Return of the Titans: 2018 Keansburg Football Preview
The Keansburg football program has made significant strides in three seasons under head coach John Bird, most notably when it comes to laying the foundation for future success and changing the culture.
When it comes to winning games, the stars have not yet aligned for the Titans, and in many ways, it doesn’t appear as though they are aligned this year either. After boasting a talented group of skill players with a young line last year, this year’s team will have a strong line with an unproven set of players who will carry and catch the ball.
The result of last year’s skill-line dichotomy was a 5-5 season in which the Titans lost two crucial games by one touchdown and another close game to Asbury Park by two scores.
“It’s weird because when I was a sophomore starting at running back, we had young skill guys and an experienced line,” senior Liam Riecks said. “Then last year, we had the opposite and now we’re going back to an experienced line and some young skill guys. It’s funny how that has worked out, but you just have to roll with it.”
Riecks and Co. are banking on the very thing that cost the Titans a postseason berth by mere power points last year serving as the reason they make it this year. By learning from those bitter defeats, Bird is hopeful his players can come through in crunch time now that the team is on more solid ground on both the offensive and defensive lines.
“I’m happy with where we are,” Bird said. “The culture has been established, which to us, was the biggest thing in taking the program over. It’s year four, we’re getting kids out, they're practicing personal accountability on a level they never have and we’re doing a lot less in behavior and a lot more on the football side of things, which shows in the way we play.”
The lone impact skill player back this season is Riecks, and after he played tailback last year alongside All-Division quarterback Danny Vital, it will now be Riecks running the offense at quarterback. Riecks has some experience at the position and is confident he can handle the offense and make the throws when needed.
“I definitely have big shoes to fill with Danny at quarterback,” Riecks said. “I worked with him a lot during the offseason and he taught me everything he knows. I’m pretty comfortable taking charge of everything and I feel like that’s my position now.”
Riecks will operate behind an all-senior offensive line that returns four of five starters from a year ago. Right tackle IJustice Tucker is the standout of the bunch after an All-Division season in B Central last year, and Bird believes he is playing at an even higher level heading into this season.
“He has been tremendous this preseason,” Bird said of Tucker. “He looks like a possible All-Shore kid.”
Bernie Comey and Ronnie Rotondella will play the two guard spots and Derek Levendusky will handle the center duties again. The lone opening is at left tackle, where Frank Sautner and Gerardo Palaez are battling into the season and could split time.
With an all-senior line, there is a sense of urgency for Keansburg to make the most of its opportunity this year, and whether or not the Titans can do so likely comes down to who steps up at running back and in the receiving game. Riecks is going to be a threat running the ball and senior Isaiah Stanton, sophomore Patrick Beltran and senior Caz Benefield will complement him at running back, with Beltran especially showing some potential if he quickly acclimates himself to the varsity game. Junior Matt Gillen will also make an impact as the starting fullback.
“Finding a running back was one of our goals coming into camp and we’ve been pretty happy with the group we have,” Bird said. “We feel like, within that group, anybody can emerge as the guy.”
Junior Nasir Williams returns with experience at wide receiver and returning senior defensive back Hunter MacDonald will play on the offensive side of the ball as a receiver, as well. Seniors Patrick Edwards, James White, and Ivan Sanchez are also in line for snaps at receiver, as is sophomore Rian Rivera. Senior Chris Jankowski, senior Greg Tutt and junior Wyatt Riecks will work in at tight end.
“All the receivers have been working,” MacDonald said. “As soon as last season ended, we knew we were going to be inexperienced this year so we just went to work right away. I truly think we’re all prepared.”
Senior Gabe Torres returns to the defensive line at one end of Keansburg’s multiple front, which will likely involve more four-man fronts than in year’s past given the Titans’ depth on the defensive line. The rest of the line will be a rotation of the four returning offensive linemen plus Sautner and Palaez.
“We’re playing with a lot more confidence on the line,” Torres said. “Last year was a learning process for a lot of guys and this year we know what we have to do and we’re the ones the younger guys are looking up to as leaders.”
Gillen, junior Elijah Moore and Beltran battled at middle linebacker to replace graduated three-year starters Joe Osterbye and Miguel Crespo. Bird acknowledged that the middle linebacker spot will likely be the key to the defense this season. Tutt and Riecks, meanwhile, have distinguished themselves at the two outside linebacker spots, with Riecks also serving as a possible defensive end option.
MacDonald and Edwards will provide some stability at safety while Williams, Stanton and Benefield make up the cornerback rotation.
“Me and Pat definitely have a better understanding of what has to get done because we had a pretty good defense last year,” MacDonald said. “We know what the whole defense needs to do and we have been holding everyone accountable.”
One roadblock in Keansburg’s pursuit of that elusive postseason berth is the Titans’ new schedule that is the result of Shore Conference realignment. Keansburg still resides in a division with fellow Group 1 schools Asbury Park, Keyport and Point Beach, but will now have to play two Group 3 schools in Holmdel and Manchester and an up-and-coming non-public program in Donovan Catholic. To make things even more difficult, the Titans lose an opportunity to crossover against other Group 1 and 2 teams from the Great Middlesex Conference and must now play their nondivisional games against Shore Regional and Pinelands.
The payoff to Keansburg’s schedule has always been that if the Titans get into the playoffs, they will be a battle-tested team that will be tough to beat, just as the Shore Conference teams from Class B Central have been for years in Central Jersey Group 1. With its senior offensive line and Riecks leading the way on offense, this could very well be the year Keansburg makes that move.
“The schedule is tougher than it was last year, but I think we are as good or better than we were last year,” Bird said. “With the exception of a couple positions here and there, we’re in a really good spot heading into the season.”
At a Glance
Head coach: John Bird, fourth season
Career record: 8-22
2017 record: 5-5 (2-3 in Class B Central)
Coaching staff: Jim Reid (Off. Coordinator), Brian Kmak (Def. Coordinator), Nick Varanelli (LB), Garry Bedoe (RB), Ryan Burgess (OL), Uriel Morfin (DL), Jon DeLiso (QB), Jesse Herbert (Media/Stats), Kelli Hudson (Athletic Trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Liam Riecks, Sr., QB
Danny Vital was an All-Division quarterback in B Central and an All-Shore Gridiron Classic selection as a senior, so Riecks will be taking over for an accomplished, three-year starter. It also leaves a hole at tailback since Riecks has to move off the position, so coach John Bird is banking his best playmaker will make the positional shuffle worth it.
X-FACTOR: Offensive Line
After starting just one senior on last year’s line, this year’s front five is an all-senior group that has a chance to control the point of attack. If they can do just that, it will take a lot of pressure off of some of the less experienced players who will be getting touches this year.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Patrick Beltran, So., RB/LB
As a sophomore on a senior-laden team, Beltran had some catching up to do in camp but has demonstrated to the coaches on several occasions that his time is coming, both in the backfield and at linebacker.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 14 at Asbury Park
Without games against the GMC, Keansburg is going to have to take advantage of every chance to win a game this season. Between a Week 1 game against Donovan Catholic and a Week 3 game vs. Holmdel, the Titans take on rival Asbury Park in a rematch of a game won last year by the Blue Bishops, 26-12. If they can’t beat Asbury Park, a 0-3 start is a distinct possibility.