While I will have full previews of these teams up on the site in the coming days, here are some quick tidbits from the camps I visited on Wednesday:
The 2010 preseason camp tour started today with a trip to the three-time defending Central Jersey Group I champions, Asbury Park, which has a new/old coach, Matt Ardizzone, and only two starters returning on offense and defense.
Ardizzone was the offensive coordinator for the last three years under former head coach Don Sofilkanich, who is now at rival Neptune, and was the head coach for one year in 2006 after being approved only two days before the season started following the controversial ouster of former coach Joe Stinson.
He is working with a whole new group for the most part, as stars like George Stephens, Jamar Small and Lamar Davenport have all graduated. This year will be the biggest test to see if Asbury Park has truly built a program that can win year in and year out or if the last two classes were just the best to come along in more than 20 years at Asbury.
The main news is that the team recruited its starting quarterback, senior Jayvon Britt, from the basketball team. Britt played football as a freshman, but this will be his first and only season of varsity football and he has big shoes to fill, as Small was one of the Shore’s top quarterbacks last season. Britt is a point guard on a basketball team that has won consecutive CJ I titles, so he has experienced pressure situations. Ardizzone said that he and the coaches leaned on Britt to play in order to fill the void at quarterback, and Britt will now helm the Delaware Wing-T attack and is trying to pick it up as quickly as possible. Britt is also going to start at cornerback.
This appears to be a much less star-driven team than the Asbury squads of the past few years. Senior Marquise Johnson is the main returning running back with experience and also started at linebacker last year. The other names to watch for in the backfield are seniors Simon Press and Luis Sloan and junior Islam Joshua, with sophomore Xavier Peavy also in the mix for some time, according to Ardizzone.
The only other returning starter besides Marquise Johnson is senior two-way lineman Darryl Johnson, so this is a whole new group. They do appear to have some decent size up front, however, which is a good sign, although one potential starter is abruptly moving to Florida with his family, which doesn’t help. The players know the pressure is on to keep the winning going, but this is not a group pounding its chest for respect. I got the feeling that they are just as curious as everyone else to see how this team turns out and if they can make it back to the CJ I final and make a run at the newly created Class B Central title.
The good news is that the participation numbers are great for a small Group I team. Ardizzone said there are 70 players in the program, and they will be fielding a freshman team for the first time in several seasons. Winning has brought more players out of the woodwork, which allows them to have more productive practices and more battles for positions rather than just doing things out of necessity.
With Sofilkanich going to bitter rival Neptune, the players and Ardizzone admitted that even though the annual Thanksgiving game between the two teams is a long way away, it can’t help but be in the back of their minds. That will be one to circle for Turkey Day because for some players, it’s a good-natured thing, but for some others, let’s just say that there is no love lost for the Scarlet Fliers and their former coach.
As for Long Branch, the ingredients are certainly there to make a run at the Central Jersey Group II title despite a schedule that has been FedExed straight from Hades.
Not only is one of the top talents in the state and a top 100 recruit in the nation, senior quarterback/defensive back Miles Shuler, back in the fold, but the line on both sides and the running back situation appears to be improved. Senior Karon Hair has been moved from wide receiver to the backfield, and looks to be a Percy Harvin-type who lines up in the backfield, in the slot and all over the field in order to use his game-breaking speed and elusiveness. Meanwhile, Green Wave coach Dan George said that sophomore tailback Dwight Clark, the younger brother of a star from last year’s team, Devron Clark, is “a special player.” That means teams should not be able to just sell out and send everyone at Shuler because they will have to respect the playmaking ability of Hair and Clark out of the backfield.
Clark is part of a strong sophomore class that could include two other starters, tight end Dominic Mincieli (sorry if the name is spelled wrong, don’t have the official roster yet) and linebacker Joscil Jackson.
Up front, the Green Wave look to be improved on a unit that was an Achilles’ heel on both sides of the ball at times last season when they went 7-3 and reached the first round of the playoffs. Junior tackle Ryan Brodie is a 6-foot-5 prospect with great feet who already has the interest of numerous Division I-A schools and should be one of the top recruits in the Shore Conference and the state from the class of 2012, and he is one of three returning starters on the offensive line. Brodie, who is one of the more personable linemen you’re going to meet, is also back on the defensive line along with another two-way starter, senior James Parnell. The Green Wave also have a Tony Siragusa-style roadblock in the middle in 350-pound junior Brian Dougherty.
The linebackers are all new, so the defensive line will have to step up against a schedule that includes Matawan, Neptune, Ocean, Red Bank Catholic, Freehold and Raritan. All of them were state playoff teams in 2009 except for Freehold, which won the CJ III title in 2008.
Shuler looks like he added some size to his upper body, and he already is the reigning 100-meter dash winner at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, so no one in the state can run with him in a footrace to the end zone.
A new addition to the team is a transfer from Colts Neck who the Green Wave hope can help them in an area that has cost them some big games in recent seasons – kicking. Brandon Dinkin, who should also see some time at wideout and in the secondary, will handle the placekicking duties. He is the younger brother of former Colts Neck standout Jeremy Dinkin, who is now playing at Monmouth University.
It was good to see a familiar face in former Long Branch star defensive end Mike Bland, who had a brilliant track career and also played football at the University of Rhode Island and is now coaching the defensive line for the Green Wave and teaching in the district. He was a sack machine as an undersized defensive end at Long Branch on some playoff teams. Also hanging around was former star Jerett Sanderson, who recently earned his degree from Bowling Green after a strong career as a linebacker there. Sanderson is hoping to get a look from a Canadian Football League team or possibly an NFL squad as a safety and is banking on the fact that maybe an injury or two in a team’s camp might create an opportunity for him.
Finally, former star running back Travis Patterson, who led the Shore Conference in rushing in 2007 and recently completed two years at Hudson Valley Community College, said he is heading to Rutgers this coming weekend in his bid to try and walk on the team. For those Scarlet Knights fans out there, he also said he believes the highly-recruited Shuler will eventually end up at Rutgers, saying Shuler is always going up there and hanging around. He said that he and Shuler are headed there this weekend. George said that he and Shuler are going to sit down and line up Shuler’s official visits this fall, which he plans on taking before making a decision.
As for the biggest game on Long Branch’s schedule, I guessed that it was defending Central Jersey Group II champion Matawan, but the players told me that it is another old rival – Neptune. The players from both sides know each other well, and Shuler and Neptune running back/defensive back Charles Davis, who has already committed to Rutgers, are good friends, so that should be a good rumble between two talented teams with passionate fan bases. That game is Sept. 25 at noon at Long Branch, by the way, which is the Green Wave’s third game of the season.