2014 Matawan Football Preview: Hungry Dogs
There might not have been a more frustrated team around playoff time last year than Matawan, which was the only Shore Conference squad to have a winning record and not qualify for the postseason.
The Huskies watched as multiple sub-.500 teams made their way into the NJSIAA Tournament while they didn't have enough power points to qualify, making them more fired-up than ever to return to their customary perch as a playoff contender in the Central Jersey Group III bracket this fall.
“That was very aggravating,” said junior linebacker Aliem Shaw. “We’re going to the playoffs this year. That’s guaranteed.”
“We’re really hungry,’’ said head coach John Kaye. “We had a great summer, and we’re ready. We’re chomping at the bit.”
The youth brigade that was thrown into the fire last year now returns as seasoned veterans on both sides of the ball. Last season the Huskies had one of the best defenses in the Shore Conference, allowing only 8.9 points per game and the third-least total points of any team. That unit looks to be fast and ferocious again this year led by Shaw, a Shore Sports Network first-team All-Shore selection who led the conference with 17 sacks and 30 tackles for a loss. A 190-pound tackling machine who runs the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds, he has gotten interest from North Carolina State, Rutgers, Michigan State and Nebraska, according to Kaye.
“I’m going to try to fly to the ball more because I’m bigger and faster than last year,’’ Shaw said. “My goal is 20-plus sacks and 120-plus tackles. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Shaw will be at middle linebacker in the Huskies’ 4-3 scheme, and junior Isaiah Phillip returns at strongside linebacker after making 73 tackles and 15 tackles for a loss as a sophomore. Senior Devon Spann, the team’s leading rusher last year, should see significant time at weakside linebacker along with senior Matt Liebowitz.
Up front, the Huskies have a defensive line rotation of senior returner Jake Weber, who had 40 tackles last year, along with senior Dan Corredor, junior Austin Santana-Simmons and sophomore Andrew Conzo. Those four are interchangeable as far as switching between defensive tackle and defensive end.
“We are an attacking defense,’’ Kaye said. “We’re going to pressure people like there’s no tomorrow. We are going to bring people from every angle you can consider them coming from, and we’re going to stop the run. Our defense allows us to be more aggressive offensively because we don’t think, ‘We can’t lose field position,’ or ‘We can’t give this team the ball here so we have to play three safe and punt.’ That will never be the case with our defense.”
“Our defense was mostly all sophomores last year, and we were pretty good,’’ Shaw said. “(Defensive coordinator Jay) Bellamy really helped us, and now that we have more experience and more of a feel for the game, we’re going to be good this year.”
Their secondary could be one of the Shore Conference’s best, led by junior cornerback Dejohn Rogers, who is being recruited by the same schools as Shaw, according to Kaye. He is a returning starter, and both safeties are returning starters. Senior Justin Ferrara led the team with three interceptions last year, and senior Shawn Ramcheran also returns at safety after making 59 tackles. Junior Mikaya Caesar steps into the other cornerback spot after seeing time on offense last year. Freshman Devonte Spann, Devon’s younger brother, also could see time at safety, and junior Naz Neal, who was at Neptune but has transferred back to Matawan, could see time at cornerback.
“I think we’re going to scare some teams,’’ Rogers said. “We’ve got a star linebacker and our DBs are looking good. I think we’re going to be really great this year.”
In order to get over the hump and challenge for championships, the Huskies will have to improve an offense that averaged 18.2 points per game last year and struggled against playoff-caliber teams. They have changed the offense to a no-huddle spread attack, with four-wide receiver looks, zone read plays and more in order to take advantage of their team speed. They had strong 7-on-7 performances at Rutgers and Monmouth University over the summer in addition to winning the Shore Conference 7-on-7 Tournament at the U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic.
“We felt like we had kids who can catch 3-yard passes on the perimeter and run 60 yards with them, so let’s try to get the ball in the hands of playmakers as fast as we can,’’ Kaye said. “We have to get the ball in the hands of the right people in the right places, so we’re trying to open things up a little bit, get some space on the field and put the ball in the hands of athletes in space to make plays.”
Senior Jimmy Pierce returns for his second year as the starter at quarterback after throwing for 547 yards and a touchdown and running for 245 yards and two scores last year. He is being pushed by promising freshman L.C. Pearson, the nephew of former Dallas Cowboys great Drew Pearson. Pierce and Pearson are both expected to get snaps this year.
“Jimmy is really accepting the challenge,’’ Kaye said. “He’s got a young kid pushing him, and he’s really stepped up. He’s a leader, and he knows what every kid on every play is doing.”
Devon Spann is back at tailback after rushing for 848 yards and five touchdowns, and Shaw is expected to see significant time in the backfield as well to take advantage of his athleticism. Junior Kyle Midtlyng, a transfer from St. Joseph’s-Metuchen, also could get some carries along with seeing time at cornerback on defense, and Caesar is in the running back mix as well.
The receiving corps is deep and talented, as Rogers, Ferrara and Ramcheran are all returning starters. Junior Alex Pierce also will see time at wide receiver, and Liebowitz returns at tight end after seeing time there last year.
“I’m real excited,’’ Ramcheran said. “We have a little bit more speed than we had last year and now we get to spread it out.”
“We plan on scoring a lot of points this year,’’ Rogers said. “We just need to execute better.”
On the offensive line, Weber is a returning starter at center, Corredor will be at one guard spot, and junior Mike Kawka is the other guard after starting two games as a sophomore. A pair of sophomores, Donald Smalls and Mike McHugh, will be the tackles. Junior Dave Sherman also looks to be in the offensive line rotation.
Senior Adam Elliot has perhaps the most daunting task as he will be replacing kicker/punter Mike Creamer, who set a Shore Conference single-season record with 14 field goals last year and also was a field-position weapon as a punter. Elliot is the shortstop on the Huskies’ baseball team and just came out for football this year, but has shown potential as a kicker. Either he or Jimmy Pierce will handle the punting.
The lackluster nondivisional schedule that hurt Matawan in the power points department last year has been replaced with one that includes games against South Jersey Group III finalist Barnegat, playoff qualifier Long Branch and playoff qualifier Colonia. The Huskies also have been realigned from Class B North into Class A Central, which means old rivalries with the likes of Raritan, Manasquan and Rumson-Fair Haven will be renewed.
“It’s great,’’ Kaye said. “We kind of rekindle the fire with those teams. Matawan and Raritan should play. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Also, their Thanksgiving rivalry game with St. John Vianney has been moved to the season opener. That game should have plenty of juice given that All-Division defensive back Khalil Haskins and tailback/linebacker Calvin Beaty both transferred from Matawan to St. John Vianney in the offseason. The Lancers also feature multiple other starters with Matawan ties.
“If they want to leave, we’re just going to have to play them and show them why they should’ve stayed at Matawan,’’ Shaw said.
“We’ve been playing with those kids since they were younger,’’ Weber said. “They did what they did, and all I have to say is that we’ll see them September 12th.”
Head coach: John Kaye, 3rd season (9th overall)
Career record: 13-7 (43-22-1 overall)
Assistant coaches: Jay Bellamy (def. coord./spec. teams/QB); Sam Turner (OL); Nick Christathakis (LB/FB/TE); Charlie Marsh (LB); Nick Citro (DL); Ken Mandeville (RB); Justin Bloss (TE); Buddy Scott (WR); Scott Davis (WR); Dave Monro, Nick Vasilenko, Bobby Carnovsky (freshman); Matt Goetz (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 7-3 (3-3)
Big shoes to fill: Adam Elliot, Sr., K/P
Elliot has come out from the baseball team to help fill the void left by Mike Creamer, a first-team All-Shore selection who did not miss a PAT last year and booted a Shore Conference-record 14 field goals. Also, senior Jake Weber will need to help fill the production of Dartmouth recruit Nick Tomkins on the defensive line.
X-factor: Offensive production and quarterback play.
If the Huskies’ new spread offense takes off, you’re looking at a team that will be a serious contender for division and state titles. Pierce had one touchdown throw and eight interceptions last year, so if he can make a leap forward and Pearson can add a downfield passing dimension with his strong arm, this will be a complete team.
Glue Guy: Aliem Shaw, Jr., RB/LB.
Shaw not only will once again be called on to lead the defense, but he will be regularly playing both ways in seeing time at tailback, so he can set the tone on both sides of the ball.
Impact Newcomer: L.C. Pearson, Fr., QB
At 6-2 with a strong arm and fluid throwing motion already as a freshman, Pearson is Matawan’s quarterback of the future and should see some action this fall.
Pivotal game: Sept. 12 at St. John Vianney.
Not only is this a rivalry game, but the season opener is also a divisional game. The Lancers will be looking to make a statement with a new-look team under head coach Mark Ciccotelli, while Matawan wants to keep the upper hand in the rivalry. Plus there’s the subplot of the two transfers Matawan lost to St. John Vianney. The beginning of the season is crucial for the Huskies, who follow that game with a huge home game against Rumson-Fair Haven a week later.