by Andrew Garda
For the eleventh year in a row, the Montclair Mounties football team held its Media Day, with one crucial difference — this year it took place on Zoom.
That’s par for the course in the world of sports during COVID-19, which will see many changes in how teams compete. Everything from how many fans can be in the stands (490 total, 350 for the home team and 140 for the visitors), to use of locker rooms (teams will not go into locker rooms at halftime) to the schedule, which for the moment stands at six games for the Mounties, though there are two possible “Bowl”-style games at the end of the season if the team does well.
For all the changes that could hinder the Mounties, one that can only help is the rise of this year’s senior class.
In 2019, coach John Fiore’s Mounties had the smallest group of seniors he’s seen in his time at Montclair, just 13 players.
This year’s number is 21, and includes starting quarterback Michael Robinson, starting running back Jordan Diggs and wide receiver/defensive back Justin Kirkley, all three captains.
Diggs and Robinson were captains last year as juniors, something that is rare and raises the expectations of what they need to do, according to Fiore.
“The only other two junior captains I’ve had since I’ve been there is Stephaun Marshall, a four-year starter at Temple, and Tarrin Earle, quarterback at Bucknell, [and] arguably one of the best high school quarterbacks [in the state] his senior year,” Fiore said.
Marshall was a senior when the Mounties won the North I Group V state title in 2012, while Earle led his team to an undefeated season and a North I Group V state sectional championship at MetLife Stadium as a senior in 2017.
There’s no state title on the line in 2020, but that doesn’t mean Fiore expects less from his players.
“You know what championship’s the biggest championship this year? The division,” he said. “That’s the one we get to play for.”
All of the Mountie games are division games, with the exception of the final week on the road against Irvington.
That means if Montclair wants to win their division, they’ll have to try and run the table, as they did in 2017.
It won’t be easy, with back-to-back games against an excellent East Orange team on Oct. 10 and a talented West Orange squad on Oct. 17. Both of those games are home at Woodman Field, which will make things easier for the Mounties, who will not have to potentially play in front of a smaller crowd as they might at away games.
Livingston (Oct. 23), Hillside (Oct. 31) and Bloomfield (Oct. 2) will also be tests the Mounties have to pass, and the Irvington game, while not a divisional matchup, will be a good tuneup for a potential postseason run.
A key factor will be the play of Robinson, who had a rough 2019 as a passer, completing just 40.9 percent of his passes for 842 yards and 12 touchdowns.
While his junior year was at times a struggle, Robinson showed he has the ability to make pinpoint throws in key situations.
A good example of that came against Nutley, when he made one of his best throws as a Mountie, hitting Rutgers-bound Shawn Collins for a 14-yard score to give Montclair a 20-0 lead that they never relinquished.
Collins was swamped by defenders, leaving Robinson a tiny window to complete the pass, but he threaded it to his tight end perfectly.
Robinson knows it’s important to get to that level of chemistry with his receivers more swiftly this year, given the short schedule.
“I believe that starts in practice,” he said. “Coming into that week with intensity and focus, knowing what we’re supposed to do with all our assignments. I think last year, sometimes in practices, we had off days, bad days. This year I don’t see that happening with this group because we’re focused on practice and what we have to do. Coming into the game confident, motivated, knowing what we’re supposed to do, I believe that we can start the game as fast as any team.”
Robinson has worked hard this offseason to continue to improve as a passer. He’ll keep running the ball as well, part of a three-headed-monster backfield with Diggs and junior Jordan Williams.
Williams accounted for 320 yards and three scores on just 34 carries, while Robinson totaled 497 yards and 10 touchdowns on 133 touches. The crown jewel of the backfield should be Diggs, though, who had 1,237 yards and 11 touchdowns on 191 carries.
This year he aims to repeat his 1,000-plus yards, something rarely achieved by a Montclair back. The last running back to do it was Danny Webb, who had three 1,000-yard seasons in a row, with 1,419 yards in 2015, 2,020 yards in 2016 and 1,371 yards in 2017.
The key, Diggs said, is the chemistry he has with his offensive line.
“I have a lot of faith in my o-line, I’ve been playing with them since freshman [year] and we have a lot of chemistry,” he said. “Everybody’s focused. [Even] with the dead period, we were going to the field, getting stuff right. Getting our plays right, getting the blocking assignments, reading blocks and blocking schemes. I have a lot of faith in them.”
Defensively, the Mounties had issues holding onto leads late. In games against Bayonne, Seton Hall Prep, Irvington and against East Orange during the playoffs, Montclair let teams catch up, and save for the Irvington game, which was won by kicker Gage Hammond, they lost them.
This year, co-defensive coordinators Jaimie Bittner and Peter Ramiccio feel they have a talented group of defensive backs as well as a fearsome front line.
“That front four, we have such a good group of guys, especially inside,” Ramiccio said. “I don’t think we’ve been so deep inside with our three-techniques in a while. They really take up space, they move well, I think we’re going to be able to play some games up front, which we haven’t been able to do the last couple of seasons. I think we’re going to be able to do some things.”
Montclair opens their season on the road at Bloomfield on Oct. 2. They have their first home game at Woodman against East Orange on Oct. 10.