Dei for Redemption: 2020 Mater Dei Football Preview
Since Dino Mangiero got to Mater Dei Prep as the Seraphs head coach in 2016, the Middletown school has become a non-public power in N.J. and a perennial contender for the No. 1 spot in the Shore Conference. The Seraphs won the NJSIAA Non-Public Group II championship in Mangiero’s first season and have been to three straight sectional championship games – the last two of which came in Group III.
It was not until last year, however, that they had the schedule to match their stature.
Faced with far and away the toughest schedule in the history of the program, Mater Dei faltered with a three-game losing streak during the middle of the year, but rebounded to again reach the Non-Public Group III championship game, where they fell for the second straight year in a game decided by one score.
“I joke that the short season is probably a good thing for me,” Mangiero said. “We’ve lost three straight championship games and lost by four points and two points the last two years. If we got to another championship and lost again, they would probably fire me.”
While the Seraphs and their 11 returning starting players would jump at the chance to play in another state sectional final, this year’s shortened season won’t offer them or anyone else that opportunity. They will, however, still have an opportunity to make their case as the Shore’s best team by running through another schedule that features a who’s-who of some of the area’s best teams.
“Around here, we’re trying to win every game,” Mangiero said. “Whatever games we get to play, we’re going to try to win them. That’s been our mindset since I got here and when you look at this year, you don’t know how many games you’re going to get so it’s even more important to focus on what’s right in front of us.”
The season opens with Red Bank Catholic and it is safe to assume the Caseys are the highest-profile opener in Mater Dei’s football history.
“This is by far the toughest opener we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Mangiero said. “It’s a tough year for it because of all the restrictions. We’re taking (COVID-19) very seriously and it’s impacted how much we’re able to get done. You just hope that everybody else is taking the same precautions and that it’s a level playing field, but if other teams are getting more done and are further along, we can’t worry about that. We’re doing what we think is right for our kids.”
Among the other teams on this year’s schedule is Rumson-Fair Haven – one of the teams that beat the Seraphs during their three-game skid and this time around, the two Shore powers will clash in the penultimate game of the season on Halloween at Mater Dei Prep.
The Mater Dei team that will try to build on last year’s 8-4 season shapes up differently than last year’s team because of some graduated personnel, but the players who remain and are joining the fray don’t represent much, if any, of a drop-off.
At a Glance
Projected Starters (RS=Returning Starter)
QB: Alex Brown, Jr. RS
RB: Ra’Jahn Cooper, Jr.
RB: Jaijon Cross, So.
WR: Naran Buntin, Sr., RS
WR: Kyree Drake, Jr., RS
TE: Tafari Thompson, Jr., RS
RT: Anthony Perez, Sr., RS
RG: Vincent Ciulla, Jr., RS
C: Dom Giudice, Sr., RS
LG: Terry Charles, Jr.
LT: Rakim Cooper, Sr., RS
DE: Dom Giudice, Sr., RS
DT: Rakim Cooper, Sr., RS
DT: Elijah Wilson, Sr., RS
DE: Tafari Thompson, Jr.
OLB: Ra’Jahn Cooper, Jr. RS
MLB: Khalil Elamin, Sr.
OLB: Jahqual Talmadge, Sr., RS
CB: Elijah Johnston, Sr. RS
CB: Timothy Thomas, Jr.
SS: Tyler Malik-Ishmael, Jr.
FS: Kody Gibbs, Sr.
K: Jake Jacobsen, Jr.
P: Jake Jacobsen
At a Glance
Head Coach: Dino Mangiero, fifth season
Career Record: 148-42
Record Last Five Years
Assistant Coaches: Offense: Taylor Groh, Jesse Ascolese, Andy Eastwood, Chris Parker, Naji Johnson (JV/Freshman); Defense: Shannon Hoadley, Jake Pew, Sam Eisenstadt, Pete Ottaviano, Gary Lindor (JV/Freshman)
Player to Watch: Dom Giudice, Sr., C/DE
The Michigan-bound defensive end is coming off a huge junior season in which he became one of the Shore’s best players as a junior and landed big-time FBS offers that eventually netted a signed letter of intent to play for the Wolverines. Giudice’s junior season included 17.5 sacks, 44 tackles – 14 for a loss – and 26 quarterback pressures for a Mater Dei defense that ranked among the Shore’s best while playing in the conference’s most competitive division.
“He is a big, strong high school football player and he is a better kid than he is a player,” Mangiero said. “He is a high-character kid, he comes from a great family and we all love to be around him. You don’t get many opportunities to coach a kid like him in high school.”
Player Under the Radar: Naran Buntin, Sr., WR
Mater Dei had the Shore’s leading receiver last year in Clarence Lewis (39 catches, 636 yards, five touchdowns), who is now at Notre Dame and playing as a freshman, so Buntin flew under the radar last year. A year older and with more time to work with quarterback Alex Brown, Buntin is in line to be Mater Dei’s top downfield threat before he heads to play at Kent State next season.
“Replacing Clarence is going to be a big deal,” Mangiero said. “We have some athletic wide receivers and corners to help us out and they’re all capable of doing a good job for us. Naran is a key guy at wide receiver and he’ll be a big target in the passing game.”
Impact Newcomer: Jaijon Cross, So., RB
In addition to replacing Lewis in the passing game, Mater Dei will have to find a way to make up for the immense production lost with the graduation of Malik Ingram, the Shore’s second-leading rusher in 2019 (1,480 yards, 21 touchdowns). Junior Ra’Jahn Cooper returns with some varsity experience and is prepared for a look at starter, as is Cross as a promising sophomore.
Top Position Group: The Lines
Both offensive and defensive lines are packed with returning starters – one of the reasons to believe in breakout seasons for Mater Dei’s running backs, as well as Brown. Giudice will lead both lines at center and defensive end while senior Rakim Cooper returns at left tackle and at tackle in Mater Dei’s four-man front. Senior Anthony Perez and junior Vincent Ciulla are both back to handle the right side of the line and junior Terry Charles fills in the open left guard spot.
Senior Elijah Wilson is also back on defense, lining up at the other tackle alongside Cooper. The new starter on the defensive line is junior Tafari Thompson, another tall, athletic edge rusher to follow in the footsteps of Boston College sophomore Shittah Sillah. Thompson will also be a receiving threat at tight end.
“We were really young on the line last year, plus we had a tenth-grader at quarterback, so there were some things we couldn’t do because of how inexperienced we were,” Mangiero said. “Now that we have seniors and juniors in there, they understand their responsibilities. It’s probably fair to say this will be the best offensive line we have had while I have been here.”
Big Shoes to Fill: Secondary
The running backs have a lot to prove with the graduation of Ingram, but that is just one player to replace. Lewis and Isaiah Noguera were key losses in the receiving corps but Buntin and shifty speedster Kyree Drake will be capable replacements. The linebackers have some questions as well, but also have a pair of returning starters in Cooper and Jahqual Talmadge as well as returning reserve Khalil Elamin.
That leaves the secondary, which should also feature some promising prospects but will be a mostly-unproven group as starters. Cornerback Elijah Johnston some time as a starting cornerback in 2019 and will be relied upon to help offset the loss of Lewis and Noguera at safety and Tahaj Parland at cornerback. Senior and Montclair Immaculate transfer Kody Gibbs will take care of the duties at free safety, while juniors Timothy Thomas and Tyler Malik-Ishmael jump in at corner and strong safety, respectively.
“We like our young corners,” Mangiero said. “Timmy Thomas has looked really good early on as a junior and we’ve got Eli coming back as a starter. Kody Gibbs joined us in January so he is pretty much caught up to what we’re doing and he’s going to be a good player for us. And then you have Tyler, who is still only a junior and he played with us last year so he is going to get an opportunity.”
X-Factor: Alex Brown, Jr., QB
Brown showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore and in most games, was able to rely on a strong running game. Other times, Brown played like a sophomore and first-year varsity starter – probably because that is what he was. Now a junior, Brown is a more physical athlete, has some running ability to go with an accurate throwing arm, will play behind a seasoned offensive line and still has weapons at his disposal.
“We’re in a different system this year, so he is in the process of adjusting to that,” Mangiero said. “Last year was more of a run-and-shoot offense and this year will be more of a traditional spread. Last year, everything was on the coaches as far as changing the plays but this year, he’s going to have his little bag of tools out there to help him change the plays on his own and get us into the play we want. He is more mature after playing as a tenth-grader with tenth-grade linemen blocking for him.”
Friday, Oct. 2 at Red Bank Catholic, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 9 at Middletown North, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 17 vs. Middletown South, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 24 vs. Long Branch, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 31 vs. Rumson-Fair Haven, 1 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 6 at Manalapan, 7 p.m.