After an abysmal start to last season, the Linden High School football team won three of its final four games, including a stunning upset of Barringer in the state playoffs. This season the Tigers return most of their starters from last year’s squad a year older, wiser and hungrier led by Home News Tribune Preseason All-Area selection Shaquan Champagne.
Champagne, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound middle linebacker and defensive captain, has been a model of consistency and tireless production over the past couple of years. He’s coming off of back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons in addition to eight sacks in 2012.
“He’s self-motivated, has a nose for the football and always shows up to play,” said Linden head coach Deon Candia. “He finds away around blockers and gets to the ball. I think he’s going to open a lot of eyes this season.”
Champagne is being recruited by notable Division I schools such as North Carolina State, Ohio and Temple.
“He’s a little bit undersized right now to play linebacker in college,” Candia said. “Schools are wanting him to transition to safety, and I’m completely confident he could make that transition.”
Linden’s linebacking corps, which is rounded out by outside backers Tymir Hinton and Tykir West is where an expectantly tough defensive unit shines.
“I really like our linebacking corps,” Candia said. “Overall they’re fast and aggressive, have keen awareness, provide good pass coverage and each has a nose for the football.”
Although Champagne will be calling out the signals on defense, senior defensive back Izaia Bullock is the team’s emotional leader. Bullock led the team with eight passes defended last season.
“He’s the heart and soul,” said Candia. “He gets the rest of him teammates going. He’s emotional. He plays emotional.”
And while they’re more polished and experienced defending the football, it’s the offense that’s gotten a lot more of the preseason attention.
After getting a brief taste of varsity as a freshman two years ago for Linden, Kyle Phipps transferred to national power Don Bosco Prep before last season. Phipps decided to transfer back to Linden this season, however, and is causing quite a stir.
“He’s a hard worker. He’s always been that way,” Candia said of Phipps. “Style-wise he’s a mixture of Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson. He has the moves to create, but at same time he has strong lower body and can run tacklers over.”
Linden’s junior running back Juwan Dolbrice, who burst on the scene last year to rush for a team-high 1,020 yards, will line up opposite his cousin Phipps in the backfield giving the Tigers perhaps combo rushers with the most upside in Union County.
“The sky is the limit for this team,” said Candia. “They’re self-motivated. They got the taste of the playoffs in their mouths last season, and it’s brought them back hungrier this season.”