Montclair State Football Hopes To Repeat NJAC Glory

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Published September 1, 2021
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The Montclarion
Sophomore running back Makai Mickens runs through the defense during a 2021 preseason practice. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

The 2021 football season is finally upon us. Fresh off of winning the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) North Championship, the Montclair State University football team looks to win more silverware in their first full season in almost two years.

Due to last season being moved to the spring and having shortened schedules, the conference championship was divided into two parts: North and South. This year, however, only one team will be victorious in the end.

In the NJAC preseason coaches poll, Montclair State was picked second behind nationally ranked (#8) Salisbury University. Though the Red Hawks have high hopes for this season, they realize there is still a lot of work to do.

The team will open their season on Saturday, Sept. 4 in Troy, New York against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Montclair State’s first four games are nonconference matchups. After that, the Red Hawks have six straight conference games beginning with Salisbury University on Oct. 2.

The Montclair State football team huddles up during their preseason scrimmage against Lackawanna on Aug. 21. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

The Montclair State football team huddles up during their preseason scrimmage against Lackawanna College on Aug. 21.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Assistant coach Mike Palazzo is excited to have a full season again.

“In the spring, we only had our guys for an hour a day, so it was really fast and I had to kind of let some things go because you just didn’t have time,” Palazzo said. “You know, now we’re back to having time and being able to do some things that we’d like to do.”

Having a full season gives the coaching staff much more time to implement new ideas. Throughout a football season, there are countless new schemes and plays constantly being practiced or added. Football is all about making the right adjustments and that is what separates good from great.

Finding an identity is going to be crucial for the Red Hawks this season. There are only about 35 current players that were with the team back in 2019. With over 60 new faces, it has been a challenge to find what works for this team.

“Offensively and defensively we are just trying to find what we are good at,” Palazzo said. “Every year at a coaching camp you kind [of] throw a lot at your team and see what fits their personality best.”

Running back Abellany Mendez was awarded NJAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the spring and is destined for another special season.

“I have been improving on getting out more for the check-downs, making sure I am a receiver now, too,” Mendez said. “And on my pass protections, I am trying to improve on that, too.”

It is clear that Mendez wants to bring his game up a notch even after a solid season. Mendez becoming an elite receiving threat and a willing blocker can bring this offense to new levels.

Quarterback Ja'Quill Burch looks to pass during a 2021 preseason practice. Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Quarterback Ja’Quill Burch looks to pass during a 2021 preseason practice.
Photo courtesy of David Venezia

Senior quarterback and team captain Ja’Quill Burch is coming back for another season. Burch had a fabulous spring season, throwing for 588 yards and three touchdowns last season in addition to being named First Team All-NJAC.

Another huge name returning on offense is senior captain and guard Matt Schnoll, who anchored the offensive line and was selected Second-Team All-Region.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Red Hawks are expected to be the top defense in the conference. Last season, the team landed 16 players on the NJAC North Division All-Conference Team, seven of them being on defense.

With Zahir Wilder returning, the Red Hawks are bringing back one of the most dynamic players in the NJAC. Wilder was named Second-Team All-America selection and NJAC Special Teams Player Of The Year.

Wilder, who averaged 49.3 yards per return, also put up seven tackles and a pass breakup from the cornerback position. His return also made him the first Red Hawk to record a touchdown as a thrower, receiver, defender and return specialist.

Zahir Wilder catches a kick return during a practice. Photo courtesy of Zahir Wilder

Zahir Wilder catches a kick return during a practice.
Photo courtesy of Zahir Wilder

Senior defensive back Brennan Ray spoke about his expectations for the Red Hawks this year.

“I have some high expectations,” Ray said. “I like to dream big and I think we have one of the best teams Montclair [State] has ever had. I think this is going to be the biggest year yet, we are going for the NJAC championship. We want to win a ring this year.”

Ray is coming off a phenomenal spring season as he was named First Team All-NJAC. Ray tallied 13 tackles, three sacks, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. The senior is highly respected in the locker room as a leader and he is an absolute enforcer on the field.

Coming into this fall season, the Red Hawks have an enormous amount of pressure on them to produce just as they did in the spring. Putting it all together is no easy task, however, between this veteran coaching staff and extremely talented roster, they are more than capable.

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