Reloaded to Repeat: 2018 Long Branch Football Football Preview
Not only did Long Branch win its first NJSIAA title in nearly two decades on the final play of overtime in the NJSIAA Group IV final – the Green Wave did so after winning just two games the previous year.
After capping a feel-good, storybook season in 2017, Long Branch returns enough talent to make a serious run at the program’s first successful state title defense, but the chip on its collective shoulder has been replaced by a bullseye on its back.
While Long Branch does return a good deal of impact talent from last year’s team, it will have to replace a senior class that set the tone from day one of camp in 2017 as a hungry group eager to prove that the lumps they took in 2016 (3-7 record) and 2017 (2-8) were not in vain. This year’s senior group, on the other hand, is out to prove that last year was just the beginning of a Long Branch resurgence.
“Everybody wants a shot at Long Branch now,” senior tackle Kevin Cerruti said. “We have a lot of important guys coming back and the guys we’re missing from last year, we have some talented guys to replace them. We look really good, we have a really good shot to repeat, but we’re the seniors now. We want to know what it’s like to go out winners.”
One of the seniors to lead Long Branch last year was quarterback Juwan Wilkins, who split time at quarterback in 2016 before winning the job outright ahead of last season and repaying coach Dan George’s confidence by leading the Green Wave to a state title.
The man with whom he split time in 2016 was Marc Dennis, who is now prepared to step in and take over the position full time. While Wilkins did win the job on his performance and senior leadership, another advantage to handing over the offense to Wilkins was Dennis’s ability as a slot receiver and a cornerback. He made a major impact on both sides of the ball as a junior and is set to do the same in 2018, this time as a quarterback and a safety.
“I like the pressure,” Dennis said. “Big shoes to fill because of everything that Juwan did when he was here, but he is still in contact with me and encouraging me. I think we’ll be able to make the transition.”
Wilkins and Dennis split time two years ago, in part, because of the contrast in their respective styles. Wilkins turned himself into an adept pocket passer with an ability to scramble while Dennis has been more of a run-first threat with an ability to spread the ball around as well. With that in mind, George expects the offense to look different with Dennis under center but doesn’t expect to miss a beat.
“I kind of like the differences (between Juwan and me),” Dennis said. “I bring more of a running aspect to the offense and I can throw too. Juwan could run too, but he was more of a passer. I think it will give the defense another thing to watch out for, so I like bringing that extra dimension to the offense.”
“We have been careful with him in the preseason, making sure he’s not running too much, so he is eager to lose the harness and start making plays,” George said. “He brings so much to the table that we have to build the offense around what he can do. I’ve said it the last two years: he is ready and now it’s finally his opportunity.”
Dennis and the offense have plenty going for them beyond the quarterback position. Three starters return to the offensive line in Cerruti (a Second Team SSN All-Shore selection), guard Hunter Metzler and center Tracy Taylor and they will pave the way for junior running back Jermaine Corbett – one of the breakout underclassmen on last year’s championship team. Seniors Victor Torres and Jaheir Smith-Taylor will occupy the other guard and tackle spots, respectively, to complete the offensive line.
“Returning three starters on the line is huge,” Cerruti said. “Every single guy who is playing on the offensive line this year played snaps last year, so there really isn’t any adjustment there. We had big-play guys on offense last year and I think that probably overshadowed what we could do on the line. I think that’s going to be a big part of who we are on offense.”
As a sophomore last season, Corbett finished sixth in the Shore Conference with 1,422 yards and led all Shore running backs with 265 carries, which trailed only Freehold quarterback Ashante Worthy (345). On top of a proven workhorse in Corbett, Long Branch has a punishing fullback in senior La’Qym Morris and two potential game-breakers in junior Jah’kwan Gordon and sophomore newcomer Quzhaun Dennis.
“He is a special talent,” George said of Corbett. “He was one of the best backs in the Shore as a sophomore and he was really just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s coming in this year bigger, faster, stronger, more confident, more poised – he looks ready for a big year.”
“I’m coming in with a lot more experience this year,” Corbett said. “I know how to read the hole faster and get their faster too. Now that all of those seniors left, I have to grow up and be an upperclassman that guys can look to.”
Speaking of gamebreakers, Long Branch will have to replace current Monmouth University freshman T.J. Fosque at wide receiver, as well as fellow wideout Pasa Fields. Senior Matt Clark returns with experience at the position and will likely be Dennis’s top target in the passing game. Senior Zahdierr Blueford will also be in the mix and sophomore Jayon Ferrar has been among the most impressive young players in camp, according to both George and Dennis.
“He has Division 1 talent,” George said of Ferrar. “He’s an explosive player who is probably going to play that Pasa Fields role for us where we can line him up wide or in the slot.”
Seniors Lucas Telles and Niles Montgomery will be the tight ends and will also both double as defensive ends in a deep rotation of defensive linemen. The two ends will look to replace standout Kaymar Mimes, who is currently a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. All five offensive linemen are likely to see snaps on the defensive side as well, as will senior Imir Durant and junior Beyon Jennings.
The linebackers will be the strength of the Long Branch defense, with all three starters back in the Green Wave’s 4-3 look. Senior Luke Arnold will once again man the middle with Morris and Gordon on either side of him.
“Our front seven is really deep,” Arnold said. “Everybody played last year and we have great chemistry. Everyone is connected and we know how to play together.”
In the secondary, senior returning starter Billy Levy will join Dennis at safety while Corbett is back at cornerback. Dennis is moving to safety to replace Eli Sherin while Ferrara, sophomore Jarell Sherin and senior Ja’Que Coleman are competing to replace Kevin Porch at the other corner.
George and new defensive coordinator Chad King will likely find a steady mix on the defensive line and there could be some growing pains in the secondary, but the linebacking corps plus the overall depth and athleticism on the defensive side all combine to give Long Branch a potentially dominant defense.
“The linebackers look great and the secondary has some guys who can really play,” Cerruti said. “I think our defense is going to be one of the best in the Shore again.”
The latest Shore Conference realignment should mostly benefit Long Branch, which battled in arguably the Shore’s toughest division over the past two seasons in Class B North. The Green Wave will still have to overcome Red Bank Catholic to win an outright division title and will also maintain a division rivalry with Ocean, but Middletown South, Middletown North and Manasquan have been replaced by Red Bank, Toms River East and Toms River South in the new Freedom Division.
“One of the nice things about the new schedule is we have already been playing in a really tough division so nothing was going to phase us,” George said. “We still have RBC and Ocean and you have a couple of new teams we’re going to have to prepare for and they are going to want to beat us.”
With an impact senior class gone, a new look on offense and more teams gunning for Long Branch, the overall personality of this year’s team is sure to change. The results, however, may not be so different.
“We have to do our best to forget about last year,” Dennis said. “Everything we do, we’re going to be compared to last year and we can’t let ourselves get caught up in it. We want to win another championship and we all think we can get there, but we have to stay in the moment.”
At a Glance
Head Coach: Dan George, 22nd season
Career Record: 143-82
2017 Record: 9-3 (5-1 in B North)
Coaching staff: Chad King (Def. coordinator/DB); Ben Woolley (co-off. coordinator/OL); Greg Penta (co-off. coordinator/QB); Kris Parker (special teams/WR); Terry King (RB); John Jasio (DL); Shawn Brown (LB); Eric Peters, Jamil Pitts (freshmen), Kim Small (athletic trainer).
Big Shoes to Fill: Marc Dennis, Sr., QB/DB
Juwan Wilkins was one of three Shore Conference quarterbacks to pass for more than 2,000 yards last year and Dennis is not likely to match that number. He can, however, add an element of creativity and speed to the position while also leading a secondary that lost two key starters.
X-Factor: Front seven
With a deep group of defensive linemen and a strong set of returning linebackers, Long Branch has a chance to boast a dominant defense. Even if the secondary needs some time to gel, the front seven could be the anchor to one of the Shore’s top defense if it performs to its potential.
Impact Newcomer: Jayon Ferrara, So., WR/DB
Coaches and players alike have been singing the praises of Ferrara, who might be the answer to filling the hole left by All-Shore receiver and current Monmouth freshman T.J. Fosque. If nothing else, Ferrara will help plug some holes this year as he develops into one of the Shore’s top players in the years to come.
Pivotal Game: Oct. 5 at Red Bank Catholic
Long Branch came up short against the Caseys last year and that was the difference in the B North title chase, which RBC won by a game over Long Branch. The Caseys figure to be among the Shore’s top teams, but Long Branch will have some good matchups in the game as long as the Green Wave can get to October relatively healthy.