I will readily admit it still doesn’t feel like the football season is about to begin even though the Week Zero games are upon us. But try telling that to the players on the four teams set to take the field Friday night and see what they have to say.

Southern, Central, Ocean and Monmouth begin their 2016 seasons tonight and officially kick off the latest Shore Conference football season. All the offseason work put in - the weight lifting, running, camps, video review and more - will be put to the test. This is truly the best time of the year if you’re a football player or a fan. Every team is 0-0 and has their dreams for the upcoming season fully intact. Now it’s time to make good on those promises.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again: these Week Zero games feel like an appetizer for the main course coming next weekend, where we’ll have a full slate of games on Friday and Saturday with every other team - expect those with the dreaded Week One bye - beginning their seasons. But tonight at 7 p.m., Southern hosts Central and Ocean welcomes Monmouth in a pair of rivalry games. For the past nine months all these teams have thought about and prepared for is this one opponent, so we can certainly expect plenty of intensity in both games.

A South Clash

The Emmert-Boyd Trophy will be on the line tonight when Southern welcomes old rival and now division foe Central to Stafford. Welcome may be putting it kindly. Central has won the last two games in the series, including a thrilling overtime victory last season, and that does not sit well with Southern’s players.

After going 4-6 last season against a difficult schedule with a young and inexperienced roster, Southern is ready to get back to being a playoff team with almost all of its starters returning. Senior quarterback Sam Cammarata started the second half of the season and gave the Rams something to look forward to by leading two game-winning drives and fueling four comeback wins. He has weapons all around him, including a good stable of running backs led by juniors Joe and Vin Miele and a good mix of pass catchers.

Miele was hurt right before last season’s opener and missed four games. He started on defense as a freshman, so his presence was sorely missed. When he came back he played mostly defense. Now he’ll play a ton on both sides of the ball, and Southern is excited to see what he can do in the backfield as a punishing, downhill runner.

The one area Southern has to work in new starters is on the offensive line. Two starters return on the left side with tackle Ryan Bakker and guard Devin VandeVelde.

Defensively, the Rams look stout with three starters back along the defensive line, two more at linebacker and four in the secondary. Zach Otte and Jesse Amirr will reprise their roles at defensive end with VandeVelde at defensive tackle. Two players to watch on the line are 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior Terrick Grace and 6-foot-2, 290-pound sophomore Sean MacGillivray.

Southern expects Joe Miele to be a thundering presence at inside linebacker where senior Dane Walker will also play in the 5-2 base alignment.

Southern junior running back and linebacker Joe Miele. (Photo by Bill Normile).

Southern is going to want to establish the run but remain balanced with Cammarata making plays in the passing game. The Rams feel he can be more than just a game manager and, frankly, need him to be if they are going to be competitive in A South.

On the defensive side it starts and end with stopping Central’s standout running back, senior Mike Bickford.

Central is in a transition year with Justin Fumando taking over as the head coach and the Golden Eagles moving up from Class B South to Class A South. Central has won 19 games over the past three seasons, but the schedule will be a great challenge this year. The good news is that Bickford and his 3,600 career rushing yards are back. Not a bad place to start.

Bickford ran for school-record 2,052 yards as a sophomore and was close to 1,600 yards last season. He has burned Southern with some huge runs in each of the last two games and is clearly Central’s best offensive player. All eyes wearing the black and gold will be fixed on him tonight.

Fumando, who was Manalapan’s defensive coordinator for the past five seasons, has brought many of the Braves’ principles with him to Central. They Eagles will run a Pro-I offense that aims to be as balanced as possible, but that without question aims to run the ball first and foremost. It’s a great fit for Bickford. The main question is how Central can compliment him with many new skill players. Either 6-foot-3 junior Eli Allen or promising sophomore Joe Fowler will be at quarterback. Senior Anthony Holloway leads the group of wide receivers.

Central senior running back Mike Bickford (21) and senior tight end Denis Corbin (45). (photo by Eric Braun)

Another important and versatile player for Central is senior Denis Tobin. He played fullback last year but will be at tight end as a senior. His ability to provide solid blocking and also be a factor in the passing game is crucial. He had a big moment in this game last season with a great catch on fourth down to keep a drive alive late in the game.

What may end up being the Eagles’ biggest asset is having four returning starters on the offensive line. Class A South is known for its great line play, and being undersized and outmanned is not a good combination. Seniors Alex Maj and John Matuska, and juniors Brandon Voss and Blake Horgan lead the way with newcomer Waylon Spear at tackle. If this group is strong expect a big game - and year - from Bickford.

As a former defensive coordinator, Fumando’s prints are all over Central’s 3-4 defense, which is led by Corbin at defensive end and Bickford at linebacker. It’s not reasonable to think Central’s defense to all of the sudden play at the level Manalapan has, but the expectations are certainly there for the Eagles to develop a defensive identity.

Central wants to get off to a good start under Fumando and show it can compete in Class A South. Southern has revenge on its mind after losing two in a row in the series, so expect an intense atmosphere tonight.

Falcons Try to Contain Pickett and Co.

The other game on Friday night features Ocean hosting rival Monmouth Regional. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, a University of Pittsburgh recruit, leads a Spartans team looking to break through after falling in the state sectional semifinals in each of the last three seasons.

Monmouth, meanwhile, is looking to keep improving under veteran head coach Rich Mosca, but will have to replace 26 graduated seniors while also beginning the season without starting quarterback Casey Pachucki.

Ocean quarterback Kenny Pickett. (Photo by Mark Brown/B51 Photography).

Ocean looks to have an explosive offense led by Pickett and senior wide receiver Joey Aldarelli, but will have to replace four-year starting running back Tyler Thompson, who is the program’s all-time leading rusher. Senior Anthony Tedesco will play important roles on both sides of the ball as a running back and middle linebacker, and the Braves also have young like in sophomore Billy Levy and freshman Sean Rossback they are high on.

Ocean’s offensive line has two starters back in Chris Vivian and Andrew Worthington, and as long as that unit can keep Pickett upright the team should have a big year. Pickett has looked great this preseason and is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the state. It will be a surprise if the Spartans aren’t a top-10 offense in the Shore Conference this season.

With Pachucki out for a few games with a knee injury, senior Jay Eustace will take over as the starting quarterback for Monmouth. The Falcons also have to replace most of their offensive line as right guard Brandon Mejia is the lone returning starter.

Monmouth Regional's Casey Pachucki (22). (Photo by Robert Samuels).

Monmouth will lean on its running backs early with seniors Jermiah Clarke and Asod Yarborough working in tandem. Another player to watch is wide receiver Elijah Walker.

Containing Pickett and Ocean’s offense will be a huge challenge for the Falcons’ defense, so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. One new player who could make an impact for Monmouth is defensive end Tyler Rebmann. He won’t be hard to spot as he stands 6-foot-7. He decided to come out for the football team after sticking to basketball in past years.

Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.