The Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division title could be decided on Oct. 11 when South River travels to three-time defending division champion Dunellen.
However, Spotswood, led by quarterback C.J. O’Connor (1,309 passing yards) and running back Jack Dalrymple (910 rushing yards), should have some say in who wins the division crown.
The Destroyers, Rams and Chargers are prohibitive favorites to win the division largely because the division’s four other members – Metuchen, Middlesex, Highland Park and Cardinal McCarrick – combined for an 8-31 record last season.
Of the aforementioned quartet, the Bulldogs, led by Andre Corvil, and the Blue Jays, led by Pete Domenick, have upset potential, while the always athletic Owls can never be discounted.
The Eagles, who have a new head coach for the third time in as many years, will try to be competitive with about two dozen players in the program.
South River features the division’s premier player in junior running back Doug Ryan, who rolled up 1,174 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, while Dunellen, as it did a year ago, will accumulate offense with a backfield committee.
As the Eagles enter the season with their third coach in three seasons, numbers once again are not on their side as rookie coach Mario Alejandro, a 1997 Woodbridge graduate, inherits a program that is down to just 18 players. Arnaldy moves from running back to take the reins at quarterback from the graduated Jahmal Pryce, as he will look to senior Jeremy Arroyo and junior Jaylen Correa as his top two targets. Dave Rader at center anchors an offensive line with some experience, as the Eagles have three other linemen that played last year. With a limited roster, Alejandro has focused a lot on the conditioning of his players, as the Eagles cannot afford to lose anyone to any significant injuries, and he has also tried to keep his team positive. “We got to change our attitude and our character here, we can’t focus on those losing seasons and we got to be different this year,” Alejandro said. “I’m taking a very different approach with them as far as, I’m always trying to be positive with them. Even if something goes wrong, I say look at the positive side of things.”
The three-time Blue Division champions will have their hands full if they’re going to make it four straight years atop the division. Under head coach Dave DeNapoli, the Destroyers run an offense that’s as simple as you’ll find in the entire state of New Jersey, but their new quarterback has never run it as the starter. Enter David Johnson, a junior, that has neither attemped a pass or rushed the football in two years at Dunellen. The 6-footer, who also plays baseball, will be given the very explicit instructions from the sideline: run the ball. Dunellen runs on more than 90 percent of their offensive snaps, which should help Johnson in his learning curve and adjusting to the speed of being a varsity quarterback, but the skill players in the wing formation will need to step up. Rob Young, the returner with the most rushing yards last season, registered just 33 attempts for 330 yards as the Destroyers went 8-3. Only two other players with previous rushing attempts will be back, but that’s not to say they will falter. Nassan Anderson and Tim Francisco should get a lion’s share of the carries from their spots in the wing formation, while Johnson will need to make the proper decisions to put his teammates in good positions.
On the defensive side of the ball, Francisco will be the focal point of a unit that pitched a shutout and limited opponents to fewer than 10 points on four occasions last season. The 5-9 senior will man the middle linebacker spot and captain a unit that returns six starters, including Young and Jamie Desmelyk along the defensive line. In their eight wins a season ago, the Dunellen defense yielded just 116 points (14.5 average), which is good reason for optimism. Bringing back more than half of their key players to that unit will only help. But Dunellen is going to need to find enough points from their offense to win games. Getting production from unproven players in key spots is something DeNapoli and his staff will need to work at throughout the season, but the Destroyers have been through this before. As one of the smallest schools in the state, depth has never been a strong spot of their team, but playing just about every player on both sides of the ball has paid off before.
As the Owls look to snap a three-year playoff drought, head coach Rich McGlynn has virtually an entire new roster he’s working with. Of the 38 players on the roster, only six are seniors, five of whom are playing football for the first time ever. Senior Andy Powell, who saw a little bit of time last season before sustaining a season-ending concussion early in the season, will get the majority of the reps at quarterback. McGlynn will operate a running back by committee led by junior Jeffrey Mathis, one of just three experienced returnees, and freshman Dylan Boynton, as McGlynn says as many as four backs will see somewhere between five to eight carries per game. Marcell Butts, a starter at guard, was at Highland Park his freshman season and returns for his senior year after transferring from West Windsor-Plainsboro North. Basketball player Noah Pointer is a lean sophomore with potential and will be one of Powell’s top targets while Justin Melgazo is a wideout McGlynn sees some potential in. “We are very young, it’s a clean slate,” McGlynn said. “I’m excited because the near future looks very, very promising.”
Metuchen welcomes back head coach Bob Ulmer, who was away from the team for the past three seasons to spend more time with his family. Ulmer and the Bulldogs will have to compensate for the loss of their anchor along the offensive line, Dorian Miller, who is currently playing at Rutgers, as well as 2012 co-captain Michael Hronich. Ulmer inherits a team with no returning players along the offensive line, but the rushing tandem of seniors Andre Corvil and Zahir Powell remain in a potentially potent backfield. The duo combined to rush for 1,207 yards in 2012 and they teamed up to score 19 touchdowns, but a lot of those yards came running behind Miller and an experienced offensive unit. The Bulldogs will need quarterback James Nicolaiason to take a big step forward and lead the offense after tossing for 631 yards and three touchdowns last season. The pass-catching duo of junior Danny Briggs and sophomore Evan Collier anchor a unit that should have reliable hands outside the numbers. Add Ryan Verlaque to the mix at starting tight end and Nicolaiason should have plenty of options to throw to, but the inexperienced offensive line will need to keep him upright. The defensive unit, which will be run by Verlaque, will need to improve on the fly, after allowing 25 or more points in each of their final five games last season. The Bulldogs will have a host of players doubling up on both sides of the ball, so depth and stamina will be a key for the defensive unit. But, in the middle of last season, Metuchen put together a three-game winning streak, scoring 82 points in the process. They closed the season with four consecutive defeats, including a 40-37 shootout against Highland Park. Ulmer inherits a young team all over the field, but the success of his prior tenure should prove beneficial as the season unfolds.
Drawing on his experiences as an assistant at Hillsborough and South Brunswick, new offensive coordinator P.J. Jankowicz has installed the option offense. This is the time to do it: With 28 sophomores in the program compared to just eight seniors and seven juniors, the Blue Jays are thinking big picture. Four starting offensive linemen return, senior quarterback Brandon Bollin has experience under center, and running back Kyle Brady is a proven standout. Look for 6-foot-3 junior Kayshawn Wilson, a basketball player, to add a new dynamic to the backfield. Size could be an issue on both sides of the ball, but in a wide-open division, Middlesex could make some noise if the sophomores come along. “We could be 0-10 or 10-0. It’s about how fast these kids can pick up varsity experience,” head coach Brett Stibitz said. “This is the most talented team I’ve ever had but we’re also a younger team. We might shock some people or we might get steamrolled. If they don’t fire me, in a couple of years I’ll have a dynasty.” For the second straight fall, the Blue Jays will play home games on Saturday afternoons because of problems with the lights on their field. “It was weird last year (not playing on Fridays),” senior standout Pete Domenick said. “But what time the game is doesn’t matter. You just go out and play.”
Coming off a playoff appearance and their first winning season since 2007, the Rams look to continue their rise and return a key component in junior running back Doug Ryan, who rushed for 1,174 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. Ryan will have his fullback in Shane Ciesielski back in front of him along with three of five starters on the offensive line, but the Rams will have new faces under center. Junior Nick Lepore and senior Mark Alston will both see time behind center at the quarterback position and both bring different intangibles to the position, as last year’s starter Wyatt Boyler has graduated. Alston will also double as a dangerous wide receiver threat when not playing quarterback, as his 6-2 frame provides a deep target downfield, as the Rams try to make up for the loss of Thomas Pitera and his 41 receptions that graduated. Hunter Wolff is another big receiving threat opposite Alston while he’s also the Rams top cornerback on defense. Richard LeoGrande recorded 47 tackles and three sacks a year ago and will be a strong component of the Rams pass rush along with middle linebacker Sean Darrar. Ryan and the running game though will continue to be the pivotal point towards success for the Rams. ” I think anytime on any level, number one you’ve got to be able to run the ball,” head coach Rick Marchesi said. “I think eventually we’re going to be able to run the ball pretty well and the other things will fall into place.”
The Chargers bring back 10 starters, including a trio of three-year starters along the offensive line, to a team that has the firepower to score with anybody in the state. James Collins (Left Tackle), Shane White (Right Guard) and Gerard Reichardt (Right Tackle) should help incumbent Quarterback C.J. O’Connor continue his development as a passer. Last season, O’Connor tossed for over 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns, while completing 56 percent of his passes. While many of those targets went to outgoing senior Corey Brown, O’Connor should have plenty of time to operate behind his experienced blockers up front. O’Connor’s personal security blanket, bruising fullback Jack Dalrymple, is the team’s most seasoned skill position player, after rushing for 910 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. Look for senior Steve Sommer to pick up some of the slack lost with Brown (42 catches, 972 yards, 13 touchdowns) having graduated. The Chargers also bring back a quartet of defensive starters, including a pair of space-eating defensive tackles in Anthony D’Armiento and Mario Vasquez. Austin Wyatt returns as a starting linebacker and Jeff Szatkowski will head up the secondary from his safety spot.
In 2012, Spotswood actually out-scored their opponents by 62 points (306-244) and they lost three games by two points or less, including back-to-back losses by a combined three points in mid-October. But this is a squad that is trending upward, with O’Connor and an experienced offensive line to block for Dalrymple and a host of upcoming players like Chase Fee and Ryan Long. Revenge will be on the minds of the Chargers in 2013, as they play five of the teams that beat them last season, with four of those contests coming at home.