2014 Ocean Football Preview: Ready to Reload
Ocean was one win away from its first state final berth since 2005 last season, but will need a host of newcomers to produce immediately if the Spartans are going to come back and finish the job in Central Jersey Group III this fall.
Their only loss in a 10-win season came at the hands of eventual champion Hopewell Valley in the sectional semifinals, and they now have to find a way to replace almost the entire lineup from one of the Shore Conference’s top defenses last season. The good news is that they still have one of the best running backs in the state, junior Tyler Thompson, who should only continue to get better after registering his second straight 1,000-yard season in racking up 1,481 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore.
“A lot of people are saying we’re not going to be as good because we lost nine starters off our defense, but in our scrimmages so far, it looks like we’re going to be fine,’’ Thompson said. “We’re not coming soft this year.”
Thompson is the centerpiece of the new spread offense installed by legendary former Bergen Catholic head coach Fred Stengel, who has come aboard as the Spartans’ new offensive coordinator. Stengel led the Crusaders to 192 wins, nine state titles and 21 straight playoff appearances in his 22-year tenure. Klein met with him for five hours in the offseason, and Stengel decided he would get back into coaching by leading the Spartans’ offense.
Stengel has a great building block to start with in Thompson, who has offers from Penn State, Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse, UConn, Old Dominion and Temple as well as interest from Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Maryland and reigning national champion Florida State. He leads an offense that averaged 25.2 points per game last year.
“I think he’s going to continue to improve, which is really scary because he’s much better than what he’s been, and he’s been tremendous,’’ head coach Don Klein said. “I think we can do a better job of two things. One, using him in the pass game, because he’s a tremendous receiver, and two, doing a better job of making sure that it’s difficult for other teams to take him away.”
Sophomore Kenny Pickett, who saw a little varsity time as a freshman, takes over at quarterback with the departure of starter Royal Moore, who transferred to Class B North rival Neptune. Pickett will be counted upon to consistently make plays and keep defenses from ganging up at the line of scrimmage to stop Thompson.
“He’s probably one of the hardest workers on this team, and last year he was on the sideline every game itching to get in,’’ said senior wide receiver/safety Frank Henry. “He knows the offense, he’s been helping everyone out, and he’s acting like a leader as a young guy.”
“To me, he’s just like Royal, just a little smaller, but he can throw and run, and he’s got moves,’’ Thompson said.
Junior Ru’Quan Dean should also see some carries at tailback in relief of Thompson, and the fullback will be either sophomore Anthony Tedesco or junior Tyler Rossback. The wide receivers are all new and will feature the group of senior Marcus Blackman, junior Grayson Stoothoff, sophomore Joe Aldorelli and Henry. Blackman started in the secondary last year and looks to be a versatile weapon in the spread who can split out wide, line up in the backfield and make plays in space.
“With a new offensive coordinator, I feel like I fit right in,’’ Blackman said. “It’s just fun, all around.”
“We’re going to try to make defenses defend the whole field, and if they want to try to take Tyler away, we feel like we have enough on the outside to hurt teams,’’ Klein said.
The offensive line returns senior starters Blake DeMeter and Luke Roman at center and guard, respectively. Senior newcomer Alec Floros will be at the other guard spot, and the tackles will be senior Pat Ellison, who saw time as a junior, and senior Haydn Matarazzo. Junior T.J. Saldutti and sophomore Chris Vivian should also see time in the offensive line rotation. Junior Matt Fisher is a returning starter at kicker, while the punting job is still undecided.
Where graduation really left the Spartans with holes is on defense, where they only allowed 13 points per game under coordinator Marc Tomo.
“We lost a lot of good, experienced players on that side of the ball,’’ Klein said. “We’re going to be very multiple defensively and keep teams guessing about what they are going to see. There’s still enough talented, hungry people that run well defensively.”
Their primary returner is Henry, who played in the shadow of All-Shore talents like Moore, linebacker Dan Loizos and defensive end Mike Halawani but quietly registered 111 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and 5 sacks at linebacker. He now will be moving to safety in Ocean’s multiple scheme.
“You’re talking about a kid that had well over 100 tackles and does a lot of things well,’’ Klein said. “The defense this year is built around him to really exploit his strengths as a player.”
“We have to push the younger guys because of the big graduation losses, but they have played well so far,’’ Henry said.
Ellison is a returning starter at defensive end and will be joined on the defensive line by a rotation of Roman, Tedesco, Vivian and senior Christian Wityk. Thompson will also be playing defense this year, starting at inside linebacker, and Saldutti, who saw time last season, will be at the other inside linebacker spot. Rossback and junior Marc Chernin should also see minutes at inside linebacker.
The outside linebackers will be DeMeter and Matarazzo, with junior Quad Quadiri also in the mix there. Joining Henry at safety will be Stoothoff, and the cornerbacks will be Blackman, a returning starter, and Dean. Pickett should also see some time in the secondary.
That group is out to prove that Ocean, which is the defending Class B North champion, will not take a step back because of graduation. They face a tough divisional slate that now includes No. 1 Red Bank Catholic and sectional finalist Colts Neck, who were realigned into the division this year.
“We’ve talked about that, and the kids are aware of it,’’ Klein said. “It was a special team that we had last year, but there’s still a lot of talented kids here. We feel like with the coaches that we have, with the system that we’re implementing both offensively and defensively, the kids that we have even though they’re untested and inexperienced, they’ll be able to make plays.”
The Spartans have lost in the sectional semifinals three times since winning their last state title in 2005, so the aim is to finally get over the hump and finish the job.
“It definitely gives us some fuel coming into this year,’’ Henry said. “We were so close last year, and the feeling after the Hopewell Valley game stunk obviously, so to get to that next step will be huge for us and will drive us throughout the season.”
“The success we had last year was tremendous, but ultimately we didn’t achieve all of our goals, so as we continue to build this thing and get the kids up to speed, the goal is to finish the deal this year,’’ Klein said.
Head coach: Don Klein, 8th season
Career record: 43-29-1
Assistant coaches: Fred Stengel (off. coord./DL); Marc Tomo (def. coord.); Mike Salum (WR/DL); Pat O’Neill (QB/DB); Jim Simonelli (OL/LB); Joe Siciliano (OL/DL); Cip Apicelli (football operations); John Della Pesca, John Bosmans (freshman); John DeSemmi (athletic trainer).
2013 record: 10-1 (6-0)
Big Shoes to Fill: Tyler Thompson, Jr., RB/LB
Thompson will now be playing inside linebacker this year in addition to starring at tailback, and he will have to help make up for the loss of four-year starter Dan Loizos, a first-team All-Shore selection who led the Shore Conference with 159 tackles at inside linebacker.
X-Factor: The passing game.
If Kenny Pickett can be a quarterback who can move the chains with big third-down throws and keep teams off balance by being efficient in the passing game, this offense can be much improved because Thompson is capable of taking over games at tailback.
Glue Guy: Frank Henry, Sr., WR/DB
Henry will be the unquestioned leader of the defense at safety this year and has to have a big season to keep the Spartans among the best defensive teams in the Shore. He also will be looked upon to make some plays at wide receiver.
Impact Newcomer: Kenny Pickett, So., QB
Pickett takes over now that Royal Moore has transferred, and he gives the Spartans an accurate passer with deceptive speed who they hope can take some of the pressure off Tyler Thompson. Also, keep an eye on Haydn Matarazzo on the offensive line and at linebacker, as he has shown promise in the preseason.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 12 vs. Neptune
The season opener will be a big tone-setter because it comes against Class B North rival Neptune, which now features Ocean transfer Royal Moore at quarterback and in the secondary. It also is an important divisional game right off the bat, and the winner gets an immediate boost in the race for a playoff spot. Neptune has a talented, veteran team, so if Ocean and its cast of newcomers can pull off a win, it would be huge for this team’s confidence going forward.