Proving Ground: 2019 Freehold Boro Football Preview
Freehold Boro senior Jaylin Canada is used the narrative that seems to surround his team heading into each season in which he has been a member of the Colonials program. In each of the past two years, Freehold Boro has graduated a do-it-all quarterback while the schedule gets harder and harder.
“All four of my years it’s been the same thing,” Canada said. “People put Freehold Boro at the bottom of the division, we win five, six, seven games, make the playoffs every year and a new year comes and it’s the same thing all over again. It is what it is. I’m out to prove something this year. I’m not taking it lightly. I don’t care who is on our schedule.”
The schedule is as hard as it has ever been, with the Colonials moving into the Shore Conference Colonial Division with five other power programs in Mater Dei Prep, St. John Vianney, Jackson Memorial, Brick and Wall. Couple that with the fact that Freehold Boro is in the process of replacing four offensive lineman and dual-threat, All-Shore quarterback Matt Krauss and it’s not hard to figure out why Canada and his teammates have encountered some skepticism.
“Our conference is even harder this year,” 10th-year coach Dave Ellis said. “There is no way to sugarcoat it. We are playing programs this year. These teams are established football programs that have been good for a long time. They didn’t just get good last year and I have been trying to relay that to our players.”
As Canada eluded to, Freehold has made a habit of fighting through a tough schedule and coming out a playoff team under Ellis. First, they heard about how they were a one-man team under the direction of record-setting quarterback Ashante Worthy and proceeded to come within a point of winning an NJSIAA sectional championship. When Worthy graduated, instead of cratering without their one-man highlight show, Freehold Boro passed the ball to Krauss and went 5-4 with another Central Jersey Group III Playoff appearance last year.
“I think we overachieved last year to some extent because if you look at Freehold Boro, no one expects much of us,” Canada said. “We came off a year with Ashante Worthy and they think we’re not going to do anything at all. It’s the same thing this year. People are putting us at the bottom of the division, so it’s motivation and it also means the pressure is on everybody else and not us.”
The song remains the same in 2019 and even with one of the most imposing schedules in the Shore Conference, the Colonials are adamant they will be able to find a way back to the postseason once again as one of the most battle-tested teams in the field.
Player to Watch: Sha’Kim Shuler (Jr., RB/WR, 5-6, 150)
The quarterback position at Freehold Boro was up in the air heading into camp ahead of 2018 but the Colonials had no shortage of athletes from which to choose. Krauss ended up taking over the position but Shuler proved a valuable piece with his ability to take the direct snap, a handoff or spread out wide as a receiver.
“Nobody really knew who I was so they didn’t think I was going to be that good,” Shuler said. “They just saw me as a little kid. Now teams are going to be ready for me.”
Shuler’s versatility will be a central part of the offense once again and now that Freehold Boro has a defined starter under center in Jason Lee, Shuler will be a threat as a receiver and running back exclusively.
“This offense is fun because you are doing everything,” Shuler said. “You’re running, passing, catching the ball. And if they try to stop me, there are other guys who can beat them.”
Under the Radar Player: Jake Larsen (Sr., OL/LB, 5-9, 185)
Now heading into his third year as a starter, Larsen is both the elder statesmen within Freehold Boro’s least experienced unit and one of several standouts in arguably its most complete unit. On offense, Larsen is the lone returner to the line and will again handle the center position.
“Jake is another coach on the field,” Ellis said. “He has been that way since he was a sophomore. He is a smart kid – he is going to (Monmouth County Acadmey of Allied Health and Science) to be a doctor. It’s always nice to have a kid like that at a key offensive position and at the center of your defense.
“Me and Jake are at the level now where there isn’t a whole lot of teaching. We just talk about what’s going on out there. Jake can fix problems a lot of times before I can fix them.”
On the other side of the ball, Larsen will team with Canada, junior Mike Murphy and sophomore Tyler Ochojski as the linebackers in Freehold’s 3-5 stack formation, lining up at one of the inside linebacker spots. With a key role to play on either side of the ball, Larsen’s most important position on Freehold’s young team is that of senior captain.
“It’s been hard with so many new guys,” Larsen said. “Stepping up is definitely a challenge, but I’m up to the challenge and I just want to do what’s best for the team. Anything the team needs me to do, I’m ready to do it.”
Top Unit: Secondary
Freehold’s athleticism on offense will carry over to the defensive secondary, with Shuler, Lee, senior Mar-Zhon Brinson and sophomores Ka’more Gill and Yahsin Calhoun all playing both ways. Brinson is slated to be one of the Colonials top wideouts and will play opposite Shuler as one of the two cornerbacks on defense.
Lee and Calhoun could see mixed time a free safety and Gill is lined up to take over the strong safety position. With a athletic crop of secondary players and a mix of experience and young talent at linebacker, Freehold Boro has the makings of a solid defense that has the flexibility to cover its inexperience up front.
Freehold will be successful if…
The defense steps up. Ellis has been pleased by how comfortable some of his sophomore playmakers like Gill, Calhoun and Ochojski have looked making plays during the preseason and is confident his new quarterback will make the right play more times than not. The wild card is the offensive line – the group is so young that to pin the success of the team on the line might be overly optimistic.
Instead, Ellis will try to scheme around that inexperience and try to rely on an experience, athletic defense that will need to be more of a factor now that Freehold Boro has some questions in an offense that was so hard to stop over the past three seasons. The defensive unit was always an overlooked aspect of Freehold’s teams when they were throwing up 35-to-50 points every game so the potential is there for a shift to a more defensive identity.
“If our defense can get us three-and-outs, that will get our offense more opportunities,” Ellis said. “So if our defense can keep us in the game, it should give us some extra possessions. If we are a little bit inconsistent or we misfire, it doesn’t cost you as much when you have a defense you can back you up.”
AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Dave Ellis, ninth season
CAREER RECORD: 40-42
2018 RECORD: 5-4 (3-2 in Colonial Division)
Mike D’Antonio (Receivers/LB)
Jason Blum (Off. Line)
Zac Cooper (Def. Line)
Jeremy Mercer (Tight Ends/Linebackers)
Matt Whalen (Running Back/Def. Backs)
John Kinzel (Off/Def. Line)
Mike Stoia (Freshman)
Nick Rice (Freshman)
Jim Lee (Freshman)
Mike Stehle (Athletic Trainer)
DEFENSE: 3-3 Stack
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jason Lee (Sr., QB)
Last year, no one in the Shore Conference had bigger shoes to fill than Matt Krauss, who took over as a dual threat quarterback replacing one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in Shore Conference history as far as production goes.
All-in-all, Krauss did the job, posting 715 yards and three touchdowns through the air with a 54 percent completion percentage while also motoring for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground on the way to a Shore Sports Network All-Shore selection. This year, it will be Lee who has to replace the playmaking signal-caller, although his approach to doing so will be much different than that of Krauss and Worthy.
“In the last two years, I had two kids who weren’t quarterbacks playing quarterback and I had to train them,” Ellis said. “This year, I actually have a quarterback, so that’s been different. Rather than having to teach him the position, we’re teaching the offense and working on other things.”
X-FACTOR: Offensive Line
How well Freehold Boro’s offensive line plays is likely to hold the key to its season. If the young front-line plays to its experience level, it could be a long year for the Colonials, especially for a team with such a trying schedule.
What Ellis is ultimately hoping for is for Larsen to be at his best while the four new starters – senior Frank Tilton, senior Tommy Hulse, senior Max Murphy and junior Nick Hall – pick up the fundamentals of the system quick enough to be competitive with some of the dynamic fronts the Colonials will be facing. The line is unlikely to be a strong point of the team but just holding its own would open up a lot of possibilities for Freehold’s playmakers.
“We just have to try to put our guys in a position to be successful,” Ellis said. “Whether it’s getting our lineman in a position where they just have to block one-on-one or giving the quarterback some quick reads so that we’re not asking the line to protect him for too long, there are things we can do to help those guys out. We’re still trying to gauge what they can handle and adjust the offensive package accordingly.”
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Yahsin Calhoun and Ka’more Gill (So., RB/WR)
During Ellis’s time as the head coach at Freehold Boro, the Colonials have consistently produced playmakers and those playmakers typically make themselves known during their sophomore seasons. This time around, it will be Calhoun and Gill who join Shuler and Brinson as the big-play threats on the offense, with fellow sophomore Ochojski also jumping into the starting lineup as a playmaking tight end.
On top of being offensive threats, the sophomore trio of Calhoun, Gill and Ochojski will serve as key defensive stoppers for the next three seasons.
“It’s just like with Sha’Kim last year,” Ellis said of trying to work the sophomores into offensive roles. “Sha’Kim did a great job for us at quarterback and slot receiver for us last year and we just have to try to move them around to create matchups that are favorable to us.”
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 vs. Freehold Township
In the second game of the season, Freehold Boro will likely either be playing for a 2-0 start or fighting for their postseason lives. After a challenging opener vs. Red Bank, the Colonials will play their home-opener against the rival Patriots. Not only are town bragging rights on the line but if Freehold Boro were to lose its first two games, it would be looking at back-to-back games against Mater Dei Prep and Wall to try and dig out of the hole.
The schedule lets up only slightly after that so if Freehold Boro is to have a chance at making it back to the postseason, a good showing over the first two weeks is a virtual must.
“I have been telling the team all offseason the margin for error is very small,” Ellis said. “If we get a lead, the other team is not going to quit. If we fall behind, they are not going to let up.
“I like what I am seeing – these kids are working and doing everything we ask but at the end of the day, they are young. But nobody is going to feel sorry for us we just got to get them ready.”