During the fall sports season, the biggest sporting event on campus, football, would usually take place most Saturdays at 1 p.m. at Sprague Field. This time, that was not the case.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic caused all sports at Montclair State to be halted until the spring of 2021. Football is one of those sports that normally takes place in the fall and has also become a part of the jampacked spring schedule.
The season officially kicks off on March 13, as the Red Hawks will travel to Kean University.
Along with the others on the team, head coach Rick Giancola does not mind the limited amount of time they get to practice.
“It feels good to know that we will have a set schedule for practice time and then begin our game schedule,” Giancola said. “Everyone is excited to have this opportunity to practice, play and compete again even if it is a shortened time frame.”
The last season Montclair State football played was in the fall of 2019. They had an overall record of 6-4 and a 5-2 conference record, good for third in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC). The Red Hawks started the season off at 1-3 but ended the season winning five of their last six.
The biggest strength on this team was their defense. They gave up 150 passing yards and just over 260 total yards a game, with an outstanding scoring defense of just 15 points per game.
Defensive coordinator Todd Agresta expects much of the same from last season.
“We are adding a few new wrinkles to our defensive scheme to take advantage of our returning personnel,” Agresta said. “I believe we can be just as good if not better than our 2019 defense, as long as we work hard, play with great effort and finish plays.”
One of the team’s top defensive players from last season was senior linebacker Seamus Nelson. He had a total of 58 tackles, eight of which were for a loss, and an interception, earning First Team All-NJAC honors.
Nelson is part of the same three linebackers that were starters last season, along with juniors James Chukwurah and Adens Georges. The trio brings experience and versatility to this defense.
“Sometimes they can line up on the line and rush passer or drop,” Agresta said. “Sometimes they can line up deep and play coverage.”
Nelson is one of the leaders on this team and is looking forward to his senior season.
“I try to lead by example, given that I have been in the program for four years now,” Nelson said. “I know what is required to get the best out of myself as well as the team.”
Other notable players returning to a dominant defense are all juniors, including safety Zack Zaccone, defensive back Brennan Ray and defensive lineman Dominic Ferrara.
On the flip side, the offense is going to have some holes to fill while opportunities await. Last season, the Red Hawks scored under 23 points a game but did average almost 350 total yards per game.
The bad news is both of the team’s top two rushers and three of the four leading receivers have all graduated.
Craig Merkle, who finished First Team All-NJAC, was a big loss after leading the team in rushing and being fifth in receiving. Ralph McClean was second in the rushing category as well as Second Team All-NJAC.
Sophomore running back Abellany Mendez and senior running back Kyle Phipps will take larger workloads out of the backfield.
Mendez was a bright spot late last season after playing just four games as he led the team in rushing yards per game and seven rushing yards per attempt in that time.
Giancola understands the difficulty of stepping into a starting job as a younger player but is confident that his athletes will come through when the time comes.
“Taking a leap into a bigger role is not difficult to anticipate, but for the players, it is sometimes very difficult,” Giancola said. “Every year you find a group of young men who surprise us by their play and exceed our expectations.”
Top receivers Kason Campbell and Mike Manzo-Lewis both graduated, but last year’s second leading receiver is returning.
Junior wide receiver Carsen Johnson had big performances in the last two games of the season and will look to take that momentum into this season.
“I can become more consistent through my preparation and execution,” Johnson said. “If I do those two things correctly, then everything else will fall into place.”
The good news is that starting quarterback Ja’Quill Burch will remain in that position for the third season in a row. The Second Team All-NJAC honoree threw for 230 yards a game and became more consistent as the season went on.
“The most important X-factor in our offense is the speed,” Burch said. “We added more speed we think the rest of the conference hasn’t seen or has the matching speed to keep up with us. In my third-year things are the same. The year changes but the work just amplifies.”
The other two games of the season will take place at Sprague Field. The Red Hawks will face Wesley College on March 20 and William Patterson on March 27.