WEST LONG BRANCH — Three seasons ago, Joe Johnson was a wide-eyed freshman pressed into action thanks to a depleted secondary. Entering his junior season he’s the elder statesman and leader of Monmouth University’s defensive backfield.

Johnson played in eight games as a true freshman before starting 11 games as a sophomore, recording 49 tackles with six pass deflections and one interception. This season he returns as the only starter from a season ago. As a freshman he had to assume a starting role out of necessity. As a junior he’ll be forced into a leadership role.

Junior cornerback Joe Johnson (28 in blue) covers Thad Richard during team drills at Monmouth University's media day practice. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“I do feel like I’m kind of the leader back there,” Johnson said during Monmouth University’s media day on Tuesday. “We have some other guys that have some experience, but I try to be the one that makes sure everybody is in line.”

Head coach Kevin Callahan praised Johnson’s progress between his freshman and sophomore seasons when he met with the media following practice.

“He’s had a very good spring and he’s playing very well right now,” Callahan said.

The Manchester High School graduate came to Monmouth after being selected as the Shore Conference Class B South Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior and being selected as a first team All-Shore defensive back. He also ran for over 3,000 yards in his career as a running back.

“Freshman year was definitely a process,” Johnson said. “Sophomore year it really helped to have Tevrin Brandon to push me. Now that he’s gone I have to really step up my game. I have to be a technician, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on. The coaches know I can make plays and fly around to the ball, but they really want me to work on being more technical.”

Johnson remembered back to his freshman season and how much of a whirlwind it was. After two years and 19 games, including 11 starts last season, he’s a much different player.

“It really is crazy because I feel like it was just yesterday I was trying to learn the plays and had no idea what was going on,” Johnson. “I learned a lot from the older guys, and it’s my time to lead now. I’m way more comfortable on the field and with the coaching staff and players around me.”

Basile Turning Heads

Freshman safety Mike Basile has been one of the most talked-about players in training camp so far. The Brick Memorial High School graduate, a two-time Shore Sports Network All-Shore defensive back, is pushing for playing time in a secondary that returns just one starter from last season.

Freshman Mike Basile (30 in blue) covers freshman Vinny Grasso (38 in white) during team drills at Monmouth University's media day practice. (Photo by Bob Badders).

Callahan mentioned Basile in his opening statement to the media, and commented on how impressed he was with Basile’s quick transition to Division I football.

“How fast he’s learned is what’s impressed me the most,” Callahan said. “He really was able to make a seamless transition where a lot of freshman struggle. A lot of it is mental, and our safety position is one of the most difficult to learn on the team because of all the nuances of the position. He’s done a fabulous job while playing very fast. A lot of the time that slows a player down but that doesn’t seem to be happening with him.”

Basile came to Monmouth with a desire to compete for a starting position, but with the realistic approach that he had an uphill battle in front of him.

“Coming in I wasn’t trying to attack it too much,” Basile said. “I didn’t think I was going to start right away. I know my place, but going out there and seeing I could play raised my confidence.”

At Brick Memorial, Basile was known for his speed and downhill approach. A hard-hitter who also could close quickly on pass routes, Basile’s style of play set him up for early success at the collegiate level.

“Coming from high school I was a fast player and always going downhill, and that’s what you need at this level,” Basile said. “You can’t think too much. You have to be able to react.”

“He’s been playing wonderfully,” Johnson said. “He makes a lot of plays just running to the ball, and he gets there quick. There might be times when he makes a mistake, and that’s going to happen for a freshman, but he’s always flying 100 miles per hour. I’ve seen him come all the way across the field and get his hand on a ball where I’m like, ‘I don’t know how he did that.'”

The Hit

Junior defensive back Ed Royds delivered a crushing hit on senior wide receiver Eric Sumlin during team drills on Tuesday, sending him flying out of bounds. Royds is in his first year at Monmouth after transferring from the United States Naval Academy, where he played on the Navy Prep football team. He is a 2011 graduate of Shawnee High School.

Heavy Shore Conference Presence

A total of 16 former Shore Conference players are on Monmouth’s 2014 roster. Seniors Neal Sterling (Manasquan) and Lamar Davenport (Asbury Park) are the leading returning receivers while senior Josh Siemanowicz (Manchester) is a returning starter along the defensive line. Junior John Sieczkowski (Manalapan) is a returning starter at linebacker. Junior Dimitrius Smith (Jackson Memorial) should see plenty of playing time along a deep and talented defensive line, as could senior Corey Neal (Lacey) and sophomore Manny Maragato (Freehold Township). Junior Jack Eisenstadt (Rumson-Fair Haven) also plays along the defensive line.

Senior Dan Sullivan (Manasquan) returns after not playing last season. He led the Hawks with 64 tackles as a junior and started 23 straight games from 2011 through 2012. Senior Jahmer Bunch (Red Bank Regional) is competing for playing time in the secondary while senior Evan Ruane (Shore Regional) is doing the same at tight end/H-back.

Four freshmen will battle for playing time, as well. Basile leads the list with his impressive camp performances so far, while Vinny Grasso (Donovan Catholic) is working his way in as a slot receiver. The offensive line returns just two starters from last season, so Ryan Wetzel (Colts Neck) and Peter Righi (Rumson-Fair Haven) have an outside shot at seeing playing time.