In the first full season under the direction of head coach Darian Barnes, the Colts Neck football team began to develop an identity, although it wasn’t necessarily the identity one might expect a team to have when its head coach learned under offensive gurus like New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden.

Last year, Colts Neck showed signs of an airtight defensive unit that, according to many of the Cougars players and coaches, was slowed down only by its own offense. Not only could the Cougars not score enough to make their efforts on defense hold up – Colts Neck averaged just 5.7 points per game and was shut out in five of its 10 games – but the defense wore down from spending so much of games on the field.

“We were down 2-0 to Red Bank in the third quarter last year and ended up giving up four touchdowns,” senior receiver Matt Volk said. “When your offense isn’t really moving the ball and the defense is on the field that long, there is only so much you can do.”

Colts Neck senior running back Carmen Catena. (Photo by Matt Manley)

With so much of last year’s promising defensive unit back, the Cougars have their eyes on going from decent to dominant on the defensive side and the offense is part of the plan. Barnes, who played on the Bucs’ 2002 Super Bowl Championship team and finished his career with Payton and the Saints in 2008, is an offensive-minded coach who is using much of the principles and play-calling that he learned at his final stop with Payton.

Although the offense did not take off in Barnes’s first season a year ago, he expects this year to be different. This year, Barnes will be assuming play-calling duties for a team with more size and experience than last year’s group.

“Playing in the NFL as long as I did, you develop a certain way of thinking about things and there is way you want everything to look,” Barnes said. “I had an idea of having somebody calling the plays while I kind of oversaw everything. Part of it was I didn’t know how much I could put on (the players’) plates and it’s always a process figuring out what they can handle and what might be a little over their head.

“It’s to the point now, though, where I know the players we have, I have good idea what they can do and I think they are ready to try some things out this year. We need to start making plays and hopefully we can put them in position to do that.”

As far as making plays goes, the onus will be on senior Hayden Volk, who is entering his first full season as the starting quarterback after taking over in the middle of last season. Colts Neck loses an athletic playmaker in Jordan deGroot from a year ago, but return a handful of quality receivers and an entire stable of running backs to go with Volk. Matt Volk and Bryce Campbell will be two key playmakers in the passing game, as well as the two starting safeties on defense. Senior Craig Lea is also in line for playing time and junior Jason Kauffman has the inside track at tight end.

Colts Neck senior quarterback Hayden Volk. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“Coach Barnes is showing a lot more trust in us this year,” Hayden Volk said. “He’s giving us more options, he’s letting us audible into plays we think will work better, he’s letting the o-line make calls. So far, I think guys on the offense are responding.”

Senior Carmen Catena returns as the starter at running back and fellow senior Liam Abujawdeh will once again complement him as the other tailback. Senior Steven Barsky will play fullback when the formation calls for it and will man a linebacker position as well.

The key to Colts Neck’s offense may lie in its offensive line, which generated the most praise from the players and coaches as the most improved part of the roster. Senior left tackle Ligouri Fankhauser, senior and junior guards Scott Wetzel and Evan Imbesi all earned starting spots last year and will return to the trenches for the Cougars. Senior center Tom Clark transferred from Red Bank Catholic and will jump on board and the final tackle spot will go to the winner of a competition between senior Danny O’Connor and juniors Chris Harrigan and James Rosciano.

“Our o-line is really starting to come together,” Fankhauser said. “Last year we struggled, but everyone’s a year older and we know where our strengths and weaknesses are. I think the message from the coaches has been consistent now for a couple years and guys are finally getting confident with everything.”

An offense that can at least move the chains and put an extra touchdown on the board will give the defense a chance to thrive. Barsky and senior Vinny Gargiulo will lead the group as linebackers, with junior Derek Victor filling the third linebacker spot. In the secondary, Abujawdeh and junior Shawn Scully will work the cornerback spots with Matt Volk and Campbell at the two safety spots.

The defensive line will feature a rotation, with Fankhauser, Wetzel, Harrigan and Jason Kauffman also playing the defensive side of the ball as well. Senior Joe Giacalone and junior Justin Fruscione will also see time as part of the front four.

While the personnel is all in place, the focus for the group is to force more turnovers to help itself get off the field and also create easier scoring opportunities.

“I think the one area we can improve on is turnovers,” Barnes said. “We were a solid team when it came to getting after the ball and making the tackle, but we never took the ball away. When you don’t force turnovers, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense to keep making stops and making plays and when the offense isn’t really doing its part, it’s only a matter of time before you break.”

Colts Neck senior receiver Matt Volk. (Photo by Matt Manley)

To a man, the Cougars all see themselves as a team with a potentially stifling defense that will look to hit the big play more often on offense while also keeping that defense on the bench for more of the game.

“Last year, it felt like we were on the field for 75 percent of the game,” Gargiulo said. “If the offense moves the ball and puts some points on the board, it’s just going to make our defense that much better.”

Even if Colts Neck can just become either a big-play offense or one that grinds out first downs and possession, the defense should have a much easier time reaching its potential.

“I really believe that coach (Kevin) Gaul is one of the best young defensive minds I’ve been around,” Barnes said of his defensive coordinator. “He has a great understanding of both sides of the ball and how to put guys in the right position to be successful.”

“We’re so much more aggressive,” Matt Volk said. “Coach Gaul is just calling everything right now because he knows we can handle any call in any situation. I know he feels like with everybody back and with the way we’re playing, there’s no reason we can’t be a top-five defense in the Shore.”

Part of Colts Neck’s new outlook is a move into Class A North, which takes power programs from a year ago like Red Bank Catholic, Ocean and Red Bank Regional off the schedule. Although the schedule is different this season, Colts Neck will once again open its season against Howell, which is now a divisional match-up. The Rebels edged the Cougars, 20-13, in last year’s opener.

“Our senior leadership has really stepped up more this year than the other years I’ve been here,” Matt Volk said. “I think just having the expectation to succeed has made a big difference.”


Head Coach: Darian Barnes, third season

Career Record: 3-9

Assistant Coaches: Kevin Gaul (Def. Coordinator), Matt Finnucane (Special Teams/DL), Ross Dickerson (QB/WR/DB), Mike Orlando (OL), Joe Conaghan (TE/FB), Chris Leroy (RB), Vince Tessi (Freshman), Mike Dragonetti (Varsity Assistant)

2015 Record: 2-8 (1-5 in B North)

Big Shoes to Fill: Vinny Gargiulo, OL/LB

Not only will Gargiulo have to help fill a void in the linebacking corps, but it is a void left by another Gargiulo – older brother Nick. On the bright side, he is an experienced varsity player and combined with Barsky, will form a standout linebacker duo.

X-Factor: Line play

Hayden Volk has more reps under his belt heading into the year and should work well with the other skill players on the roster. For it to work, Colts Neck will have to be a more physical team, which starts up from with more experienced offensive and defensive lines.

Glue Guy: Steven Barsky, RB/LB

Barsky likely won’t put up big numbers on offense as a fullback, but he had more than 100 tackles as a linebacker last year and when he does line up in the backfield, he can clear the way in the running game and pick up a hard-earned yard when needed.

Impact Newcomer: Tom Clark, C

The transfer from Red Bank Catholic will slide into the starting lineup as the team’s center, boosting the Cougars front line while giving them some more comfort playing in the shotgun.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 1 vs. Marlboro

Both Colts Neck and Marlboro finished at the bottom of their respective divisions last year and both have state playoff designs in 2016. As always, the games prior to this one could make or break the season as well, but it's possible one of these teams comes out of this game in prime playoff position.