Back to Its Roots: Neptune 2019 Football Preview
Two years ago, Tarig Holman took over a Neptune football program that was in desperate need of stability after the job opened up without a lot of time before the start of the 2017 season. As a result, Holman found himself doing just about everything as far as coaching duties – calling plays on offense and defense, teaching fundamentals and trying to keep the players in the program engaged through a difficult season.
Last year marked a step in the right direction for Neptune, which reached the .500 mark by winning its final three games of the season against Toms River South, Freehold Township and Asbury Park. The improvement was not enough to land the Scarlet Fliers in the NJSIAA Playoffs, which gives this year’s team a defined goal that should be both within reach and would signify a big step for the program.
“It’s baby steps when you are trying to build a program but you can see the changing of the mentality and changing of the football culture,” Holman said. “It’s good to see. We have a revamped coaching staff too so I can focus on some other things. My first year here, I was calling the offense, the defense and the special teams and now I can sit back, I can see more things and get a different perspective.”
This year’s schedule should be conducive to adding some wins for Neptune at which point it will just be a matter of piling enough power points to qualify for the Central Group IV bracket. By the same token, The Fliers is trying to replace an entire defense, as well as a crop of playmakers on offense.
Holman is confident there is enough talent in place to keep the program heading in the right direction. No longer is he calling every play in the game and with new offensive (Justin Cella) and defensive (Noel Kavanaugh) coordinators leading a revamped coaching staff, Neptune will attempt to further establish its identity in 2019.
Player to Watch: Jalin Butler (So., QB/DB, 6-2, 190)
Although he has not played a varsity snap, Butler is a standout player on the field. He is pushing returning quarterback Nino Bua for time as signal-caller and, one way or another, will occupy one of the starting safety spots.
Butler is only a sophomore but he is showing his coaching staff he has the instincts and work ethic to be a leader on a Neptune team that has a good amount of seniors and juniors but still lacks a considerable amount of varsity experience.
“He is a different kind of kid,” Holman said. “He wants to be on the field at all times, he doesn’t care what his job is. He works on and off the field. He is first one out here and the last one to leave. He wants to put it all on his shoulders and that’s what is good to see out of him. His future is pretty bright.”
Under the Radar Player: Justin Bennett (Sr., OL/DL, 6-2, 255)
On a team lacking experience, Bennett and junior teammate Isaiah Leeks are the lone three-year starters – Bennett at center, Leeks at running back. Of the two, Bennett has the more thankless job, but it will be as important a job as any within Neptune’s offense this season. The senior can also provide some depth on the defensive line as well, where the Scarlet Fliers should also be solid.
Top Unit: The line
With Bennett and senior left tackle Jeremy VanMeter (6-2, 345) back, the offensive line has two bruisers to clear the way for its deep stable of backs and give time to Bua and Butler to find the open man. Junior Isaias Thomas-Palafox brings size and athleticism to the right guard position at 6-3, 255 pounds. Seniors Jaheim Copeland and Henry Watkins round out the starting line – Copeland at left guard and Watkins at right tackle.
“I think it always starts up front and that’s when I’m most excited about,” Holman said. “We’ve got Justin coming back. Justin is going to his third year as a starter at center. Jeremy VanMeter started last year too so I’m excited what we can do up front.”
Neptune will be successful if…
The defense gels. Holman and his staff did a fine job crafting a defense last season and this year will present and even greater challenge based on the lack of experience on that side of the ball. There is considerable speed and ability on the roster to put together another strong defensive showing.
The Fliers have lots of options at running back and receiver and that depth should manifest itself by spilling into the defensive depth chart. Willie Gross, Khalil Garrett-Dogan, Zahier Carter and Kelly Beaubrun are all set to contribute on both sides of the ball as receivers and cornerbacks while Junior Haughton and transfer William Harris will double as running backs and linebackers. Sophomores Rasun Banks and Malik Fields are also promising prospects at both defensive end and tight end, with Fields bringing noteworthy size (6-6, 220) to both spots.
“We have a lot of young guys on defense so we really have to focus on the defense and coming together as a unit because we lost a lot of guys over there,” Holman said.
AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Tarig Holman, third season
CAREER RECORD: 31-29
2018 RECORD: 5-5 (2-3 in Liberty Division)
Justin Cella (QB/Off. Coordinator)
Noel Kavanaugh (DB/Def. Coordinator)
Jarrett Sanderson (Special Teams)
Derrick Eatman (Assistant)
Shane Bigelow (Assistant)
Brandon Settles (Assistant)
Dennis Hubbard (Assistant)
Mysonn Ledet (Assistant)
Netanis Bean (Assistant)
Ron Puryear (Scout)
William Gizzi (Equipment Manager)
DEFENSE: 3-3 Stack
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Junior Haughton (Jr., RB/LB)
Haughton transferred from Asbury Park and has impressed Holman and his staff early with his hard-nosed nature, both running the ball between the tackles and hunting the ball on the defensive side. He will have to keep up that energy as Neptune attempts to replace an entire defense, which was led by All-Shore linebacker Najiere Hutchinson.
Although Haughton doesn’t have the size that jumps out on film like Hutchinson did at the high school level, he is exactly the kind of tough-minded player that any coach would want running the ball or stopping the ball.
“Junior Haughton is going to be huge for us on both sides of the ball, running the ball and at a linebacker spot,” Holman said.
Neptune has very little varsity game experience on its roster and yet, there is very little talk of this being a rebuilding year. Holman expects his players to learn the system under new coordinators Justin Cella (offense) and Noel Kavanaugh (defense) and with the overall team speed Neptune possesses, good things could very well happen.
The wide receivers will be a particularly interesting group if two or three playmakers can emerge from the bunch. Gross, a senior who has not played football since his freshman year, has been a popular target for Butler and Bua during the preseason and could emerge as a standout with some consistency.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: William Harris (Sr., LB/RB)
Harris is a Neptune native who has lived in Maryland for the first three years of his high-school career. The six-foot, 220-pound senior returns to his roots this year as a bruising middle linebacker and running back who will make an instant impact on the Scarlet Fliers when he becomes eligible after sitting the required 30 days.
“Once we get Will on the field, he is going to be a force,” Holman said.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 7 at Long Branch
For a team with a lot of new starters, Neptune did not get any favors from the schedule-makers. The Scarlet Fliers open their season with defending Central Jersey Group IV Long Branch on the road, but it does let up considerably after that. A road showdown at Ocean the following week will not be easy but starting with that game against the Spartans, Neptune finishes its regular-season schedule with eight straight games against teams that finished with a losing record last year.
With that in mind, the Neptune players have their full attention locked in on the first game of the season, which will be the Fliers’ best change to open eyes around the Shore Conference. The remaining schedule should give Neptune an opportunity to win a fair amount of games but in their case, the Fliers are treating the first game like their Super Bowl.
“We know we have a tumultuous future ahead of us facing a team like Long Branch, who is going to be operating on all cylinders in week one,” Holman said. “They are used to winning and we know we are going to be the underdogs so we have to be ready to fight through adversity.”