The Fifth Down: Week Seven
In a season where Shore Conference running backs and quarterbacks could produce more than ten 1,000-yard rushers, one running back has stood alone in maintaining a pace that could put him in the record books.
During his first and only season as the team's starting tailback, Long Branch senior Dahmiere Willis has rushed for 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns in seven games for an average of 257 yards rushing per game. The Shore Conference single-season record is 2,544 yards set by Pinelands' Matt McLain in 2010, and even more impressively, McLain did it in 10 games because the Wildcats did not reach the playoffs that year.
Long Branch is definitely headed to the playoffs, as the Green Wave are in contention for the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group III, so there is a chance Willis could play 12 games. He is easily on pace to become the first 2,000-yard rusher in the history of a Long Branch program that dates back to the early 1900s.
"It's been exciting,'' said Long Branch head coach Dan George, now in his 18th season overall as a head coach. "It's something that I really believe is one of the best seasons that I've seen anyone run for me, and I've had some great ones along the way."
"I like when the team depends on me like this because it just motivates me to go out and work harder,'' Willis said.
Willis has rattled off six straight games of 200-plus yards rushing, including a pair of 300-yard games highlighted by his school-record 370-yard explosion in a 40-28 win over Matawan last week. Not surprisingly, his eruption has coincided with a six-game winning streak for the No. 4 Green Wave, whose only loss is to No. 1 Red Bank Catholic.
The 5-foo-9, 170-pound Willis also has done it despite shouldering the heaviest load in the Shore at a conference-high 29 carries per game and also playing in the secondary, where he is a three-year starter, as well as returning kicks on special teams.
"He's an extremely hard worker and his practice habits are great,'' George said. "There's no down time. He's gotten himself into phenomenal shape."
Long Branch's best teams under George, who has led the Green Wave to a state title in 1999 and state final appearances in 2000, 2003 and 2007, have always featured physical running games behind standout offensive lines. When Long Branch is good up front, it always has a shot to make it to the 12th game. It looks to have that type of group this season.
Junior right tackle Cameron Hills, junior right guard Joe Jasio, junior center Steve Kologi, junior left guard Nick Stoia, 275-pound senior tackle Andrew Huff and senior tight end John Mims have been the group that has given Willis room to operate against defenses that have often sold out to try to stop the run.
"I think with some of the zone schemes, it allows us to take advantage of the aggressive defenses,'' George said. "We have seen the whole spectrum where literally teams will have nine guys in the box, and he's able to do some things that I haven't seen anybody do since (former Red Bank Regional and Penn State running back) Eric McCoo."
Despite the defenses' focus, Long Branch has stuck with its gameplan without adding too many wrinkles, which is a tribute to the prowess of Willis and the guys up front.
"If you're going to sell out like that, be ready for us to break one because if we find that seam that no one's in, it's going to result in a big play because Dahmiere has such good vision,'' George said.
The line also has done a solid job of maintaining discipline and avoiding holding penalties when blocking for Willis, who is an aggressive cutback runner who can completely reverse field to break big runs. Senior quarterback Jordan Rodriguez has only attempted 43 passes all season, but has thrown four touchdowns and averaged 15 yards per completion, so he has shown the ability to hurt teams when the opportunity arises.
Wagner College has shown interest in Willis since the spring and had some coaches in attendance at Long Branch's win over Ocean on Oct. 17, but he has not received any offers yet, according to George.
"We're really working on trying to increase the interest (in Willis),'' George said.
The next defense to take a crack at slowing down Willis is Neptune (4-2), which faces the Green Wave in a big Class B North game on Saturday after beating Wall 41-0 last week.
Point Beach senior fullback/linebacker Joe Wegrzyniak, who has missed the Garnet Gulls' last two games with what head coach John Wagner called a "lower leg injury" will return to the lineup for a huge Class B Central game at Shore Regional on Friday night. Wegrzyniak, who was a SSN first-team All-Shore pick as a junior, is the team's second-leading rusher and the leading tackler from his linebacker spot. The winner of Friday night's showdown will clinch no worse than a tie for the B Central title, and Shore is the defending division champion.
Red Bank Catholic senior wideout Nick Lubischer will miss this week's game against Ocean after suffering a knee injury in a 35-7 win over Manalapan in which he had three catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He potentially could return a week later against Jackson Memorial but most likely will be back for the state playoffs.
Barnegat senior running back/linebacker Manny Bowen will return to the lineup for a big Class B South game on Friday night against Lakewood after sitting out the Bengals' last game because of a concussion.
News and notes
**Not only did Brick Memorial senior wideout/defensive back Karl Kumm catch a touchdown in a loss to Middletown South last week, but he also had a good week off the field. Kumm, who was born in the Eastern European nation of Estonia and moved to the United States when he was eight years old, became a naturalized U.S. citizen last week. Kumm has been one of the better deep threats in the Shore with 10 catches for 293 yards (29.3 ypc) and three touchdowns this season out of the run-based flexbone offense.
**Certainly part of Lacey's struggles in a 1-6 start have had to partially do with a rash of injuries. Lacey head coach Lou Vircillo, who moved into second all time in Shore Conference history with his 264th win on Saturday, said that players accounting for 13 of the 22 starting positions are either out for the season or have missed extensive time because of injuries.
**Jackson Memorial is averaging 7.2 yards per carry as a team this year with its multi-dimensional rushing attack, led by junior Vinny Lee's 670 yards on 6.7 yards per carry. As a team, the Jaguars have rolled up 1,756 yards rushing in seven games.
**Freehold Boro senior Josh Dixon is averaging 8.4 yards per carry in racking up 1,171 yards rushing so far this season. He will get his biggest test against the Manalapan defense on Saturday.
**St. John Vianney (7-0) is three wins away from tying the single-season school record, set when the Lancers went 10-1 in winning their only state title in 1980.
**Middletown North sophomore Donald Glenn set what is believed to be a Shore Conference record for passing yards by a freshman last season with 1,557 and it might not even last a year. Matawan freshman George "L.C." Pearson has 1,022 yards passing in seven games for the Huskies, including 201 and two touchdowns in a loss to Long Branch last week.
**Lakewood senior quarterback Chapelle Cook, a Temple recruit, has had back-to-back 200-yard rushing games heading into Friday's showdown with Barnegat.
**Red Bank Regional junior Sadiq Palmer had his second kickoff return for a touchdown this season in a 14-6 loss to Ocean.
**Penn State true freshman wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan) had his first career touchdown catch in the Nittany Lions' double-overtime loss to Ohio State with a leaping grab on a jump ball.
**Blacknall's old Manalapan teammate, Harvard sophomore tight end Anthony Firkser, received a national honor for his performance in a win over Princeton.