Full of Potential: 2021 Jackson Memorial High School Football Preview
Given the offensive talent Jackson Memorial has deployed over the past several seasons, a quick glance at the 2021 roster shows – not a lack of talent – but a degree of uncertainty with so many new starters at the skill positions. In a few weeks, we might be talking about some of them as breakout stars, but for now, it’s just potential.
In the meantime, the Jaguars are more than happy to lean on their hogs.
A fast and physical defense is one of the hallmarks of Jackson Memorial football and this year’s group is headlined by six returning starters, five of which are in the front seven. There is power and experience up front where all four defensive linemen are returning starters from a season ago. Leading the way is senior defensive tackle Eric Ibe, a returning third-team All-Shore selection who tied for the conference lead with 10 sacks while also making 55 tackles and 18 tackles for loss. The 6-foot-1, 245-pounder is a potential game-wrecker.
Lining up next to Ibe will be senior Donovan Zapata while the defensive ends are senior Kyle Laverty and junior Ryan Fischer with senior Mike Orientale also in the rotation. Those five will be the literal first line of defense for the Jags and will look to make life a little easier for a back seven that has just two returning starters.
Senior middle linebacker Tom Widawsky was third in the Shore last season with 90 tackles and returns to lead the way in between senior Jim Tobin and junior Mike Cipriano at outside linebacker. Junior Tai Mann, who was a two-way starter as a sophomore, is the lone returning starter in the secondary and will line up at cornerback. Sophomore Albert D’Alessandro is the other corner while senior Rob Paneque is the strong safety and sophomore Jaiden Hernandez is the free safety.
The final numbers for Jackson’s defense (18.6 points per game) were in the middle of the pack but not very Jackson-like. How the Jags arrived at that number is even more bizarre. They won by shutout in each of their four victories but allowed 40 or more points in three of their four losses. It was a microcosm of their season as they started 2-0, lost their next two, won their next two, and finished the season with two straight defeats. Obviously, the goal is to have the defense climb the mountain and then stay there rather than the peaks and valleys of a season ago.
Offensively, the Jaguars had a unit that was 11th in the Shore last season. Most of the production came from their running game and tailback Will Towns, who led the conference with 1,379 yards rushing and was a two-time first-team All-Shore selection. Towns is now a freshman at Wake Forest University so the Jaguars are looking for their next star tailback. Junior Aidan Sweeney will take over as the feature back with senior Jim Tobin at fullback and junior Angelo Nicosia and sophomore Brandon Bigelow also in the backfield mix.
The good news for the running backs is that they will be running behind an offensive line that brings back three starters. Senior left guard Kyle Laverty and senior center Donovan Zapata were starters throughout last season while junior left tackle Ryan Fischer became a starter during the season. Jackson will plug Ibe in at right tackle while Orientale will be the right guard. The tight ends are Paneque and sophomore Shaun Hubbard.
The quarterback position is one of intriguing possibilities for the Jaguars. Tai Mann split time last season as a sophomore but flashed dual-threat potential. The job is his alone this season and his emergence as a weapon on the ground and through the air would certainly make him a difference-maker. Jackson did graduate its top three receivers but brings back senior Justin Hirsch, who saw extensive action. D’Alessandro and Hernandez will also be options in the passing game.
As a member of the Colonial Division, Jackson won’t face most of its traditional Class A South rivals but does have several familiar foes to battle with in the form of Southern, Manalapan and Middletown South plus the annual game against Jackson Liberty. On paper, the division is wide open and the Jaguars believe, despite some inexperience, that they have the talent to compete for championships.
At a Glance
Projected starters (RS=returning starter, 3RS=3rd-year returning starter)
Returning starters: 5
QB: Tai Mann, Jr., RS
RB: Aidan Sweeney, Jr.; Jim Tobin, Sr.; Angelo Nicosia, Jr.; Brandon Bigelow, So.
WR: Justin Hirsch, Sr., RS; Albert D’Alessandro, So.; Jaiden Hernandez, So.
TE: Rob Paneque, Sr.; Shaun Hubbard, So.
LT: Ryan Fischer, Jr., RS
LG: Kyle Laverty, Sr., RS
C: Donovan Zapata, Sr., RS
RG: Mike Orientale, Sr.
RT: Eric Ibe, Sr.
Returning starters: 6
DE: Kyle Laverty, Sr., RS
DT: Eric Ibe, Sr., RS
DT: Donovan Zapata, Sr., RS
DE: Ryan Fischer, Jr., RS; Mike Orientale, Sr.
OLB: Jim Tobin, Sr.
MLB: Tom Widawsky, Sr., RS
OLB: Mike Cipriano, Jr.
CB: Tai Mann, Jr., RS
CB: Albert D’Alessandro, So.
SS: Rob Paneque, Sr.
FS: Jaiden Hernandez, So.
K: Alexey Tselichtchev, Jr.
P: Angelo Nicosia, Jr.
Head coach: Vin Mistretta, 5th season
Career record: 24-16
Team record last five years:
Assistant coaches: Keith Anderson (Offensive Coordinator); Eric Rado (WR/Freshmen OC); Pat Kilmurray (OL); Mike Smith (QB); Chris Rash (DL/Special Teams Coordinator); Arnell Cozart (LB/Recruiting Coordinator); Mike McCarthy (DL); TJ Tkac (DB/Freshmen DC); Khani Glover (RB/DB); Matt Castronuova (WR); Sam Mistretta (OL); Nicole Figaro (Athletic Trainer).
Player to Watch: Eric Ibe, Sr., RT/DT
Ibe had a breakout junior season by tying for the conference lead with 10 sacks and also recording 55 tackles and 18 tackles for loss. Jackson’s run defense was superb last season and he was a major reason why, as well. A dominant year out of Ibe is exactly what the Jaguars are looking for.
Player Under the Radar: Tai Mann, Jr., QB/CB
Mann was part of a quarterback rotation last season but enters his junior year as the starter all by himself. He has shown an ability to be productive on the ground and if his passing ability can match his rushing prowess Jackson will have a dangerous playmaker under center. He is also valuable on defense as a returning starter at cornerback.
Impact Newcomer: Aidan Sweeney, Jr., RB
For a youth football player growing up in Jackson, chances are they’ve dreamt of one day being the starting running back for the high school team. The Jaguars have had some amazing tailbacks throughout their history and Sweeney gets a shot to be the next in line.
Top Position Groups: Offensive/Defensive lines
Three of five starters are back along the offensive line while all four defensive linemen are returning starters. Jackson has unproven players among the skill positions but looks to be rock-solid in the trenches. That’s never a bad place to start.
Big Shoes to Fill: The running backs
Aidan Sweeney and company will be following in the footsteps of many, many talented tailbacks, most recently two-time first-team All-Shore running back Will Towns. The current Wake Forest freshman led the Shore in rushing last season and totaled 3,243 yards and 33 touchdowns in his career.
X-Factor: Skill Positions
The question marks at quarterback, running back and wide receiver are not because of talent, but rather limited varsity reps. If those newcomers reach their potential Jackson will be in business.
Thursday, Sept. 2 – vs. Freehold, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 10 – vs. Southern, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 17 – at Middletown South, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 1 – at Holmdel, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 8 – vs. Manalapan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 15 – vs. Jackson Liberty, 7 p.m.