By KEVIN MEACHAM
There’s a sense of desire, of hunger, around the Montclair High School football team’s preseason preparations. Stocked with talent and athleticism, the Mounties have gone through their long summer camp with a chip on their shoulder, reflected in their player-generated team slogan, “Nobody’s Safe Anymore.”
Montclair, which opens the 2017 season this Saturday, Sept. 9, at 1 p.m., with their “Blue-Out” game against Passaic Tech, last won a state title in 2014, only three seasons ago. But that’s a long enough drought for a program that plans to play into December every single season.
“There’s an urgency around a lot of our guys,” said eighth-year Montclair head coach John Fiore, who boasts a 65-17 record, three state titles and five sectional final appearances. “There’s only 8 or 10 guys who came up with us as freshmen in 2014 and were able to get a ring. And I think this offseason, we’ve seen a lot of guys, seniors especially, who realize that this is their shot, this could be their year.”
Montclair finished 7-4 last season, reaching the semifinals of the NJSIAA North 1, Group V playoffs before suffering a bitter 31-20 defeat to Ridgewood in a game MHS led by two touchdowns as the fourth quarter began.
The Mounties looked dominant at times last season, but were also outplayed in key spots; their three regular season losses came by a combined 17 points. Sectional title contenders Passaic Tech, Union City and West Orange are all on the schedule again this year, and a strong Ridgewood program has been the bane of Montclair’s playoff life the past two years.
But there’s no denying the talent that Fiore and his coaches have to work with. If they play to their potential, Fiore says, there won’t be many teams that can keep up.
“The keys for us are, we have to stay healthy, and our ‘hype’ players have to play up to the hype,” he said. “High school kids aren’t perfect, they’ll make mistakes, but I’m confident that if we stay healthy, play to our potential, and we don’t beat ourself, we’ll have a very fruitful season at Montclair.”
All signs point to Montclair being one of the most explosive offensive teams in the state in this year, as has become custom during Fiore’s tenure. The Mounties averaged just under 35 points per game in 2016; it was the fifth time in seven seasons in which MHS put up at least 30 points per game.
Montclair is loaded with skill players with experience, beginning with its senior multi-year starters, quarterback Tarrin Earle, running back Daniel Webb and wide receiver D.J. Williams.
A four-year starter, Webb has done it all in his Montclair career. He enters the season having scored 51 career touchdowns (26 last year) and has racked up 3,230 career rushing yards, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. A gifted runner with terrific vision, Webb has been the focal point of opposing defenses since he took over as the primary back in 2015.
Earle has put up strong numbers in his first two years as a starter (completing 59 percent of his passes for 3,584 yards, with a stellar 32-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio), and approaches the game with the mind of a coach. But the Bucknell commit still has one more hurdle to come to complete a memorable Mountie career under center.
“That last big step for Tarrin is to be a quarterback that can make the big play in tight spots, in the red zone, late in the fourth quarter,” Fiore said. “There are going to be opportunities that come up where Tarrin is going to have to slow the game down, know whether he needs to manage the game or win the game, and make the right plays.”
Entering his third season as a starter, Williams is Montclair’s leading returning receiver, a strong route-runner with excellent hands.
But Montclair’s skill positions go far deeper than those three familiar names. At wide receiver, Fiore says there are five players, including Williams, who could be capable of catching double-digit touchdowns if there were enough touches.
“We have a lot of talented football players,” Fiore said. “If our guys worry about the team, and they don’t worry about their individual stats, we’re going to do some special things.”
Receivers to watch include junior Charles Murphy, also the backup quarterback, a terrific athlete whose speed and leaping ability make him a dangerous downfield threat and a red-zone option; quick seniors Danny Banks and Tysean Williams, who have both had excellent preseasons; senior slot receiver Collin Callahan, who boasts some of the best hands on the roster; as well as senior John Auletta.
“This is comparable to some of the deep, very good wide receiver groups that I’ve coached here, and that’s saying something,” Fiore said. “There are some younger guys on our roster, like Steven Rose, Max Jennings, Donovin Bell, who might have started as sophomores on other teams, and they’re our future at that position. Their time will come, but it might be tough to break in this year.”
Meanwhile, while Webb sat out during the preseason scrimmages – “we didn’t want him to take any more hits than necessary,” Fiore said – the running back duties were split between junior Josh Crawford, an excellent runner who will see time at slot, and junior Willie Matthews, a bruising runner who can give out hits as well as he can take them.
Senior co-captain Elias Ottens is slated to be the starting tight end when MHS uses one, and Shawn Collins is the second tight end in short-yardage sets.
However, while Montclair does have incredible depth at the skill positions, the Mounties enter the season with an offensive line that is entirely new from last season.
The key man on the line is senior left tackle Marcus Crowell, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound transfer from Florence, where he was a three-year starter. An imposing figure, Crowell has looked very solid in the preseason against stiff competition, and figures to be a crucial piece of the offense, as he will be blocking Earle’s blind side.
The Mountie coaching staff made two positional shifts late in preseason camp to shore up some uncertain spots on the line, moving junior Gary Robinson to right tackle and senior Finn Jensen to right guard. Both were contributors on defense last season, and both played line on the freshman level.
Two more starters will be making their varsity debuts this year, as sophomore center Sebastian Fortune and junior left guard Nasir Thompson-Wyatt will look to make an impact.
More help will be coming on the way as the season progresses, as big junior Bo Bigelow – the only returning starter from the 2016 line – is progressing well from a leg injury suffered last month, and is on track to go by the third or fourth game of the season. Senior Matt Niemann may also see some time on the line when he returns from an injury.
There are many changes afoot on the defensive side of the ball this season, after a solid year in which Montclair allowed just 15 points per game. However, that squad was not as strong in defending the run as the Mounties have been in previous years. They allowed more than 200 rushing yards in three games, including the playoff loss at Ridgewood and the stunning home loss to West Orange.
However, Fiore believes that a skilled, more aggressive Mountie defense will surprise people this year.
“We’ve played a very tough preseason schedule, when you look at it,” the coach said. “St. Peter’s Prep just hung 48 points on Union City, and our defense hung with them when we played them. Wayne Hills and Sayreville are going to put up points on people and we did a nice job against them. We’ve done well as far as swarming and tackling this summer, and our coaches are doing a great job getting our kids up to speed.”
Junior linebacker Willie Matthews is the cornerstone of the defense. A starter since the first game of his freshman season, Matthews has already amassed nearly 200 tackles in his career – it is believed that 2015 alum Kevin Robinson holds the school record with 303 – and plays with a fire and toughness that sets the tone for his teammates.
“Willie’s a First Team All-State kind of player, in my opinion,” Fiore said. “I hope a school like Rutgers offers him soon, because I’d love to keep him local, because he has the potential to be an All-Big Ten player, too. He’s got a motor second to none. He’s matured so much in the last year, and if he can stay in control of his emotions, he’s going to be lights out for us.”
Montclair should have a very strong linebacking corps, with Matthews joined by middle linebacker Mike Herring, who saw action last year, and by outside linebackers Jaire Gray and Finn Jensen, both of whom were starters last year.
Solid backups at the position include junior Amarae Witter and seniors Aziz Henderson and John Auletta.
The Mounties’ are deepest in the defensive backfield, a unit that coaches compared favorably to some of the program’s recent excellent secondaries. Montclair allowed just 77 passing yards per game in 2016, and only five of 11 opponents managed to find the end zone through the air.
D.J. Williams returns as a third-year starter at cornerback, coming off a solid season in which he batted away seven passes and intercepted another. Tysean Williams, who played most games last year, is the other corner and appears to be primed for a breakout year.
The starting free safety is senior Danny Banks, who has had a very impressive camp, and who Fiore said could be “a difference-maker” this season, while Walter King will also see time.
Sophomore Max Jennings and junior Charles Murphy are the next cornerbacks on the depth chart.
MHS boasts a stable of defensive linemen that will rotate in and out, and they will be key if the team hopes to be more successful against other teams’ run game.
The defensive ends are Gary Robinson and Elias Ottens, both of whom had solid seasons last year, Ottens at end and Robinson at outside linebacker. Senior Sheldon Bryan is able to play all four positions on the line, and figures to rotate in frequently.
At defensive tackle, Montclair is planning to start junior Kahreem Paul, while Marcus Crowell will play many snaps, but will rotate out frequently to stay fresh given his role on the offensive line.
Subsequently, there will be plenty of snaps available for the Mountie big men, with senior Jaiquan Latta (6-1, 214), junior Sebastian Garda (6-2, 265), junior Matt Moore, junior Nasir Wyatt-Thompson and, after he returns from injury, Bo Bigelow (6-3, 260).
“I like having a big rotation at D-tackle,” Fiore said. “You can rotate guys even if they’re not as experienced, because if a D-tackle makes a mistake, you give up a first down. Meanwhile, if a safety makes a mistake, and you’re giving up a touchdown. And we think we have some guys at tackle who are going to be nice contributors for us.”
The kicking game has always served Montclair very well under Fiore, and this season looks no different.
For one, the Mounties’ outstanding athletes should make kick and punt returns a dangerous proposition for opponents.
Daniel Webb has manned both return teams as the primary returner since his freshman season, and he has proven to be one of the state’s most dangerous. For his career, Webb has returned four kickoffs and three punts the distance; last year, he averaged better than 27 yards per kick return.
D.J. Williams will join him on kick returns; he only returned two kicks last season, but one went for 38 yards.
Montclair has a veteran kicker, senior Harry Wylie (18-for-23 on extra points last year), competing with junior Jacob Manthey for the placekicking job. Wylie will likely handle long field goals, additionally.
Charles Murphy returns as the punter, coming off a decent season in which he averaged 30.2 yards per kick, and had four punts travel 40 or more yards.
The long snapper is the reliable Elias Ottens, while Murphy will be the holder on extra points and field goals.
Montclair will play a rare Thursday night game, Sept. 28 against Union City, due to the Jewish holidays. Originally scheduled to be a Montclair weekend home game, the game will instead be played under the lights at Bloomfield’s Foley Field. MHS played a night game at Woodman Field under temporary lights in 2014 … This is the second year of a two-year scheduling cycle for the North Jersey Super Football Conference, meaning that the Mounties’ opponents remain the same from 2016, but with the home/away games switched. Next year’s schedule will be unknown until the conference meets to decide its divisional alignment for the 2018-19 cycle.