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When asked about a 2014 schedule that includes a defending state champion and seven playoff teams from last year, including the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference, Long Branch senior linebacker Hunter Baillie could only smile.

“We say it’s an SEC schedule,’’ Baillie said. “I think we can make it through it and get right back into states.”

After making a first-round playoff exit in Central Jersey Group III last year, the Green Wave return standout Dahmiere Willis in the backfield, a veteran offensive line, and some key pieces from one of the Shore’s best defenses as they prepare to run the gauntlet of one of the conference’s toughest schedules.  The Green Wave will open with Red Bank Catholic, which has been realigned into Class B North and enters the season having won 33 straight games against Shore Conference competition.

Senior Dahmiere Willis takes over at tailback after playing fullback for Long Branch last season and is expected to be one of the Shore's best. (Photo by Sport Shots WLB)

Giving them confidence is the return of Willis, who ran for 640 yards and nine touchdowns on an average of 8.6 yards per carry in playing fullback in Long Branch’s multiple-I attack last year. He now slides into the tailback spot vacated by Deon Williams, who led the team with 769 yards rushing as a senior. The explosive Willis has received FCS interest and appears poised for a breakout senior season on offense after being a three-year starter in the secondary on defense.

“It just makes me want to grind harder,’’ he said. “I know I got a big spot to fill, but I’m working hard.”

“I can’t say enough good things about the kid,’’ veteran head coach Dan George said. “I think he’s special. I think he has the ‘it’ factor. I put him up with the best in the Shore Conference.”

Junior Jahmir Elliot-Hare should also see some carries at tailback, and senior Qu’Ran Standard will take over at fullback in an offense that averaged 19.3 points per game last year.

Senior Jordan Rodriguez returns at quarterback after starting six games as a junior, throwing for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns and also running for 87 yards. He tore his ACL in February and has been cleared for practice, but has missed some early scrimmages because he has not been cleared for contact yet. Teams were able to load the box against Long Branch’s running game last season, so the improvement of Rodriguez as a dual threat will be a key factor in the Green Wave’s ultimate success.

“He’s a good mix of run-pass, and he’s a tremendous leader,’’ George said.

Rodriguez’s primary targets will be senior David Colbert, a returning starter at wide receiver, and senior Joe Sanchez. Senior John Mimes, who transferred from Middletown North in the middle of last season, is a returning starter at tight end with great potential at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with good speed for his size.

Long Branch returns three starters up front in 275-pound senior tackle Andrew Huff, 255-pound junior tackle Cameron Hills, and 240-pound junior guard Joe Jasio. Junior Steve Kologi steps in as the new center, and junior Nick Stoia is a newcomer at the other guard spot.

“In order for (Willis) to be that good, we’ve got to do some things right,’’ George said. “We’ve got to get movement up front, we’ve got to block some people, and obviously he can’t do it alone.”

The Green Wave return one of the Shore Conference’s more underrated kickers, three-year starter Vinny Mota, who booted four field goals last season, including a 39-yarder. He also will be the punter.

Senior Vinny Mota returns as the placekicker after nailing four field goals last year. (Photo by Sport Shots WLB)

Defensively, Long Branch returns experience at all three levels of its 4-3 scheme under coordinator Nick Tranchina that limited opponents to only 10.1 points per game last year. It has to replace its top two tacklers, but has plenty of talent, starting with Baillie, a three-year starter. He has played defensive end the past two seasons but now moves to strongside linebacker, which is the position he projects to play at the next level. He has received interest from Towson University, Monmouth University and the University of Delaware, who want to see film of him at linebacker from his first few games this fall.

“I started learning about (linebacker) at the one-day camps, but it’s really new to me,’’ Baillie said. “At D-end, you don’t have as many responsibilities as a linebacker. I’m used to sacking guys, not playing in coverage.”

“He’s got to continue to be the playmaker on defense that he’s been in the past years,’’ George said.

Mimes is a returning starter at defensive end, where he looks to be a force now that he has had a full offseason with the team.

“He’s settled in, and his upside is Division I,’’ George said. “He’s a great kid, really good student, and he’s got his head on straight. Those guys, the Mimeses and the Baillies, they’ve got to carry us, make big plays for us, and keep us in ballgames.”

Jasio will be at the other defensive end spot after seeing time there last season. The defensive tackles are both newcomers who look to be formidable obstacles to opposing running games, 360-pound junior Sean Madison and 6-foot-2, 300-pound junior John Tomlinson.

Joining Baillie in a linebacking corps that has to replace Williams and Connor Mullan will be Standard at weakside linebacker and senior Brandon Lane at middle linebacker, with sophomore Austin Cannon also in the rotation. Willis returns as one of the Shore Conference’s top safeties in a secondary that should be a strength with both cornerbacks also returning in Colbert and Elliot-Hare. Senior Darin Harmon is a newcomer at the other safety spot.

The hope is that it all adds up to a team that can withstand the grind of one physical game after another against quality opponents to make a deeper playoff run. In addition to RBC and Central Jersey Group IV finalist Colts Neck, the Green Wave also have to deal with defending Central Jersey Group II champion Rumson-Fair Haven, defending Class B North champion Ocean, playoff qualifiers Neptune and Wall, a strong Matawan team coming off a seven-win season, and the Carteret team that beat them in the playoffs last season.

If they can make it through that stretch, they will be as battle-hardened as any team in the playoffs.

“The challenge is the schedule and knowing that we can survive it,’’ George said. “I think we have a good group, and they’re looking forward to taking it on.”

 

Head coach: Dan George, 16th season (18th overall)

Career record: 121-61

Assistant Coaches: Nick Tranchina (def. coord.); Ben Woolley (OL/DL); Chad King (DB); John Jasio (OL/DL); Terrance King (RB); Kris Parker (WR); Frank Pannullo, Derrell Sapp, Mike Dennis (freshman); Chris Grande (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 7-3 (5-1)

Big Shoes to Fill: Hunter Baillie, Sr., LB

Baillie moves to linebacker from defensive end, where he has to help make up for the production lost by the graduation of Deon Williams and Connor Mullan while continuing to be a disruptive force who can create turnovers, drop into coverage and get after the quarterback.

X-Factor: Jordan Rodriguez and the passing game.

This was Long Branch’s Achilles’ heel last year. The passing game was nearly non-existent, and it allowed teams to gang up on Willis and Williams. They have to throw the ball better this year to keep teams honest and give themselves a chance to come back if they fall behind on the scoreboard later in games.

Glue Guy: Dahmiere Willis, Sr., RB/DB

Willis will be crucial to this team’s success at tailback and at safety and has embraced more of a leadership role as a senior. They will go as far as he can take them.

Impact Newcomer: John Mimes, Sr., TE/DE

While he did see some time last year, he didn’t show up until later in the season when he transferred from Middletown North. At a chiseled 6-4 and 215 pounds, Mimes has scholarship potential and should particularly be a force on defense.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 17 vs. Ocean

This looks to be an important divisional game in the middle of the season that could really affect Long Branch’s fortunes strongly in one direction or the other. Both teams are in Central Jersey Group III, so this is a big power-point swing for the winner as well.