Big Shoes to Fill: 2018 Howell Football Preview
Over the past two seasons, the vision head coach Luke Sinkhorn had for building his version of Howell’s football program finally came to fruition. The Rebels reached consecutive NJSIAA South Jersey Group 5 semifinals and last season had one of the Shore’s most explosive offenses to finish as a top 10 team in the Shore Conference.
The success of those seasons was made possible mostly by an outstanding 2018 graduating class that featured stars like quarterback Eddie Morales III and wide receiver Naseim Brantley. The challenge now for the Rebels is to thrust a host of new starters into the lineup and remain a high-level team.
“We lost our key guys – Eddie Morales, Naseim Brantley and all those guys – so we need guys to step up,” said senior running back/linebacker Gerard Urso. “We have a lot of talented juniors and sophomores who need to come to play. We don’t want this to be an off year.”
The Rebels will have an entirely new cast of starters on the offensive side and only one returning starter on defense. Some of the first-year starters do have playing experience from a season ago, but there will nonetheless be a lot of new faces steering the ship this season.
“There’s expectations from what we’ve done the last two years, but those guys worked hard to get to that point,” Sinkhorn said. “These guys have to realize that doesn’t just happen, we have to work ourselves up to that, and that’s a constant reminder to the kids. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy among them, but they have to realize it takes work to get there.”
Howell will continue to run its spread offense with junior Jason Caston taking over at quarterback. He follows one of the best quarterbacks in Howell history in Morales, who led the Shore in passing last season with 2,156 yards and 25 touchdowns while also rushing for a team-leading 725 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to First Team All-Shore honors. One major key for Caston in following Morales is to play within himself and not try to duplicate what Morales did.
“He has to realize he’s different,” Sinkhorn said. “He has to realize who he is and what his skills are and what he can do. Eddie was also a phenomenal leader and Jason will take on that role. Being able to see how to be that consummate professional behind Eddie was crucial for Jason. The offense will be different with him but he’s learning on the run.”
“I know I’m not going to be able to be fast and run all over the field and throw it deep to Naz on every play,” Caston said. “I’m going to have to drop back and make the right reads and fire it in there. As long as I’m able to make the right reads and throws, we’ll be successful.”
Urso saw significant action in the backfield last season and will take over as the starting running back. Juniors Vaughn Meehan and Elias Guzman will also see time at running back. Seniors Brandon Van Bergen and Xavier Kelly are scheduled to start at wide receiver with senior Pete Cantillo starting as the slot receiver. Junior Sean Murphy will also play when Howell goes to four-wide receiver sets.
The receivers, collectively, have massive amounts of production to replace. Brantley caught 48 passes for 785 yards and tied for the conference led with 13 touchdown catches. Ryan Mazik added 710 yards receiving and five touchdowns and Brandon Wilson and Pat Handy combined had 500 yard and five touchdowns.
The offensive line has five new starters but two players who saw action last season in junior guard Brandon Regins and senior right tackle Matt Jacobs. Junior Justin Wright is the center, senior Jameson Curto is the left guard and senior Quinn Nelms is the left tackle. Junior Joe Berenger (6-3, 235) will also see time along the offensive line.
Urso is the Rebels’ lone returning starter in their 4-3 defense, returning as an outside linebacker. Meehan played a lot toward the end of the season and steps in as the middle linebacker while Murphy is the other outside linebacker.
Jacobs and Regins each saw time on the defensive line last season and are back as starters at defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively. Wright will be the other defensive tackle and senior Ernie Onesti will play defensive end.
The secondary has Kelly and Van Bergen as the cornerbacks with Guzman and junior Dominick Cavallero as the safeties. Mike Cincotta and Johnny Vuoso are also in the mix at safety and Jake Hutnik will see time at cornerback.
On special teams, Kelly and sophomore Jake Davis are competing to be the kicker while Berenger will likely handle the punting duties.
After spending years in the Class A North division, Howell will now play in the American Division with district rivals Manalapan and Freehold Township, plus Central Regional, Middletown South and Toms River North.
After graduating a large and impactful senior class it’s certainly a transition year for Howell. The obvious questions center around how well the new group can get up to speed and if they’ll translate their skills into winning football games. They’re eager to give the answer.
“Most of us have been together since Pop Warner so we definitely have chemistry,” Caston said. “We’ve all put in the work and the seniors last year did a great job of being role models. We’ve waited for our shot, and now that we’ve got it we’re going to go out there and make the most of it.”
At a Glance
Head coach: Luke Sinkhorn, fifth season (10th overall)
Career record: 46-47.
2017 record: 9-2 (5-1 in A North)
Coaching staff: Joe Santopietro (off. coordinator, QB/DB); Bob Mussari (OL/LB); Ryan Klusewicz (special teams, OL/DB); Shane Baldwin (WR/DL); Chris Provow (RB/DL/LB); Sam Iacobone, Matt Wingo (freshmen); Amy Ghione (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jason Caston, Jr., QB
Caston takes over for one of Howell’s all-time greats, Eddie Morales, who led the Shore in passing and accounted for nearly 3,000 total yards and 36 touchdowns.
X-FACTOR: Running game
Considering the Rebels lost their quarterback and top four wide receivers to graduation, it’s unrealistic to expect the same level of production from the passing game. Senior running back Gerard Urso has experience, and if he and the offensive line and get it going the Rebels will be in good shape.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Vaughn Meehan, Jr., RB/LB
Meehan played some defense last year but will take on a much bigger role as a junior, starting at middle linebacker and getting carries in the backfield.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 7 vs. Central Regional
Both Howell and Central are in similar positions in that they have to replace several key players off successful teams. If the Rebels can get a win on opening day it can build some momentum and confidence for their inexperienced squad.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.