Yes, you read that title right. After years of mediocrity and disappointment for the traditional powerhouse, this will finally be the year that the Red Hawks will own the wooden and gold New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) football trophy.
This may be the best Red Hawk football squad that we have seen in years under head coach Rick Giancola. With that comes expectations, as Montclair State University was ranked third in the preseason NJAC coaches poll, which included three first-place votes.
Last season the Red Hawks shocked everyone with an 8-2 record, losing only two close games to Salisbury University and Frostburg State. Frostburg State is now in Division II, making the NJAC wide open for any team, but this Red Hawk team should be considered front-runners coming off the season they just had.
The talent is there, as the team returns several starters on both sides of the ball. This includes eight all-conference selections, many of them playing offensive positions for the team.
In past seasons, Montclair State has struggled greatly on offense. Last season, with new quarterback junior Ja’Quill Burch, and the improvement of the receiving core led by senior wide receivers Kason Campbell and senior tight end Brian Kowalczyk, the Red Hawks passing game was seemingly revived. Along with a respectable run game led by running backs Willie Barr and Craig Merkle, the team was extremely balanced and it kept the opposition on their toes all season.
Did I mention that most of these players (with the exception of Barr) will return in 2019 and can only get better from last season? That’s a scary sight for the rest of the conference.
What will really be crucial for Montclair State is their offensive line, which was arguably the best in the NJAC. They allowed only 14 sacks, the fewest amount in the conference last year, and were a big reason why Montclair State averaged 305.5 yards per game. Despite the loss of first-team all NJAC center Jon Koonce to graduation, the Red Hawks still return four offensive linemen, including senior Stephen Gaffney, who was named to the D3football.com preseason All-America team.
Defensively, the Red Hawks are still stout despite the graduation of one of the best linebackers in school history, Mauro Altomaura. The linebacker core will be led by junior linebacker Seamus Nelson, who I believe is primed for a big year after finishing fifth in the team in tackles last year, with 45.
The defensive line has several experienced players such as sophomore Dominic Ferrara and senior Brandon Burdge, who have the ability to rush the quarterback effectively, as well as shutting down the run.
However, the heart and soul of the team may lie in the secondary lineup. The Red Hawks have several standout players returning in the secondary, including senior safety Jaier Garrett, sophomore defensive back Brennan Ray and cornerback Jalen Harris. All three will be anchoring the best secondary in the conference by far, and their stats from last year prove it.
There’s no doubt that the Red Hawks have holes to fill, like every team. The team will need to replace the production of stars such as Altomaura and defensive lineman Jake Weber, as well as find a reliable kicking game due to the graduation of Hunter Daly. However, this team has a plethora of experience across the board to do so. Last year provided a lot of the underclassman with valuable experience, and that will pay dividends this season.
The schedule looks to be more favorable this year, with challenging conference opponents such as Salisbury University and Christopher Newport University being at home this season. This will undoubtedly give Montclair State an edge in conference play as the team has historically played extremely well at Sprague Field.
It also helps that the first two opponents Montclair State plays this season, Southern Virginia University and Salve Regina University, were teams that the Red Hawks easily defeated last season as well.
It does seem like everything is lining up for the Red Hawks to win the conference this season, and if they can play up to their potential this season, the sky is truly the limit for this team.
The first Montclair State football home game vs. Salisbury University will be on Oct. 5 at Sprague Field.