In each of the past two years, the Neptune football team’s season never really got off the ground after rough starts in both campaigns.

“You get off to a tough start and sometimes it can be hard to keep guys motivated,” senior two-way lineman Javon Roe said. “We can’t let that happen. We have to keep fighting every week, every play.”

This year, the Scarlet Fliers have a source of motivation and it’s one they wish never presented itself. Neptune graduate Braeden Bradforth – a defensive tackle on last year’s team – died suddenly after his first day of practice at Garden City Community College in Kansas.

The news hit the team hard a little more than a week before camp began and the returning players, particularly those like Roe who played with Bradforth on the defensive line, would like to honor their fallen teammate with their play this season.

“It was definitely a shock,” senior two-way lineman Sajjad Stathum said. “He was just a really good dude, always helping us younger guys out.”

“We said we want to dedicate this season to him,” senior wide receiver and defensive back Hassan Worthy said. “We want to go out and play the way he would want us to play and make him proud.”

For second-year coach Tarig Holman, it was a subject he never expected to have to address, and for the most part, he has tried to let his players process the news how they see fit.

“It doesn’t matter the circumstances, when you lose one of your brothers like that, there is going to be pain and hurt,” Holman said. “Everybody deals with it different and I think the administration does a good job of being there for the kids. From a coach’s standpoint, you just want your players to know that you have their best interest in mind.

“Our focus has been on football and it’s not something we want to bring up because I’m just not sure what the appropriate time or place is. At the same time, if the kids want to play for Braeden, I think it’s a great way to pay tribute to him if that’s what helps lift their spirit.”

Photo by Paula Lopez.

Neptune’s players also want to put to rest the bad memories from a winless 2017 season. Holman took over the program late in the summer and this time has taken advantage of a full offseason with his players. He also brought in a retooled coaching staff that includes former Monmouth Regional head coach Rich Mosca as assistant head coach and coach of the offensive and defensive lines.

Roe and Stathum are among the key pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, as is returning junior center Justin Bennett.

With some experience on the offensive line, Holman hopes to free up Neptune’s stable of skill players, which will offer plenty of speed to the offense. Senior Jayden McKinnon has played multiple roles in camp and has taken the majority of snaps at quarterback, although he also profiles as a slot back or receiver.

“He has been wearing a lot of hats for us,” Holman said of McKinnon. “We can play him wherever we need him, whether it’s quarterback, slot back, receiver, on defense. He’s been doing a good job and setting a good example for everybody else.”

As it is, McKinnon will direct Neptune’s run-heavy spread offense that will feature plenty of carries by running back Tyrese Turner, who has made a strong impression as a senior both in the backfield and at linebacker. The Scarlet Fliers also bring back sophomore Isaiah Leaks, who got some time in the backfield as a freshman last season.

Seniors Hassan Worthy and Tymir Owens will play wide receiver and also lead the way in the defensive secondary, with Worthy playing cornerback and Owens captaining the defense from his safety position.

“As seniors, we’re trying to get that same sense of urgency out of the younger guys,” Owens said. “When you are a senior, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wow, this is my last shot.’ It goes fast so we’re trying to get through to the younger guys that you have to make the most of your opportunity right now.”

Senior Elijah Barnes and junior Nyron Mitchell are two other potential contributors on the defensive line and junior John Gannon and senior Najiere Hutchinson, a Brick Memorial transfer, will join Turner at linebacker in Neptune’s 4-3 base look. Gannon earned a starting job as a sophomore last year and Hutchinson, who had 65 tackles last season for the Mustangs, has been one of the newcomers who has impressed the coaches.

Neptune no longer has to contend with Manalapan and Howell now that the Scarlet Fliers are in the Shore Conference’s new Liberty Division, but they still have to overcome some big-name programs like Manasquan, Point Boro and Raritan during the divisional schedule. Of course, it was not long ago that Neptune was, in its own right, a big name in the Shore Conference and the Fliers hope to be headed in that direction again.

“We want to get back to that tradition of fast, physical, winning football,” Owens said. “We have the seniors, we have the talent and we have the heart. We just have to go prove it.”

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Tarig Holman, second season

2017 record: 0-10 (0-6 in Class A North)

Offense: Spread

Defense: 4-3

Coaching staff: Derrick Eatman (Co-Off. Coordinator); Dan Wendel (Co-Off. Coordinator/Special Teams); Rich Mosca (Assistant Head Coach/OL/DL); Kevin Coleman (Def. Coordinator); Jay McQuay (Assistant;, Mysonn Ledet (Assistant); Netanis Beane (Assistant); Dennis Hubbard (Assistant).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Sajjad Stathum, Sr., OL/DL and Devon Roe, Sr., OL/DL

Every team loses players to graduation but the Neptune players can only wish that was the only manner in which they lost their former teammate Braeden Bradforth, who died suddenly following a practice at a junior college in Kansas. Stathum and Roe learned from Bradforth last year and they want to play this season in his memory by leading a strong line on both sides of the ball.

X-FACTOR: The lines

Speaking of the lines, Neptune’s line has been inconsistent at times but Holman and his staff have been pleased with the progress the team is making on both sides of the ball. If the offensive line continues to progress, Neptune has enough speed to cause problems on offense and create some chaos on defense.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jayden McKinnon, Sr., QB

McKinnon will be asked to play quarterback, running back and defensive back, so while he has varsity experience, he will be asked to cover the Scarlet Fliers at a lot of positions depending on the matchup and which players are delivering at other positions.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 7 vs. Raritan

Slow starts have doomed Neptune in recent years and if the Fliers are fixing for a turnaround this year, it will have to start on Week 1 against a Raritan team coming off a 4-6 season. Week 2 will be a meeting with a strong Manasquan team and if Neptune can find a way to get to 1-1, there is a winnable game against Colts Neck in Week 3 that could set the Fliers up for an ideal start, but only if they get off on the right foot in the season-opener.

 

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