Hawks’ football team heads into transitional campaign

Staff Writer

 The Monmouth University football team runs through an offensive set during the Aug. 15 practice at Kessler Field in West Long Branch. Monmouth opens the season on Aug. 29 at Montana State University.  STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR The Monmouth University football team runs through an offensive set during the Aug. 15 practice at Kessler Field in West Long Branch. Monmouth opens the season on Aug. 29 at Montana State University. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR Monmouth University football is embarking on what head coach Kevin Callahan referred to as a “transitional” year.

After 16 years in the Northeast Conference (NEC) — and five titles — the Hawks are moving to the Big South Conference next year. In the meantime, the Hawks are playing a 12- game, independent schedule this fall. As they get ready to join their new conference in 2014, there is excitement and anticipation for the 2013 season to unfold.

Callahan sees a lot of positives for the Hawks this season despite the challenges that it creates.

“It puts us in a tremendous position,” he said. “It allows us to play a schedule that is national in scope.

“This year serves as a steppingstone to the Big South,” he added. “We know it will be a challenge. We’re playing teams with a national reputation.”

The Hawks’ regular-season schedule begins on Aug. 29 at 9:05 p.m. against Montana State University, last year’s Big Sky co-champions and the No. 2 preseason ranked team in the country among Division I football teams by Football Championship Subdivision coaches.

Monmouth will make the trip to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7. Liberty is a future Big South Conference rival and last year’s conference champion.

The Hawks, who play just four home games, play their home opener at Kessler Field on Sept. 14 against Lehigh University at 1 p.m.

Monmouth’s “transition” year is about more than a beefedup schedule; it’s a sign of where the program is headed. Scholarships are increasing as the Hawks move into a new conference, and that is making Monmouth a more attractive school for recruits and transfers, as is the conference they’re moving into. Callahan was pleased to announce that at long last, the Hawks’ home field is getting a facelift. Renovation will begin right after the Hawks complete the 2013 season.

The football field, Callahan noted, is the only thing about Monmouth football that hasn’t changed since its inception in 1993.

Monmouth, which was 5-5 in 2012 during its last season in the NEC, has one big hole to fill on offense at quarterback. Four-year starter Kyle Frazier graduated, and no one vying for the starter’s job has taken a single snap in a game for Monmouth.

Greg DePugh (Parsippany Hills High School), a senior who has been with the program for five years; Terence Scanlon (Red Bank Catholic High School), a sophomore; and University of Massachusetts transfer Brandon Hill, a junior, are the top candidates for the starting assignment.

Each has a different skill set, and what Callahan is looking for is the quarterback who makes the best decisions and is a leader.

Whoever wins the job won’t lack weapons. The Hawks return their five receivers from last year and their top three running backs.

Heading up the receiving corps are Neal Sterling (Manasquan High School), Lamar Davenport (Asbury Park High School), Eric Sumlin (Dover, Del.) and Mike McLafferty (Sayreville War Memorial High School). Sterling caught five touchdown passes last year and had a long game of 55 yards.

This group’s collective experience is an asset for Monmouth quarterbacks, Callahan remarked.

The running backs are led by Julian Hayes (The Hun School), who rushed for 659 yards in 2012, averaged 4.1 yards per rush and scored 11 touchdowns, Pete Nagy (Hanover Park High School), and Kwabena Asante (Silver Spring, Md.). Hayes (51) and Nagy (50) are capable of the big play, with each having a long run of 50-plus yards last fall.

The tight ends are McLafferty, a fifth-year senior who caught 23 passes last season, and junior Evan Ruane (Shore Regional High School). Between the running back and receiver positions, Monmouth quarterbacks “have a very talented supporting cast,” said Callahan.

Monmouth’s goal on offense is to combine explosive big players with the ability to move the ball and control possession.

The Hawks return three starters to the offensive line in center Mike Hunchak (Hanover Park), right tackle Brandon Maxwell (Washington Township High School) and left guard Josh Patterson (Fairfax, Va.)

Reece Johnston (Shawnee High School) and Peter Ireland (Manheim, Pa.) complete the unit and are first-time starters.

No one on the line is under 300 pounds. It is the biggest line the Hawks have ever had, Callahan said. Having fullback Justin Pandorf (Lacey Township High School) on the team is like having an extra blocker on the line.

Another weapon that the Hawks have is senior place-kicker Eric Spillane (Colts Neck High School), who was put on the College Football Performance Awards’ preseason watch list.

Spillane led Monmouth in scoring with 70 points on 34 PATs (a program record) and 12 field goals. He went 12-for-16 kicking field goals with a long of 43 yards.

“Eric has done a great job,” Callahan said. “He’s our alltime leading kicker.”

Spillane begins the season with 202 career points, which is third all-time.

Elijah Phillips (Holy Cross High School) is the Hawks’ return specialist.

Monmouth has experience on the defensive side of the ball.

Callahan is very happy with what the Hawks have upfront. Ends Pat O’Hara (Souderton, Pa.), a starter last year, and Darnell Leslie (Gaithersburg, Md.) and Eric Macik (Landisville, Pa.) are players who can get pressure on the quarterback.

In the middle, Callahan is anxious to see what sophomore Dimitrius Smith (Jackson Memorial High School/Milford Academy) can do.

Callahan expects the Hawks to put more pressure on quarterbacks and use extra blitzes. Anthony McDonough (Philadelphia, Pa.), Dave Damirgian (Churchville, Pa.) and returning starter Dan Sullivan (Manasquan) head up the linebackers.

The defensive backfield is solid with three returning starters in Joe Johnson (Manchester Township High School), Pat Gray (Hargrave Military Academy/Westfield High School) and Andrew Sutton (Williamstown High School).

Clark Coe (Carteret High School) and Tevrin Brandon (Bethlehem, Pa.) fill out the secondary.

Gray, Sutton and Coe are safeties, while Johnson and Brandon are cornerbacks.

What the Hawks’ defense has to avoid, according to Callahan, is giving up the big play. That bit them last fall.

Damirgian, O’Hara, Brandon, McLafferty and Phillips were selected by the Hawks as the team captains.

Gray and Hayes were also named to the College Football Performance Awards’ preseason watch list.

The 2013 Hawks include a number of area players on their roster. They are defensive back Chris Whitlock (Red Bank Catholic), defensive back Jahmer Bunch (Red Bank Regional High School), running back Lavon Chaney (South River High School), defensive back Keone Osby (Monmouth Regional High School), linebacker John Sieczkowski (Manalapan High School), defensive lineman Jack Eisenstadt (Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School), defensive lineman Manny Maragoto (Freehold Township High School) and defensive lineman Zak Irizarry (North Brunswick Township High School).

As the Hawks embark on this new challenge, Callahan’s biggest concern is quality of depth. They will be facing teams with 63 scholarship players, one-third as many as Monmouth. However, that won’t be a problem for long, as Monmouth ups its scholarship quota to be in the Big South.

Looking back, Callahan said that the refusal of the NEC to accept Monmouth as an associate member is the best thing that could have happened to the program. The Hawks will now get national exposure.