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Senior running back Harrison Walker will carry the ball a lot this season, and the Cougars are hoping he can replicate the 57 yards per carry average from 2016.
PHOTO BY ANDREW GARDA/STAFF

by Andrew Garda

garda@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Kimberley Academy football team is in the midst of a changeover. Coach Anthony Rea lost a lot of seniors to graduation, especially along the offensive line, and while he has a large amount of juniors and sophomores stepping up, he’s only got four seniors on the 2017 squad.

That means if they want to continue the winning they’ve done over the last three years—they’ve put together a 23-8 record since Rea arrived in 2014—they’re going to need players to get very comfortable, very quickly in some new positions.

“There are a lot of guys vying for positions,” Rea said after a recent practice. “We have a couple starters back on each side of the ball so we’re just making sure the guys are competing and working hard, and getting better every day.”

It also means those four rising seniors are going to have to show the young guys how it’s done.

It’s not going to hurt that two of them, John Sweetwood and Michael Hermo, were in the top four tacklers on defense in 2016, Hermo with 73 and Sweetwood totaling 58. Nor is it a bad thing that another of them, Harrison Walker, will be carrying the ball out of the backfield again this season after totaling 571 yards and five touchdowns on 100 carries in 2016.

Those three players and fellow senior Keenan McAuliffe will all be starters and all contributing.

And doing so in more than one spot, as well. since the Cougars’ roster isn’t huge.

“We’ve just got thirty-one guys, but that’s up from last year and good for the program,” Rea said. “A lot of it is the things we do in practice. We don’t go to the ground, mostly wrap up on any contact.”

He also credits the black ‘Guardian’ caps all the players wear in practice, which he says is at least partly responsible for a decrease in practice-related concussions.

Most members of the team play on both offense and defense, and as the team is made up of every grade from freshman to senior, if you compete you can get on the field.

That’s why, despite the overall youth on the team, there is experience.

Take safety Trey Wilson, who had the third most tackles on the 2016 roster with 69 as a sophomore. After playing his way onto the field last season, Wilson is now a surefire starter on opening day and, Rea said, has the interest of several FCS schools.

The opportunity Rea provides his players with in practice leads to some tough position battles. Sweetwood has been going against Christian Breitweiser for the quarterback job, and Rea knows both have been working hard for the spot.

Whichever one isn’t under center will move to the wide receiver position. As the offense is a spread style offense, there are often four receivers. Rounding out that group will be Wilson, Jack O’Connel, and Ethan Gross. On the line is Adam Erbes at left tackle, Pat Morriseau at right guard, Hermo at center, Keenan McAuliffe at right guard and Luciano Calandra at right tackle. Walker gets most of the opportunities in the backfield, though junior Zach Kirse will get some carries as well.

Defensively, the Cougars run a base 3-5 defense—meaning they have three down linemen up front and five linebackers behind them. That leaves three spots for defensive backs, though the Cougars will often drop a linebacker into coverage as a safety.

The starting defensive line will most often consist of Erbs and McAuliffe at the ends and Morriseau at nose tackle. Behind them will be Sweetwood and Walker at outside linebacker, with Kirsch, Gross and Hermo inside.

Wilson, Breitweiser and O’Connel will most often form the secondary.

With the season here, Rea admits it can be tough, getting the new guys experience while also striving to win.

“We don’t talk rebuilding,” he said. “We’re out to win this year and we have guys who have done it before. We always want to win the first game, win the conference and play for a state championship. Those are lofty goals, but we aim for them.”

If the team is going to have that level of success, Rea said, it’s going to be by making sure they keep the mentality that they have to see everything they do all the way through.

“Finish everything,” Rea said. “Meetings, sprints, workouts, homework. Get better every day.”