Juniors Kaymarr Mimes and T.J. Fosque are big, athletic targets, with Fosque playing on the outside at 6-foot-4, 170 pounds, and Mimes standing 6-5 and 220 pounds at tight end. Mimes is a legitimate Division I prospect at the position and can essentially play the role of No. 1 receiver while technically remaining a tight end.
“Juwan has matured and he has really locked into the game a lot more,” Mimes said of Wilkins. “He understands where everybody goes and how everything fits together. We’ve been working on building that chemistry by throwing with each other all the time. Even outside of practice – maybe we’ll go to the park and just run routes and those little things help with that chemistry.”
“Kaymarr Mimes is having a phenomenal preseason – offensively as well as defensively,” George said. “He’s a big target and we can move him around.”
Juniors Kevin Porch and Pasa Fields will also play key roles as receivers in the passing game, giving the Green Wave an entire stable of receivers who have two more years in the program along with two quarterbacks who also will be back next season.
Senior Keith Cooper returns as the feature back after taking the place of Willis last season. He starts the season in better health this season after nagging injuries hampered him in preseason last year and he is carrying more weight, according to George. Junior Eli Sherin will join him in the backfield as a fullback and sophomore Qua’zahun Dennis will spell Cooper as the No. 2 tailback.
“I’m really confident in myself,” Cooper said. “I don’t think I was confident enough in myself last year and I think that’s what I had to work on. This year, I’ll have experience so I’ll know what I’m doing more.”
While developing Wilkins and Marc Dennis at quarterback is a primary goal of the program this year, piecing together the offensive line may be an equally important undertaking for the coaching staff. Long Branch graduated four starters, with only junior Peter Wersinger back at center. Senior Desmond Blackmon, junior Brian Santiago and sophomores Hunter Metzler and Kevin Cerruti are lined up to start – Blackmon and Metzler at the guards and Santiago and Cerruti at the two tackles.
“Last year, pretty much all of the skill guys were new and we had a senior o-line,” Mimes said. “This year, it’s the reverse of that. You have us being the experienced guys who are trying to be the leaders and the line is in the same position we were in last year.”
Long Branch’s defense will look different than last year’s unit in that the secondary will be far more experienced after a complete rebuild last year, while this year’s group of linebackers is new. Porch, Cooper and Sheridan all return to the defensive backfield – Porch and Cooper at cornerback and Sheridan at safety.
Senior Leon Morabito and juniors Shawn Gonzaga and Darien Cleveland all move into starting linebacker spots and will be an early-season key for a defense that is experienced at most other positions. The Green Wave will also have some youth and inexperience at the defensive tackle position with Blackmon, Metzler and Santiago. Mimes will occupy a defensive end spot with senior Hunter Marhan.
Long Branch’s gauntlet portion of the schedule begins in their fourth game, when a showdown at Middletown South begins a five-week stretch that follows with Red Bank Catholic, Ocean, Middletown North and Freehold Borough – all winning teams a year ago. Long Branch’s first three games are against teams coming off losing seasons – Manasquan, Colts Neck and Wall. For Long Branch to make a move to the postseason this season, the Green Wave will likely have to get off to a fast start against three other teams that bent on bounceback seasons.
“I think like a lot of guys, I feel bigger, stronger, more focused,” Cooper said. “Guys want it more. We’re not worried about last season. We put it behind us and we’re ready to go out this year and see what we can do.”
Head Coach: Dan George, 20th season
Career Record: 132-71
Assistant Coaches: John Jasio (DL), Chad King (DB), Terry King (RB), Kris Parker (WR), Nick Tranchina (Def. Coordinator/LB), Ben Woolley (OL), Sean Brown (Freshman), Greg Penta (Freshman), James Reilly (Freshman)
2015 Record: 3-7 (1-5 in B North)
Big Shoes to Fill: The line
Long Branch will have to replace four players on the offensive line, with only junior center Peter Wersinger returning to the group. Sophomores Hunter Metzler and Kevin Cerruti, junior Brian Santiago and senior Desmond Blackmon will look to jump in and pave the way for the offense.
George did not shy away from citing quarterback play as the key to the season, mostly because the Green Wave did not get enough playmaking from the position last year. Junior Juwan Wilkins and sophomore Marc Dennis have both taken first-team reps during the preseason and while Wilkins has had the inside track most of the preseason, George is looking for the best playmaker.
Glue Guy: Kaymarr Mimes, TE/DE
The top receiving option on the Green Wave is the 6-foot-5 tight end and he can also wreck an offense on the end. Mimes is also a leader on the team as a junior.
Impact Newcomer: Shawn Gonzaga, LB
The Green Wave have had to restock their group of linebackers, with Gonzaga and Leo Morabito looking like immediate contributors.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 30 vs. Wall
Long Branch's final six regular season games are all against teams with winning records from a year ago, so the first three weeks will be crucial. If Long Branch is to have a bounceback year, it will likely have to go 3-0 and a home game against a senior-laden Wall team will be the final hurdle before the gauntlet begins.