After raising the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) North Division trophy last season, the Montclair State University football team found themselves in unfamiliar territory: losing.
The Red Hawks finished with a disappointing 3-7 record, their worst record since 1968, as the team never seemed to fully click all season long. It seemed like whenever this team looked to finally have it together, they would take a step back.
Though football is the ultimate team game, one side of the ball flew higher than the other. On defense, the Red Hawks were dominant. In the first game of the season, they scored all of the team’s 20 points through turnovers in a narrow one-point loss to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
However, the team’s struggles on offense were paramount as the Red Hawks finished toward the bottom of the NJAC in passing (1,282), rushing (948) and total yards per game (223).
Despite failing to meet their high expectations from the preseason, senior defensive back Brennan Ray still believes in the future of this program.
“We’re [going to] take everything we saw was wrong, and as leaders on the team, correct those mistakes,” Ray said. “We know we have phenomenal athletes on our team — I think we should have been competing in the playoffs. We just have to put the pieces together and really hone in on what needs to be done. And we’ll make sure that happens.”
The promise of a new season comes with the ability to turn a page and leave the past as just that. For this team, they are trying to build on the foundation and culture this defense laid in the 2021 season.
Ray and senior linebacker Mike Ramos will be key pieces to that puzzle when they return for their fifth season in 2022. The shortened spring season that took place in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic did not count toward a year of eligibility for any participating athletes, per NCAA rules.
This opened the door for the two superstar ballhawks to return. Ray says he feels more than ready to return.
“We haven’t told a lot of people, but we’re coming back,” Ray said. “At this point in football, I feel like I’m the best I’ve ever been — mentally, physically [and] in every [other] aspect. So coming back for another year, knowing I have another year to get better with [Ramos] — that’s scary. I just know what we could do and how much better we can get.”
The team’s poor record this season, according to Ramos, was an additional reason the dynamic duo felt they had to return.
“I don’t want to go out on a losing season,” Ramos said. “Plus, once it’s over, it’s over. Once you hang ‘em up, that’s it.”
In order to make these gains, the seniors know there needs to be work put in this offseason. Ramos detailed some things the team will be working on in the coming months.
“We need to do more work now in the offseason,” Ramos said. “Whether it’s in the weight room, footwork [or] reading the playbook more, I mean, we need to make some serious changes.”
Ray was approached by three different showcases with the opportunity to be noticed by NFL teams before the upcoming NFL draft in April. The senior declined all three, as participation would render him ineligible for the 2022 season. One of the three, the CGS Small School Showcase, extended his invitation to after next season.
The defense will surely benefit from the strong leadership in the secondary, but experience is a luxury on the offensive side of the ball. Among others, the Red Hawks are losing their starting quarterback of four years in Ja’Quill Burch, who finished his career with the fifth-most passing yards in school history.
Sophomore tight end Eric Cowan was the team leader in receiving yards this season (216) and spoke about his readiness to step up for his team.
“All our leaders like [Burch] and [Matt] Schnoll are leaving,” Cowan said. “So, we’re [going to] need more guys to step up. I think I’d be one of those guys.”
Despite this team’s struggles on offense all season long, the young tight end spoke about how he could see improvement with every passing week this season. It was something that drove him to improve as a player every day.
There is a feeling of hunger and optimism in the air for Montclair State football, as they look to take on the 2022 season with a vengeance.