Football – Back in the Battle: 2015 Freehold Boro Preview
It took three rocky years of paying dues and taking lumps, but head coach Dave Ellis finally saw the hard work within his program begin to pay off last year with a 7-3 season in his fourth year at the helm for the Colonials.
Four years removed from winning the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship under coach Mark Ciccotelli – who later left for Neptune following the season – the Colonials looked like a winning team again. Now the challenge will be building upon that success in the long term, as well as finishing stronger after losing the final three games of the season following a 7-0 start.
“Last year it was about making this program a winner again and we were able to do that,” senior quarterback Jake Curry said. “Now we’re trying to take the next step.”
The first challenge Freehold will have to answer as the Colonials try to get back to a sectional championship is replacing 1,400-yard running back Josh Dixon, who finished eighth in the Shore Conference in rushing yards. Ellis expects that to be a collective effort, but the one player who will actually take over the starting tailback spot this season is Dixon’s cousin, sophomore Ashanti Worthy.
“Josh was an outstanding player for us, and it’s going to be a situation where everybody has to step up,” Ellis said. “The good thing is we have a lot of leadership on this team that has created an atmosphere of hard work and just helping one another get better. The other thing is Ashanti is going to be stepping into Josh’s role full time and is a very talented back in his own right.”
Worthy played where needed as a freshman on the offensive side of the ball last year but will be the primary option out of the backfield alongside Curry – now a three-year starter. While the coaching staff is hopeful that Worthy’s ceiling as a running back will approach that of Dixon, the plan is for Worthy and Curry to combine to form a formidable one-two punch on the ground.
“I learned how much work it takes to be successful,” Worthy said of playing in the same backfield as his older cousin. “He was always pushing himself to get better and that’s the big difference for me this year. I’ve been working a lot harder.”
“Nobody does it alone, and it’s not just going to be Ashanti or me or anybody else,” Curry said. “Josh was a huge part of our offense last year, but I think we learned along the way that everyone has to do their part, and there’s a feeling this year that everyone wants to compete and is trying to help this team win.”
As a junior, Curry ran for 649 yards on 119 attempts and attempted only 64 passes. The pass attempts will likely be much higher this season, but the Colonials still expect to be able to operate a run-heavy attack out of the spread with Worthy and Curry leading the way.
“Things have been much easier for me this year because I know the offense a lot better than I did last year,” Curry said. “I came in feeling pretty good about it last year and I think I improved, but looking back, I didn’t understand it like I do right now. The offense will be different, but I think we’ll be able to do a few more things.”
“Jake’s understanding of the offense and his role as a leader is one of the strengths for us, so even though we lost a lot of production and a lot of yards on the ground, we still feel like we have a chance to move the ball and put some points on the board.”
Senior wide receiver Jamel Smith-Rush will be a primary target for Curry in the passing game and should be in for a career season if Freehold indeed opens up its offense and throws the ball more. At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, Smith-Rush is a physical player who can overpower defensive backs in the running game and passing game alike.
“We’ve all been playing together for a long time, so we have really good chemistry as a group on both sides of the ball,” Smith-Rush said.
The Colonials have shown some depth at receiver over the course of the preseason that will complement Smith-Rush. Mendelle Tims and Martelle Tims return with more prominent roles as seniors, while junior Markee Gill could see playing time as well, according to Ellis. Freshman Matt Krauss has also stood out early on and could factor in despite entering his first high school season.
“On offense, I think last year it was Josh’s ball to run with,” Smith-Rush said. “This year, it’s going to be more of a balance, and I think the passing game will be a much bigger part of it.”
Seniors Todd Burger and Joel Perez return to the offensive line at either tackle position and junior Nick Eccleston will play center. Junior Marki Gill will occupy one guard spot, while Manalapan transfer Alec Mahon will be a key addition to the interior line at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds.
“With Burger, Perez and Eccleston, we have a nice, experienced core, and adding Alec Mahon to that is going to be significant for us,” Ellis said.
Most of the defense will consist of two-way players, led by Curry and Smith-Rush in the secondary, Worthy and Eccleston at linebacker and Mahon, Burger and Perez on the line. Returner Xavier Madera will be the other outside linebacker in Freehold’s 3-3-5 stack scheme, while senior returner Victor Saldivar, junior Isaiah Howard, Mendelle and Martelle Tims and Markee Gill all figure into the mix in the secondary.
“The thing I like about the stack is I think it works with a lot of different types of personnel, especially with so many teams running the spread,” Ellis said. “For us, we don’t have a lot of pure linebackers, but we have some guys in the secondary, so we can take those guys and move them around based on the offense we’re seeing.”
Freehold will once again have a chance to storm out of the gate, with both Manalapan and Middletown South scheduled to close out the season. Last year, Freehold had to play Manalapan and Middletown South five days apart and lost by a combined score of 84-3. The Colonials’ season then ended with a first-round loss to Neptune in the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs.
This time, Freehold will have a full week to prepare between the two A North powerhouse teams, and if the Colonials can survive the first part of the division schedule and a pair of improved nondivisional opponents in Raritan and Wall, this season could end up being a worthy sequel to the 2014 breakout campaign.
“We have expectations, but we still have plenty of work to do,” Curry said. “We’re taking things day by day, one game at a time. I definitely think we can get back to the playoffs, but we have to take it one game at a time. We saw that approach work last year and it’s important we keep the same focus again this year.”
Head Coach: Dave Ellis, fifth season
Career Record: 14-26
Assistant Coaches: Jason Blum (OL/DL), John Kinzel (DL/OL), Matt Whalen (RB/DB), Mike D’Antonio (WR/LB), Greg Elias (Freshmen), Dan Cooper (Freshmen), Mike Stehle (Athletic Trainer)
2014 Record: 7-3 (4-2)
Big Shoes to Fill: Ashanti Worthy, So., RB/LB
Josh Dixon was a 1,400-yard back, and while that won’t be easy to replace, Worthy flashed special ability as a freshman and has a chance to be in the same class as his older cousin.
X-Factor: Jake Curry, Sr., QB
As a senior quarterback, Curry will have a better grasp of the offense, and the coaching staff will have more reason to call his number with the Colonials looking to replace Dixon’s output from a year ago.
Glue Guy: Jahmel Smith-Rush, Sr., WR/DB
An unsung presence on last year’s team, Smith-Rush is a versatile 6-3 athlete who could end up as Freehold’s most valuable contributor on both sides of the ball.
Impact Newcomer: Alec Mahon, Sr., OL/DL
A transfer from Manalapan, Mahon will slide into both the offensive and defensive lines, which each return two starters from a year ago.
Pivotal Game: Sept. 26 vs. Middletown North
With division front-runners Manalapan and Middletown South reserved for the last two regular-season games of the schedule, Freehold could have a chance to get to those last two divisional games unbeaten for the second straight year. Middletown North presents the toughest division match-up during the early part of the season, while Wall and Raritan will be tough non-division games.