With several starters back and some new concepts on offense, Howell looks to turn the corner in its third year under head coach Luke Sinkhorn.

The Rebels finished just 3-7 last year, but a closer look at the schedule reveals a team that lost four games by seven points are less. They know they are close to breaking through and being a contender for a playoff spot and in the Class A North division.

“Last year was a tough season finishing 3-7,” said junior quarterback Eddie Morales. “We lost a lot of games by seven points or less. We think this year we will see a change as a program and it will be the year to turn it around and make those losses wins.”

Morales started the second half of the season at quarterback and returns to engineer Howell’s run-pass option spread offense. He threw for 560 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore and enters this season looking to refine his game and push the Rebels’ offense forward.

Photo by Ray Richardson.

“I like to run and be a mobile quarterback, so the spread is my thing,” Morales said.

“He’s a three-sport athlete so we feel good about his athleticism and what he can do,” Sinkhorn said. “We feel like the run-pass option makes you a smarter football player because you have to find out what the defense is doing and react to it.”

Senior Mekai Gandy returns as the starting running back with junior Nick Chambers also slated to see time. Gandy broke his ankle midway through the season and was a big loss for the Rebels to absorb on both sides of the ball.

“We probably missed him more on defense as a good run stopper,” Sinkhorn said. “But we absolutely missed him on offense, so we’re eager for him to be back, and I’m sure he’s eager too.”

“I got cleared to start running again in April and right now I feel great,” Gandy said. “I’m just excited to be back.”

Senior Dan Cacciatore leads the group of wide receivers, who will be the primary playmakers in the offense. Senior Ean Craig and juniors Pat Handy, Ryan Mazik and Naseim Brantley make up the rest of the receiving corps. Sinkhorn is especially high on Brantley, who transferred back to Howell from Georgia. He is 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds and also plays basketball.

The offensive line has two returning starters with senior Mike Ioannides at left guard and junior Scott Prendergast at right tackle. Juniors Matt Mazauskas at left tackle, Steve Cannon at left guard and Mark Welsh at center comprise the rest of the offensive line.

It will be pass-oriented offense, but not one that entirely forgoes the running game.

“I can’t get away from it too much,” said Sinkhorn, a former Manasquan football player. “It’s in my blood.”

Howell will run a 4-3 defense with four starters returning. Welsh and Prendergast are the defensive tackles with Ioannides and Cavallero as the defensive ends. Ioannides is a returning starter and Cavallero started at linebacker last season. Moving Cavallero down to the line helps offset the loss of all-Class A North defensive end Noah Powell to graduation.

“We’ll definitely miss Noah but I think Bobby is going to give us something special down there and be able to do multiple things,” Sinkhorn said.

Senior Pat McGrath is the starting middle linebacker after starting there toward the end of the season. Cacciatore is a returning starter at outside linebacker and is joined by junior Braedon Baldwin.

Gandy is the only returning starter in the secondary from his strong safety position, although Mazik played some snaps last year and will now start at free safety. The cornerbacks are Chambers senior Joe Pepe.

“With defense it’s all about fundamentals,” Sinkhorn said. “These days it’s all about offenses and it can be hard to keep up. You have to make sure you are tackling and doing the fundamentals right.”

“The key defensively is all the veterans and being able to work together as one,” Cavallero said.

Handy returns as the kicker and Ioannides is the punter on special teams.

Now that Sinkhorn is in his third season and has been able to implement his systems and change the culture to a more physical style, he’s hoping to see a big improvement.

“I think in year two we closed the gap a lot and played a lot of teams close,” Sinkhorn said. “I feel good with this group and what we’re doing.”

RELATED: Howell 2016 football schedule

Head Coach: Luke Sinkhorn, third season (eighth overall).

Career Record: 31-40.

Coaching staff: Bob Mussari (OL/LB); Ryan Klusewicz (spec. teams/WR/LB); Joe  Migliore (RB/DB); Joe Santopietro (off. coord./QB/DB); Zac Cooper (RB/DL); Chris Provo, Shane Baldwin, Matt Wingo (freshmen); Amy Ghione (athletic trainer).

2015 Record: 3-7 (2-4).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Ryan Mazik, Jr., WR

Mazik steps into a starting role at wide receiver as one of the players replacing Nic Rossi, who was the Rebels leading receiver last season with 424 yards and seven touchdowns.

X-FACTOR: Finishing strong

Howell lost four games by seven points or less with many games being decided in the fourth quarter. If the Rebels can turn that around they have a good chance at flipping their record.

GLUE GUY: Bobby Cavallero, Sr., DE

Cavallero has played all over the field on both offense and defense since Sinkhorn arrived three years ago. He’ll start at defensive end this year moving down from linebacker.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Naseim Brantley, Jr. WR

The 6-foot-3 target is back from Georgia and gives Morales a big, athletic target in the passing game.

PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 9 vs. Colts Neck

The Cougars are in a similar position in that they are an improving team under a relatively new head coach. Both will be eager to start the season strong.


Football editor Bob Badders can be reached at badders@allshoremedia.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.