by Andrew Garda
If there was one overarching theme to the 2019 Montclair High School football team’s media day, it’s that nobody outside the Aubrey Lewis Sports Facility believes in the Mounties.
NJ.com doesn’t have them ranked in the top 20. The players say they’re hearing it from former teammates who have graduated and moved on.
“They don’t think we can do it,” senior captain Patrick Barr said.
It’s really no surprise there are doubters outside the building. Last year, coming off an undefeated state title-winning season in 2017, the Mounties stumbled out of the gate, eventually regaining their legs for a playoff run that fell short against Ridgewood in the North 1, Group V championship game.
The group that takes the field at Woodman this season will be the smallest varsity roster head coach John Fiore has had in his 10-year stint leading the program.
This year’s varsity roster will number at about 45 to 50 players, down from the normal average of more than 60. This is due in part to a small class of 13 current seniors. There is help on the way, though — including players who are currently not on the varsity roster, the junior and sophomore classes boast more than 40 players, a much healthier number.
There’s a lot of talent waiting in the wings, but that doesn’t mean the Mounties are punting away the 2019 season, which begins this Saturday, Sept. 7, with a 7 p.m. game against West Orange at Rutgers University in Piscataway. See the full schedule on page 12.
“If you look at it, we were state champs in 2017, lost in the state finals last year, and out of those two teams probably graduated 55-60 kids,” Fiore said. “So, we’re going to be pretty good in years to come, but this is Montclair, we don’t expect to have a down year.”
The Mounties only return three starters, and there are unproven players in every position group, but the core group of returning players does have varsity experience, whether as a starter or backup last season.
Offensively, the two places most flush with experienced talent are the same spots the Mounties traditionally have a lot of talent — running back and offensive line.
While Josh Crawford (now playing for Central Michigan) carried the load on the ground for the Mounties in 2018, the mantle now turns to a committee of running backs who saw significant time due to injury or resting players with a big lead.
Junior Jordan Diggs ,the team’s leading returning rusher (251 yards, 2 TD), has grown and put on muscle to absorb contact this offseason. And senior Nate Bryan — who is entering his third year as a varsity player, having gotten reps two years ago when Danny Webb was rolling over teams for Montclair — is a shifty back who averaged better than 7.0 yards per carry in limited time in 2018. Jordan Williams and Jaheim Lowe will also see time in the backfield.
In front of them will be a re-booted offensive line that figures to be the keystone to the Mounties’ success this season.
Every season it seems the Mountie coaches are looking at their depth chart to figure out who will step into a critical role for the offense. Three years ago, it was center Sebastien Fortune, who snapped balls as a freshman to quarterback Tarrin Earle on his way to winning a state title. Last year saw Patrick Barr step into a job at guard, where he became a lockdown starter.
Those two seniors — who with Shawn Collins and Nareece Wright make up the four team captains for this season — will form the foundation for a unit that has been a strength for most of Fiore’s tenure here.
Around that foundation will be Eli Dawson, Abdullah Hamilton and Max Kioso, and all have a chance to be the next Fortune or Barr on the offensive line.
Montclair will have a new look at quarterback, as junior Michael Robinson, recently returned from offseason shoulder surgery, has earned the starting nod.
A wiry, quick player with a nice arm, Robinson has played quarterback as far back as youth football, something he is drawing on as a source of confidence.
“The thing I’ve worked on the most in my maturity,” he said. “Not getting too high or low on one play, just moving on to the next one.”
Prior to Media Day, Robinson played in the first contact scrimmage for the Mounties, delivering some nice passes according to coaches. He also threw a touchdown in a scrimmage against Sayreville on Thursday, Aug. 29.
So did the other two quarterbacks jockeying for position behind him.
“It’s Michael’s job to lose,” Fiore said. “But we’ve got two sophomores in Soloman Brennan and Raeden Oliver that both do certain things well. They just don’t have the command of the offense yet. They’ll eventually get it.”
One of the targets Robinson can use will be Rutgers tight end commit Shawn Collins. The tall, strong athlete will also play defensive end for the Mounties, as they work to get his athleticism on the field as often as possible.
“Tight end is a strength with Shawn,” Fiore said. “And then Dhani Cifford is another big-bodied kid who can do some things for us.”
At wide receiver, the Mounties will have a host of options but much uncertainty. Collins (4 receptions for 72 yards) and the quarterback Robinson (9 catches for 62 yards) are the team’s leading returning receivers, followed by Donovin Bell, who is aiming to earn a big role at the wideout position.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids fighting it out, all different classes at wideout, to see what happens.”
Among those in the mix at receiver will be seniors Bilal Muhammad, Anthony Jackson and Juwan Agustin, and juniors Jeremiah Rix and Jahaad Mills.
With former offensive coordinator Pat Leonardis having stepped down, Fiore will take over the reins on the offensive playcalling, something he has done before.
The Mounties offense may look a little different, but the foundation of it will remain the same. It’s just tweaked to this current team’s strengths.
“We’ve always changed what we do based on the kids we have. We’ve never not done that,” Fiore said. “Go watch our offense when Nate Crutchfield was the quarterback and Mike Million was the tailback. And we had Darius Slade, Austin Stevens and Kamani Odrick. We were in two tight ends, two fullbacks. And then with Elijah Robinson and Shaq Oliver look at that offense and how we ran the quarterback as the tailback a lot and Shaq as a fullback and still ran the read stuff. And what we did with Tarrin and throwing the ball for 2700 yards. Our system didn’t change, just the plays and the packages in our system accentuated the talent we’ve got.”
As it is on the offensive side of the ball, line play figures to be a strength for the Mountie defense.
“We’ve got Shawn [Collins] and Dahani [Clifford] back, Abdullah Hamilton back, Patty Barr back, Sebastien Fortune back,” Fiore said as he ticked off players at what is one of the deeper spots on the roster. “Hopefully we can get something out of Jordan Anderson this year. And then we’ve got some young guys that can help out in there.”
If defensive line could be the Mounties’ deepest unit, linebacker might have the most upside, led by senior Nareece Wright, the team’s leading returning tackler; his 75 stops a year ago tied Gary Robinson for the team lead.
“Nareece has a full season under his belt in which he matured from that Week 1 against West Orange where we couldn’t tackle anybody, to we play West Orange again in the playoffs and beat them 35-0 and did a great job against them when it counted.”
That level of improvement will be necessary, but Fiore believes the talent is there in the linebacking corps. Jordan Williams made an impact as a freshman last year and is a player to watch, while senior Zach Lepak and junior Jaheim Lowe will be counted on to step up and be major contributors.
The defense is rounded out by the secondary, as much like the receivers, Bell leads the way while multiple players battle for snaps behind him.
The Mounties’ kicking game will see a host of fresh faces, as well, chief among them freshman Gage Hammond, son of MHS girl’s soccer coach Ashley Hammond.
Hammond worked hard all summer and preseason, including training with kicking specialist Pat Semeier. Fiore has all his kickers work with Semeier, and the results have been very good.
It’s rare that the Mounties get to work with a player at any position for four years, so the arrow for Hammond looks to be pointing up for a long time.
Sophomore Ethan Daddabbo will punt, and while he too is young, he has a big leg. Junior Will Van Horn will be the old man of the kicking units, as he steps back in at long snapper.
The rest of the unit, specifically kickoff return and coverage, will be filled with the sort of players special teams coach/defensive coordinator Pete Ramiccio loves — hard nosed tacklers with a nose for the ball and a willingness to fly down the field to make a play.
Jaheim Lowe led special teams in tacklers last season as a sophomore, and Ramiccio is looking to him to keep that up this year as a junior.
The Mounties will face eight of the nine regular-season opponents they faced a year ago, swapping out last year’s road trip to Massillon (Ohio) for a home game against Bayonne.
That game will serve as the Woodman Field opener Sept. 21, thanks to the late-August announcement that the Sept. 7 opener against West Orange would be played at the “Rumble on the Raritan” at Rutgers.
The Super Football Conference slate remains the same, with MHS likely to be challenged by a strong East Orange team for the division title, while West Orange, Bloomfield, and Livingston could all be teams to watch.
Non-division games against fellow Essex County powers Irvington and Seton Hall Prep should give Montclair a strong test leading into the NJSIAA playoffs, which begin the weekend of Nov. 9-10.