WEST LONG BRANCH – Entering the 2023 season, one of Monmouth’s top priorities was to turnaround its struggling defense.
Now, just two games into the season, the transformation from last year’s defensive unit to this year’s is becoming clear and all signs are pointing in the right direction.
“We’re starting to emerge as a defense that can be counted on,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “I wouldn’t say we’re all the way there yet, but I think we’ve shown a tremendous amount of improvement.”
For years Monmouth has relied on its offense to outscore its opposition, so having a defense that can actually be counted on instantly makes Monmouth more formidable and significantly increase their chances of finishing in the upper echelon of the Coastal Athletic Conference.
“We haven’t had a good defense in a while, since I’ve been here our defense hasn’t been good,” said linebacker and captain Ryan Moran, who’s in his fifth year with the Hawks as a graduate student. “So, we’ve really taken steps to correct that. We’re focused on everything we’re doing and flying around to the football. The coaches preach every day for us to tackle the correct way and run to the ball.”
The Hawks have transitioned away from a read-and-react defense to a more aggressive, run to the ball style of play this season and the players have responded with increased intensity.
On opening night against FBS opponent Florida Atlantic University, Moran had a career-high 13 tackles, including a tackle for a loss. He was all over the field making stops from sideline to sideline.
“Ryan has improved each and every year he’s been with us,” said Callahan. “He’s worked himself into a position where he’s a captain and key contributor of the team now. He’ got outstanding work ethic and is really intelligent in terms of his football smarts on the field and does a great job for us.”
“When we’re playing well it just makes you feel that much better,” said Moran. “I’m glad the team voted me in as captain and they respect me in a way that I’m in a position to do that. Everyone out here is a leader and that makes my job a lot easier to help everyone out.”
Monmouth’s linebacker coach Andrew Kirkland feels that the turnaround on defense goes a lot deeper than just X’s and O’s. “It’s a little bit about personality; trying to change who we want to be,” he said. “We did a thing in the spring to get the guys locked in and turn it into their program, defensively. What they put out on tape is who they are. Trying to get them to understand that whatever they put out is who they are. So, we asked them, who do they want to be? What story do they want to tell?
“It’s about the energy,” Kirland added. “We have more energy, more guys locked into what they’re doing and playing as a unit. There’s more talent in the room and everyone’s working really hard.”
Monmouth made a move in the transfer portal this offseason that so far had worked out better than anyone could’ve imagined bringing in former Harvard linebacker Jake Brown. Brown, in his last year of eligibility, was a 2022 All-Ivy league selection and a three-year starter at Harvard and has been a boom to the Hawks defense both as a leader and his spectacular play on the field.
Against FAU, his first game as a Hawk, Brown had eight tackles (4 solo), picked off a pass and combined with Antonio Colclough to make a big fourth-down stop. Then in last week’s win versus Towson, Brown recorded seven tackles (3 solo), including two TFL, two sacks and a forced fumble. His sack and strip of Towson quarterback Nathan Kent midway through the fourth quarter was the defining moment of the game. Two plays after the turnover, Monmouth scored turning a close five-point game into a 35-23 lead and the Hawks went on to win 42-23.
For his effort, Brown was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week.
“Jake has made a huge difference,” said Kirkland. “He’s another guy in the room that’s excited about football and who wants to make his teammates better. He’s a big communicator who loves to talk out on the field, which definitely helps us out. Not everybody has the knowledge that he has, so having him out there is like having a coach on the field.”
Callahan feels Brown’s veteran presence has been indispensable this season. “Jake’s a great addition. He brings an older, veteran presence to the team. He’s a guy that started for three years at Harvard and is a guy that’s been in a lot of tough football games. He knows how to practice, and he knows how to prepare and he’s the type of guy that you want on your team.”
Brown had numerous schools vying for his services but in the end chose Monmouth. “It was a tough decision, but I felt most at home with this team, the coaches, and the players when I met them on my visit. It just felt like a great place to be for my last year. I’m super grateful to be here and happy it worked out.”
On his game-changing play Brown credits his coaches. “We’re all working hard, but our coaches are the ones putting us in the right position on the field to make the plays. So, it’s up to us as players to make the plays.
“We have a deep room, very talented room across the board,” added Brown. “And I think everyone just compliments each other perfectly. We really don’t miss a beat. Whoever’s out there we know they’ll be there to make the play. We have a lot of trust in each other.”
Rounding out the starting threesome at linebacker is 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior Remi Johnson who in his first season as a starter has made huge strides and has the size and speed to be a difference maker.
In two games thus far this season, Johnson has eight tackles (5 solo), two TFL and one sack all while showing a nose for the football.
“Remi is a very talented kid who just needs reps,” said Kirkland. “He’s finally getting those reps and he’s starting to shine.”
According to Callahan there were high expectations for Johnson coming out of high school and he’s now starting to meet them. “Remi’s doing a really good job. When we brought him in out of high school we knew he would be a guy we could count on very heavily and he hasn’t disappointed us. He’s worked extremely hard and keeps himself in great shape. He prepares as well as anyone we have and it’s no surprise to the coaching staff that he’s having the success that he’s having.”
Johnson saw action in eight games as a true freshman, then had an expanded role last season as a sophomore. In 11 games a year ago, Johnson recorded 38 tackles (21 solo), 3.5 TFL, two fumble recoveries and two sacks, so he had some extensive game experience under his belt entering this season.
“It’s been good, trying to work through some things,” said Johnson. “I had some of experience last season so that’s helped me out. Last year, the CAA was kind of a wake-up call, but I feel like a lot of us on the defense kind of have our feet under us this year. We’re more ready for what’s coming at us. I feel in my maturity I’ve definitely grown and physically I’ve spent a whole year in the weight room and then constantly reviewing tape of plays. So, it just strengthened my on the field skills and off the field leadership skills.”
Although the linebacker corps might be a catalyst for the turnaround on defense, to the man they’ll tell you it’s a collective thing with the whole unit coming together as one and playing as one and that has been the difference.
“I don’t think it’s one group over another, I think the defense is finally playing together as a team,” said Kirkland.
“I think our front seven in general has really spurred the turnaround on,” said Callahan, who reiterated again that they’re only two games in and it’s not a complete turnaround yet, but they’re well on their way. “And we have a veteran group in the secondary that has played a lot of football.”
One thing is certain though, the defense better show up Saturday against Campbell University which boast the CAA Offensive Player of the Week, Hajj-Malik Williams, who passed for 353 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for an additional 51 yards and two touchdowns last week against Citadel.
The Fighting Camels, who lost by only 10 points to CAA Preseason favorite and fourth-ranked William and Mary in their opening game, are ranked second in the CAA in points scored per game (40) and third in total offense per game (461.5) so this will be a good barometer to see if the Hawks defense is for real.
“He’s a very good athlete,” said Brown of Williams. “They have great skill players and they’re huge up front. They’re a well-coached team. They like to play fast and are capable of making the big play. So, we just got to come ready and keep doing what we’ve been doing. Keep stacking the days and just play sound football out there.”
Saturday is Monmouth’s home-opener at Kessler Field in West Long Branch with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m.
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