Photo Credit: Monmouth Athletics

Monmouth's Defense Shines In Final Spring Scrimmage

WEST LONG BRANCH – Last season Monmouth’s defense struggled mightily - to put it mildly.

They ranked last in the Colonial Athletic Association in yards allowed at 428.6 yards per game and points per game at 34.3.

Conversely, the Hawks offense was ranked No.1 in the CAA averaging 36.36 points and 461.73 yards of total offense per game. It was routinely called upon to bail out the defense and more often than not the outcome of game was decided by who had the ball last, and far too frequently it wasn’t the Hawks.

So, entering the off season one of the primary goals for Monmouth was to beef up its defensive unit to get it more in line with other CAA defenses and to develop a winning mindset on that side of the ball.

Well, if Sunday’s 86-play intersquad scrimmage – the last of 15 allowed spring practices - is any indication, this year’s version of the defense looks light years ahead of last season.

“I think the defense ran around and pursued to the ball very well today,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said. “I also think they tackled very well today. We’ve got better depth in the defensive line than we’ve ever had, and it showed today. We’ve added Nick White, Antonio Colclough and a true freshman Logan Barnes from Curtis High School and St. Peters Prep. They’ve only been with us for 15 practices, but I think all three of them have showed they have the ability to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball.”

Barnes, a 6-foot-1, 290-pounder, had a five-yard tackle for loss and a stop for no gain along with a number of quarterback pressures in Sunday’s scrimmage and looked like a difference maker. He totaled 209 tackles, including 93 tackles for loss and 25 sacks in his dominating high school career.

The rangy 6-foot-3, 260-pound White, the younger brother of Reggie White Jr., Monmouth's all-time leader in receiving yards, had a five-yard sack Sunday and seemed to have spent the afternoon in the backfield. He was a four-year starter at DII Gannon University where he finished with 171 tackles, including 44 TFL and 19.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Colclough played in 20 games on the defensive line at James Madison before entering the transfer portal and deciding on Monmouth. Sunday, he had a sack and showed he will be a force to be reckoned with this fall.

The defense as a whole held the potent Monmouth offense to just two touchdowns and a 42-yard Eric Bernstein field goal.

Junior linebacker Remi Johnson was all over the field Sunday and looks to be a leader of this group after a breakout sophomore season when he registered 38 tackles, including 21 solo stops, 3.5 TFL, two sacks and two fumble returns. Sunday, he had a number of stops for no gain and the games only interception and he’s excited about the defensive adjustments the team has made.

“Biggest thing out there today was we were a more cohesive unit than we were last fall,” Johnson said. “It made it easier on me today because everyone else was doing their job so well. The D line has a lot more freedom now to kind of do what they want, and the same thing goes for the linebackers. In the fall we were a little bit more robotic, we had set responsibilities every time, now its more flowing to the ball and you try to make a big play; you guys saw that out there today.”

Johnson is aware of the bad rap his defense has been given after last year’s debacle and is convinced this season will be different.

“I took that personally because I played a decent amount last year,” said Johnson. “Honestly, it was deserved, we didn’t hold up our end. But I feel like things are going to change. Honestly, from the day we got back this spring we’ve had a chip on our shoulder, and it’s really pushed us. The improvement on the D is really awesome to see and we’ve all been busting our butts.”

Sophomore linebacker Damir McCrary returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown out-running a host of would-be tacklers to get to the endzone. He used his speed to get to the QB for a sack and to run down ball carries for tackles throughout the afternoon. McCrary, from Woodrow Wilson High School, now called Camden Eastside, was the 2021 South Jersey Defensive Player of the Year.

Junior Phil Long and sophomore Bryce Rooks shared a sack. Rooks has had a stellar spring on the D-line. Graduate student linebacker Isaiah Bishop had a crushing tackle that could be heard in the press box. Returning starting defensive end Pat Hayden recorded a five-yard sack and returner Justin O’Bannon, who had 1.5 sacks last season, shared a sack while starting linebacker Ryan Moran added a five-yard TFL.

Senior linebacker Caleb Dennis was flying around Sunday and had a nice stop for no gain and a sack. Cornerback Mike Reid, a third team All-CAA selection last season, and safety Davis Smith each had a couple of nice pass breakups. Reid also added a 10-yard sack and a stop for no gain in an all-around tremendous effort Sunday. Veteran strong safety Tyrese Wright added a tackle for no gain shutting down a screen with Reid.

Sophomore linebacker Charlie Sasso, the New Jersey Defensive Player of the Year his junior season at Wall, had back-to-back stops for no gain and appears ready to take on a bigger role this season.

All-American running back Jaden Shirden kicked off the scrimmage with a 42-yard gainer but had just one carry after that.

The quarterbacks each had their moments, but were also victimized by a number of dropped passes. A starting quarterback won’t be named until sometime during fall camp. The competition between sophomore Enzo Arjona and Sacred Heart graduate transfer Marquez McCray is extremely tight with both being very capable of leading the Hawks.

“The thing they showed was really good competition, it was good back-and-forth,” Callahan said. “I think they both had days when they looked really good. One guy would shine one day, and the other guy would shine another day, so it was back and forth there. They will continue to battle into preseason camp as well.”

Arjona had a 35-yard touchdown strike on fourth-and-8 to sophomore wideout Gavin Nelson, who is vying for the No.3 receiver spot and has looked good in camp.

“We really don’t let the competition get the best of us,” said Arjona. “We’re still fighting together, and we support each other all the way through. Obviously, it’s a competition and in the end only one player is going to be on the field, but I feel very confident. There’s a lot hype about us being the No.1 offense and all the weapons we have but I feel like we’ll meet those expectations. I feel very positive about the upcoming season.”

Arjona is a born winner having won two state titles Northern Highlands and he brought that winning mentality with him to Monmouth. “I want to push for a national championship, that’s why I came here. I feel with my mentality we can do that.”

McCray and starting wideout Assanti Kearny connected for 20 and 19-yard completions and McCray also had a 10-yard completion to sophomore Makhi Green, who a little later reeled off a smooth 25-yard run.

The seasoned McCray, who led Sacred Heart to the FCS playoffs twice, added a 35-yard strike to wideout T.J.Speight and a 23-yard completion to junior Chris Kessler, who ripped the ball away from the defender.

“I was welcomed with open arms when I got here, the whole QB room too,” McCray said. “Enzo and I have a really good vibe; it’s been all good. “With this offense I just think of myself as a point guard getting the ball to the playmakers in a lot of different ways. I’m just taking it day by day and learning more and more. A lot of these guys have been playing together for years and I’m just trying to find my niche.”

Senior Jamir Barnes, injured most of the spring, got back on the field and grinded out some tough yardage, including a nice 8-yard pickup.

Junior quarterback Frankie Savino added a 7-yard touchdown run in limited action.

“We made a lot of progress in the 15 days we were out here and think you saw that today,” Callahan said. “Every practice we seemed to do something better. I liked the way we played today. I liked the intensity and I like the excitement we felt on the field.”

Photo courtesy of Monmouth University #12 QB Enzo Arjona