On the Mend, On the Rise: 2019 Wall Football Preview
The Wall-vs.-Manasquan Thanksgiving Day game carries with it plenty of meaning, so an 18-7 victory over their rivals from Manasquan was a significant moment in the Crimson Knights’ 2018 season.
It was also a significant moment in their 2019 season. Wall played just about the entire year without senior two-way lineman Ian Ackerman and his return – albeit a limited one – from a dislocated elbow for the final game of the season changed the mood on the Wall team. It reminded the Crimson Knights players coming back for 2019 what they lost in 2018 and, more importantly, what they would be getting back the following season.
“After you win that last game, it makes you want to get right back in the weight room the next week and that’s what a lot of guys did,” Ackerman said.
That season has arrived and Wall is set to welcome Ackerman and senior teammate Matt DeSarno back into the lineup after injuries robbed both of their junior seasons. Ackerman hurt his elbow on the first series of the first game of the season while DeSarno made it three games before suffering a torn ACL in his right knee.
“That changes the locker room,” third-year Wall coach Tony Grandinetti said of getting Ackerman back in the lineup. “That changes the chemistry. The Manasquan game is the perfect example because it was a different feel. It was a different offense with him.”
Despite those injuries, Wall still battled to a 6-3 record and reached the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III Playoffs. In their lone playoff game, the Crimson Knights lost senior quarterback Dylan Richey to injury. Then-sophomore Logan Peters came on and threw three second-half touchdown passes and nearly rallied his team to a win – ultimately coming up short in a 33-28 loss to Timber Creek.
“We were pretty successful last year too and we are just getting me and Ackerman back,” DeSarno said. “We’re just going to build off of what we did last year and in scrimmages and practices this year. We are building toward the goal of winning a championship at the end of the year. First, we are building toward that first game (at Middletown North).”
With full seasons from Ackerman and DeSarno and Peters ready to take the reins of the offense full time, Wall has the infrastructure in place to play with the Shore’s best in 2019.
Player to Watch: Casey Larkin (Jr., RB/DB, 5-11, 175)
While the seniors returning from injury and the new quarterback enter the season with something to prove, Larkin returns having already showed what he can do over a full season. As a sophomore, Larkin played both ways, rushing for 783 yards and five touchdowns as a running back and intercepting three passes as a safety.
“There aren’t many guys like Casey in my eyes,” Peters said. “He is one of the best there is. A lot people key on him and that opens up the field for our other guys, who are also very good players.”
DeSarno will be back to share carries at running back with Larkin, which should take some pressure off of the junior tailback who emerged as the featured weapon of Wall’s offense last year.
Under the Radar Player: Grant Puharic (Jr., OL/DL, 6-2, 225)
With Ackerman out for most of last year, Puharic was among the group up from that picked up the slack. Only a sophomore at the time, Puharic showed he could be a leader on the line and validated his head coach’s confidence in him.
“We just watched our film from (the Donovan Catholic) scrimmage and Ackerman and Grant Puharic, they are very, very good,” Grandinetti said. “We can do a lot of things with those two guys clearing the way on the inside.”
Top Unit: The Backfields
In this case, the backfields refer to both the offensive and defensive backfields, where Wall is as strong as ever. On the offensive side, Larkin, DeSarno and Peters will form a three-headed monster rushing the ball while Peters also distributes the ball to his many offensive weapons.
On the other side of the ball, Peters and Larkin will also fill the two safety spots while anchoring a secondary that has progressed from a liability two years ago to a major asset in 2019. Throw in cornerbacks Dale McNaley and Gus Setteducato and the Crimson Knights have a defensive backfield that will be hard for opposing quarterbacks to solve.
“Two years ago, we struggled giving up big plays, not getting off the field on third down,” Grandinetti said. “Last year, we got better with it and most of the guys out there were juniors. This year, we have juniors and seniors in the defensive backfield who know the system and are very athletic. Our defense is our strongest unit and that defensive backfield is really stepping up.”
Wall will be successful if…
The injury bug stays in 2018. Every team is going to deal with injuries and Wall is unlikely to be sheltered from them this year, but the key injuries last season – particularly to Ackerman – limited Wall’s ceiling. Keeping Peters, Larkin, Ackerman and Puharic would give the Crimson Knights a chance to reach their potential in 2019, which the players feel is almost unlimited.
On the other hand, Grandinetti is confident enough in his team’s depth, as well as its experience overcoming injuries last year, that he expects his team to be better equipped to handle the bumps and bruises that pop up along the way.
“Injuries just aren’t fair sometimes, but you have to go through them,” DeSarno said. “I am just try to get back and try to build off the momentum I had going last year before I got hurt.”
AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Tony Grandinetti, third season
CAREER RECORD: 11-9
2018 RECORD: 6-3 (4-1 in Constitution Division)
Joe La Ferlita
Brendan McDermott (Athletic Trainer)
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Logan Peters (Jr., QB/DB)
Peters already showed he could handle a pressure situation at quarterback but with his new position as the starting signal caller comes added responsibility. Factor in his duties as the strong safety on defense and Peters will be taking on a much larger role than he did when he was a wide receiver for most of his sophomore year.
Richey made the same receiver-to-quarterback transition last year that Peters is making this year, so Grandinetti and his staff have experience in building up a quarterback. In this case, Peters has plenty of experience at the position and last year was his first foray into playing wide receiver.
“Logan is one of the smartest football players I have ever been around – not just at Wall but in my whole career,” Grandinetti said. “He is a very, very smart football player. It’s cliché to say it, but he is literally like having a coach on the field. He knows what everyone is doing on offense every play, he knows what everyone is doing on defense every play.”
X-FACTOR: Ian Ackerman (Sr., OL/DL)
With Ackerman back in the fold, Wall expects to have an offensive line brimming with toughness, technique and long on depth. Ackerman and Puharic are the proven leaders as guards on offense and defensive ends in Wall’s 3-4 defense, while senior Jack Wolter will see an increased role as the starting left tackle, as well as the nose guard on defense.
Junior center Kyle Pettit and sophomore tackle Brian Byrne round out the starting offensive line along with senior tight end Dean Terry – a supporting cast that should flourish with Ackerman healthy. In last year’s win over Manasquan, Ackerman showed what kind of x-factor he can be and the Crimson Knights are hoping to have that kind of impact over the course of a full season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Colin Riley (So., LB)
Kamaal Cofer was an impact edge-rusher in the 3-4 scheme last year and with his graduation, the Crimson Knights will turn to a mix of youth and experience in the linebacking corps. Riley will occupy one of the outside spots in his first varsity season and he will look to have the same kind of success that classmate Charlie Sasso had last year. As a freshman, Sasso racked up 68 tackles and established himself as a sophomore to watch among Shore Conference players.
DeSarno will reclaim his spot as the other outside linebacker now that he is healthy again and Terry will join Sasso on the inside to compete the starting quartet.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 13 vs. Rumson-Fair Haven
Like any team playing in either the American or Colonial divisions of the Shore Conference this season, there will be no let-up in Wall’s schedule. That doesn’t change the fact that the Crimson Knights want to compete for a second NJSIAA sectional championship in four years, as well as a spot among the Shore’s top teams. A home showdown with Rumson in the second game of the season should give Wall an idea what their young skill players are made of and how their deep, skilled offensive line matches up with a program that consistently plays into December.
“The sky is the limit for us,” DeSarno said. “We have so many guys coming back with experience and a lot of young guys who are working so hard to be able to step up this year. We have really high expectations for the whole team.”