Russell Clayton is expected to emerge as one of the Greater Middlesex Conference’s top offensive linemen, which bodes well for Monroe’s gifted skill position players.
“I believe he’s going to be a dominant lineman,” Monroe coach Chris Beagan said of his three-year starter, who returns to the trenches with incumbents Nick Marinelli and Anthony Giudice.
“As a sophomore he took some lumps, but showed tremendous work ethic and continued to improve. Last year he made some big strides and worked even harder this offseason.”
Clayton, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 280 pounds, has grown into his frame, developing his upper body strength and the ability to move defenders.
“He’s become more athletic,” Beagan said, noting the Falcons will move Clayton from tackle to guard this year and play him on the defensive line for the first time, as well.
Monroe graduated seven players on defense, each who accumulated 30 or more tackles, and five of whom played in all of the Falcons’ games including a 39-7 loss to eventual sectional finalist Manalapan in a Central Group V opening-round playoff game. Two of Monroe’s losses were by a total of seven points, while two of its other defeats were each by two scores. The Falcons finished with a deceptive 3-6 record.
“With high school kids and with coaches, too, if a couple of those (narrow) losses go the other way, you are feeling a little different about yourself at the end of the year,” said Beagan, who led the Falcons to their first sectional title just four years ago. “I think we felt like a 3-6 team when we got to the playoffs.”
Monroe, which installed a spread offense before the start of last season, won three of its first four games in 2012 with the only loss a 35-32 setback to reigning Central Group V champion South Brunswick.
Running back Akeer Franklin, arguably the league’s top offensive newcomer in 2012, rolled up 1,350 all-purpose yards, while quarterback Stephen Karoly passed for 910 yards. Both are returning.
“He’s grown and he’s starting to master the offense,” Clayton said of Karoly. “He’s learning the keys and to make the right choices. I like seeing (Franklin and company) score. If we have to have the run game (working) for us, it all starts with us up front.”
Clayton, who will be relied upon to clear the “A” gap, said he has yet to see much difference regarding his move to the interior of the line, other than his responsibility as a pulling guard.
“We think we have some playmakers,” said Beagan, noting the new offense was “just starting to really scratch the potential (last fall). We are pretty excited moving forward.”