Skills Galore: St. John Vianney 2019 Football Preview
Only three of St. John Vianney’s starters on opening night of 2018 started on the previous year’s team and yet all those new starters – plus new head coach Joe Martucci – carried the burden of extending a winning streak against Shore Conference competition that spanned four seasons.
It didn’t help that the opening game was against a Red Bank Catholic team that went on to go 10-0, win the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III title and finish ranked among the top five teams in N.J., according to NJ.com.
Humbling losses to Red Bank Catholic and Rumson-Fair Haven in the first two games of the season as well as the absence of starting quarterback C.J. Duell due to NJSIAA transfer rules contributed to a rocky start to 2018 for St. John Vianney but the Lancers collected themselves by winning three of their final four games and finishing 5-5 with a team filled with new players that had not played together all that much prior to last August.
“We had three starters back from the previous team that had that streak,” Martucci said. “So everybody was gunning for that and it didn’t take long because Red Bank Catholic kicked our butts. And then we went to Rumson and got our butts kicked there and then we started to settle in. We let a two slip by that we should have won and in the playoffs we kind of gave it away with the turnovers. I thought we got better as the year went on and that’s all we can ask for from our kids.”
The respectable finish to the season has provided a springboard into 2019, when Martucci and his St. John Vianney squad hope to return to the top tier of the Shore Conference.
“We are going to be very experienced and it brings a lot of depth to our offense,” senior running back Kavon Chambers said. “We are going to be flying around a lot more. We know a lot more than we did last year because last year it was a new group, a lot of people weren’t really ready and I feel like this year, everybody is more ready.”
Player to Watch: Kavon Chambers (Sr., RB)
Chambers burst onto the Shore Conference scene as a sophomore at Central Regional and transferred to St. John Vianney ahead of last season, when the Lancers had nearly every skill position on the depth chart open as a result of graduations from the prior year.
For the second straight year, Chambers eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing but came up 400 yards shy of his sophomore-year total and found the endzone six times – a modest total based on the standards set the prior year. He also carried the ball only 140 times for an average of 7.2 yards per rush in an offense that did not seek to rely on him as much as Central did, so the downturn in production had a lot to do with a lightened workload.
“I learned to humble myself,” Chambers said of last season. “You have to take it one game at a time and just try to go 1-0 every week. You can’t overlook anybody because everybody is a good opponent.”
With Duell at quarterback from the start of the season and a bevy of weapons surrounding him on offense, Chambers again won’t be asked to shoulder too much of the load but his track record suggests he can handle whatever task the Lancers need from him.
“Kavon is one of the better running backs in the Shore, if not the state,” Martucci said. “It’s just a matter of getting his feet wet again and getting him used to what’s going on.”
Under the Radar Player: Josh East (Sr., WR/DB)
Martucci tested the boundaries of East’s versatility last year when he used him at quarterback to open the season while Duell was ineligible. Over the course of the season, East threw for 463 yards on 39-for-62 passing with six touchdowns and no picks.
This year, East will settle into a slightly more conventional role as a wide receiver and defensive back on either side of the ball, but he will certainly be a threat to throw the ball when he is on the field. He is also one of St. John Vianney’s army of dangerous receivers, with East specializing lining up in the slot.
On the other side of the ball, he will play opposite standout sophomore Jayden Bellamy at one of the cornerback spots. Bellamy already made an impact as a freshman by leading the team in receiving and interceptions and East will be one of the many complementary players around the talented sophomore.
Top Unit: Receivers/Secondary
Bellamy and East are just two of the many two-way standouts St. John Vianney will have at receiver and defensive back. Seniors Zarrin Stephens, Warren Griffith and Naron Alston will all be among Duell’s weapons as well, with Stephens and Alston doubling up as safeties and Griffith working in at cornerback.
Junior Julian Young has the inside track at tight end when the Lancers choose to employ one and will play outside linebacker on defense. Sophomore Isaac Montalve, meanwhile, is slated for the safety rotation with Stephens and Alston.
“On the outside, Bellamy and Stephens, East and Griffith are all skilled athletes who if you get it to them in space, things are going to happen,” Martucci said. “But you have to be able to protect. You’ve got to be able to keep the quarterback standing upright so that’s where it all starts.”
St. John Vianney will be successful if…
The offensive line can get in sync with Duell and Chambers. Even with current Rutgers freshman C.J. Hanson in leading the offensive line last year, the Lancers offense never quite gelled as it was expected to. This year, the line has no FBS behemoths, but it does return three starters plus senior Gage Mollemann, who missed his junior year due to injury.
Going toe-to-toe with the giants of Non-Public Group III will be a tall order for St. John Vianney’s offensive and defensive fronts, but within the Shore Conference, solid line play could be more than enough to free up Duell and the offense to pick opposing defenses apart.
“Offensively we just have to put things together,” Martucci said. “We’ve got some good skill kids, we just have to get better up front. That’s going to be the key.”
AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Joe Martucci, second season (30th overall)
CAREER RECORD: 202-96-1
2018 RECORD: 5-5 (2-3 in Colonial Division)
ASSISTANT COACHES: Jay Bellamy (Def. coord./DB/special teams), Sam Turner (asst. head coach/OL), Mike Albreque (QB, pass game coord.), Danny Fierro (WR), Bill Hill (LB/DB), Ed Hernandez (LB/strength and conditioning), Mike Warnock (DL), Brian Lucas (freshmen), Tony Abarno (freshmen), Lou Liberator (volunteer), Joe Galamb (volunteer), Peter Pezzullo (volunteer), Jamil Sims (volunteer), Matt Luzio (volunteer), Ruthann Rutledge (athletic trainer), Maya Kantor (athletic trainer).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dom McCaffery (Jr., OL/DL)
Of all of Vianney’s losses to graduation, Hanson and fellow lineman Paul Liseno were the biggest – literally and figuratively speaking. Mollemann will fill one of the open spots on the line, which he might have done last year were his season not lost to injury.
McCaffery appears to have won the remaining open spot, occupying the left guard position while senior Jack McCutcheon kicks out from guard to left tackle in an attempt to secure Duell’s blindside.
X-FACTOR: Offensive Line
Staying with the offensive line, the Lancers will go as far as the skill positions can take them and the skill players will need a capable line in order to reach their potential. Playing with most of the top Shore Conference programs should be well within the realm of expectations for a group that does have some playing experience from a year ago, as well as some size. On top of McCutcheon and Mollemen, senior center John DeFelice and senior right tackle Dan Forella are also back from last year.
“(Molemann) is completely healed, it’s just a matter of getting out there and playing,” Martucci said. “Once he gets comfortable, he is one of our best guys. Dominic McCaffery and (junior) Jacob Ramirez can move outside or move inside so we are going to try to use some of the depth we have to spell guys.”
The question for St. John Vianney is can this line hold its own against Mater Dei Prep in September and, more importantly, against a grueling Non-Public Group III field in November?
“It’s still new, it’s still summertime, we still have a lot to improve, we still have some kinks to work out,” Chambers said. “Those guys are pretty good, they are a new group so they’ll learn together.”
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Corey Pitts (So., LB)
With middle linebacker Mike Noble graduating, Pitts will step in and play as a sophomore on the inside next to junior Blake Clayton and sandwiched between Young and senior Anthony Brett as the outside linebackers. Last year, Brett emerged as one of the team’s top tacklers and Pitts has a chance to do the same as only a sophomore.
PIVOTAL GAME: Sept. 27 vs. Mater Dei Prep
St. John Vianney’s first two games of the season are no cakewalks, with Middletown South awaiting in the opener, followed by Brick. With St. John Vianney’s all-around talent, both those should be considered must-win games for the Lancers, especially considering the opponent that will be invading St. John Vianney in game No. 3.
One way or another, the showdown with Mater Dei Prep on the last Friday of September will be a monumental game for both Monmouth County Non-Public programs. From the St. John Vianney perspective, it will be a chance to regain some of the luster that wore off with last year’s 5-5 season and could catapult them back into the upper echelon of the Shore Conference.
“There is no other way to go out other than a state championship,” Chambers said. “That’s the ultimate goal. But just winning each and every game, getting younger kids better and just competing every week. That’s how we have to do it.”