In his first year as head coach at Monmouth Regional, Larry Nikola helped turn the Falcons fortunes by guiding them to their first winning season since 2008 and a trip to the sectional semifinals.

The more lasting accomplishment of last year’s turnaround, however, was the rest of the student body at Monmouth is taking football seriously again, and Nikola has used that as a recruiting pitch.

“I was in school three days a week for weightlifting at 5:30 in the morning, so afterward, I just walk around the halls looking for football players,” Nikola said. “I’ve had a lot of nos and some sideways looks, but a lot of the kids are starting to come around to the idea. I picked up about six new players walking through the hallways.”

Last year’s Falcons were heavy on senior talent, including Ian Fitzgerald, who returned to the football field for the first time since his sophomore year at Red Bank Regional and ran for more than 1,300 yards for his new school.

Replacing Fitzgerald and the rest of last year’s senior class that included five Class A Central All-Division selections will be the most pressing matter for Nikola and his new-look coaching staff, which has been made a little easier thanks to a handful of players who decided to try football this year. For all of the players in the fold this year, the bar is raised after the Falcons were just minutes away from reaching the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 3 final a year ago before falling to eventual champion, Somerville.

“We looked at it as a positive but it’s still wasn’t enough for us,” senior Eli Rife said of last season’s success.

Photo by Steve Meyer.

The first order of business for this season was to turn the offense over to senior quarterback Dayshawn Porter, who battled an ankle injury last season. After Fitzgerald and the running backs were the main focus of Monmouth’s offense last year, Porter is now the player around whom Nikola and his staff will tailor this year’s spread offense.

“Dayshawn is a dynamic player and he is the kind of kid you want to have a chance to make as many plays as possible and that’s what we’re going to try to do with him in this offense,” Nikola said. “He is obviously a tremendous athlete and he can really throw the ball so we’re going to try to turn him loose.”

Monmouth also graduated an all-division wide receiver in Devon Johnson but return two accomplished senior receivers in Rife and Jevauhn Garcia. Sophomore Sheldon Larivierne is one of the first-year players and along with senior Drew Faccone will add depth to the receiving corps.

“Dayshawn has a great arm, so he’s a super athlete out there,” Rife said. “It’s hard for a defense to play him and he’s been here for a couple years now, so he’s really got it down.”

“I feel we’re even stronger at receiver than we were last year, which is another reason we decided to go in the direction that we’re headed on offense,” Nikola said. “Those two guys – Garcia and Rife – didn’t catch a lot of passes last year because of the style of offense we played, but they understand their responsibilities and they are big-time players.”

The running back responsibilities will fall primarily to senior Cam Taylor, who is in line to take over the spot occupied by Fitzgerald. Porter will do his share of running as well, but Taylor will help take the pressure off. Freshmen Mikal Braithwaite and Nayson Brown will also push for touches out of the backfield.

The offensive line will also need an overhaul due to graduation and Nikola is shifting a pair of his returnees around in order to patch the holes. Senior Tyler Collins will move to left guard after playing center last year and classmate J.T. Plasteras shifts from tight end to tackle now that the spread will reduce the need for a tight end. Senior left guard Robert Witkowski is the one returning lineman who will play the same position that he did last year.

“It’s a lot different as a senior now that we are in charge of keeping guys in line and leading the team,” Collins said. “The biggest difference is there is a lot more focus this year now that guys know what’s expected of them. Practices are a lot more intense and the new coaches on the staff are really pushing us.”

Monmouth is also changing up the defense, switching from a 4-3 base to a 3-3 stack look. The defensive line will be made up almost entirely of players new to the program, according to Nikola. Freshman Raysun Banks will be a starting defensive end with senior newcomers Jake Hollander and David Bettencourt battling for time at defensive end, as well. Hollander is one of the school’s top wrestlers and Bettencourt has been solely a basketball player until this season.

Senior Chris Derkson is a 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound nose tackle who is playing football for the first time this year. The native of Netherlands was one of the players Nikola spotted in the hallway at school and invited him to give football a try.

“I told him he is bigger than 98 percent of the players in the NFL so imagine what he can do on a high school field,” Nikola said. “The good thing about him is he listens. He wants to learn and that’s what has been good about a lot of these kids coming out for the first time is they genuinely want to pay attention, work at it and get better.”

Monmouth’s experienced starts to kick in at linebacker and in the secondary. Senior Patrick Bellucci played middle linebacker with Anthony Guarino last season and is back as the lone middle linebacker in this year’s formation. He will be flanked by Brown on the weak side and senior Anthony Vega on the strong side.

Porter, Garcia and Rife will play in the secondary, with Porter and Garcia lining up at corner and Rife playing the safety spot. Nikola figures the two rover spots in the defense will be a rotation.

The latest Shore Conference realignment should benefit Monmouth in giving the Falcons a more manageable schedule that no longer includes St. John Vianney and Rumson-Fair Haven. They will still have to play Point Pleasant Boro and now take on a strong Manasquan team, but the overall collection of teams should provide the Falcons a chance to compete.

More than the schedule, the Monmouth players and coaches are focusing on maintaining the cultural transformation that defined last season.

“State championship: that’s the goal,” Collins said. “Coach always talks about getting to the 12th game and that’s what we want. Twelve games and a ring.”

 

At a Glance

Head coach: Larry Nikola, second season

Career record: 7-4

2017 record: 7-4 (4-2 in A Central)

Coaching staff: Mike Tedeschi (Off. Coordinator), Frank Monello (Def. Coordinator), Mike Dragonetti (OL/DL), Tye Coleman (RB/LB), Vince Tesi (OL/DL), Andrew Faccone (RB/LB), Ross Dickerson (WR/DB).

Offense: Spread

Defense: 3-3 Stack

Big Shoes to Fill: Cam Taylor, Sr., RB

Last year’s addition of senior Ian Fitzgerlad was a game-changer for Monmouth and the Falcons will try to replace that production (ninth at the Shore with 1,346 rushing yards) in order to continue the program turnaround that began last year.

X-Factor: Dayshawn Porter, Sr., QB/DB

Monmouth is retooling their offense to better cater to the ability of its projected starter at quarterback. Porter is the best all-around athlete and player on the team, and if the Falcons can successfully implement the spread offense and get Porter pitching the ball around the field to go with a dangerous run game, Monmouth will be a handful again this year.

Impact Newcomer: Raysun Banks, Fr., DE

Only a freshman, Banks won a defensive end spot early on in camp thanks to his advanced size and strength. Monmouth will be fairly inexperienced on the defensive line, so Banks will have plenty of responsibility early on.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 22 vs. Point Boro

Monmouth’s first loss of the season last year came at the hands of Point Boro in a close, low-scoring affair. This year, both teams are in the Liberty Division, so their late-September meeting carries some extra weight. With Colts Neck and Raritan on tap for the first two weeks, Monmouth will have a chance to start 3-0 in it can knock off the Panthers heading into a tough Week 4 test against Manasquan.

 

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