WEST LONG BRANCH – Monmouth University had its ups and downs in its inaugural season in the newly branded Coastal Athletic Association finishing 5-6 overall and 3-5 in conference play after starting out 2-1 versus conference foe.
Although, in all fairness to the Hawks, three of their six losses were by just four points or less, including two CAA losses.
And, Monmouth was forced to play their final three games of the season without star quarterback Tony Muskett, who was sidelined with a knee injury, losing two of them. Muskett has since moved on after transferring to the University of Virginia, where he’s expected to start for the Cavaliers this season.
At Tuesday’s CAA Football Media Day, Monmouth was picked to finish eighth out of what is now a 15-team league.
When Monmouth made the move out of the Big South and into the CAA, currently ranked as the third toughest conference out of 15 FCS conferences, they knew they were facing an uphill climb, one reminiscent of the one they faced when they transitioned from the Northeast Conference to the Big South.
Tuesday, Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan talked about some of the many challenges his team faced in its first year in the CAA as well as the challenges ahead of them.
“Year two in the CAA is going to be an exciting year,” said Callahan. “2022 was a learning year for us with many first-time opponents, traveling to new stadiums, new coaches we were going against; all of those things. The thing we learned, and I think we knew this going in, is the CAA is an extremely competitive conference top to bottom. Every single week during those three hours on the field you have got to play your absolute best to have a chance of winning - teams records don’t matter, it’s all about what happens that day on the field.
“But I think we learned, number one, that we can compete, and we were competitive in almost every game last year, and I think we also saw what our strengths are and found out some areas we need to improve. So, as I said, it was a learning year for us and we came up a little short in some areas, but we are really excited about 2023.”
In 2014, Monmouth’s first season as a member of the Big South, they finished 6-5, but 1-4 in the conference. Two years later they were still struggling, going winless (0-5) in the conference as they attempted to navigate their way through the pitfalls of taking that step up in competition.
Then, in 2017 it began to fall into place. They went 9-3 and 4-1 in the Big South losing to rival Kennesaw State (now a FBC member) in the final game of the season that determined the Big South champion. However, Monmouth did receive an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history.
Two years later, 2019, the Hawks went 11-3 overall and 6-0 in the conference and were crowned Big South champions with an automatic spot in the FCS playoffs while also achieving their highest ranking ever, up to that point, at No.12.
Now, I’m not saying that’s the exact path you can expect to see Monmouth follow in the CAA, but it’s a good indication of how long of an adjustment period it can take when moving to a stronger, more established conference.
“As we got into the Big South it became very apparent early on that we needed to be faster,” said Callahan when discussing the challenges of moving up in competition. “And we spent a lot of time improving our team speed at all positions. And by the time we left the Big South I would say we were arguably the fastest team in the conference. As we entered the CAA it became very apparent that we were fast enough to play in the CAA but we didn’t have the size, particularly in the front seven on defense, and that’s where you saw the size differential. So, I think we got worn down in the defensive front a little bit last year. But that’s something we’ve addressed aggressively through recruiting this off season and I think we’ll be tremendously improved there as we head into the 2023 season.”
Monmouth also hit the transfer portal aggressively bringing in a number of defensive linemen that should make an immediate impact on a defense that ranked last in the league in scoring defense and total defense.
Defensive end Nick White, younger brother of Monmouth legend Reggie White Jr., is a 6-foot-2, 260-pound pass rushing specialist who had 15.5 TFL and 6.5 sacks last season at Gannon University and 19.5 career sacks, fourth on Gannon’s all-time list. He was a two-time first team All-PSAC selection. Antonio Colclough is a 6-foot-4, 245-pound graduate transfer out of James Madison via Temple University. Colclough played in 20 games across four seasons at James Madison. A transfer from Central Michigan, Isaiah Rogers has three years of eligibility left and at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds he’ll slot in at defensive tackle. He was a first team All-State selection out of Academy Park High School in Pennsylvania. And keep an eye on true freshman defensive tackle, Logan Barnes out of Curtis High School in New York. The 6-foot-1, 300-pound Barnes had 209 tackles, including a whopping 93 tackles for loss and 25 sacks in his career. He was an All-Conference and All-Division selection.
“I think the expectations for our defense are much higher going into this season,” Callahan said. “The one thing 2022 demonstrated was it showed us where we needed to become better. Maybe where we needed to become better coaches, to have better personnel or maybe a combination of those two things. And I think as a credit to our coaching staff we addressed those things throughout the winter and spring and even into the early part of the summer. I think we’re going to be much better positioned for success as we enter this fall then we were last year.”
Not surprising, Monmouth’s star running back Jaden Shirden, the reigning CAA Offensive Player of the Year and finalist for the Walter Payton Award after rushing for 1,722 yards while averaging 8.4 yards per carry and 156.5 yards per game was named the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
“He’s the guy who makes us go on offense,” said Callahan. “He has big play potential. He’s got outstanding speed and any time he touches the ball there’s a really good chance something good is going to happen. So, it’s really important that we find creative ways to get him the ball, whether it’s handing it to him or throwing it to him. He’s a guy who commands respect from everyone on our team. They know and respect the work he puts in every single day and there’s no wonder in anyone’s mind why he’s had the success he’s had.”
In the era of the transfer portal a player of Shirden’s stature could’ve easily flown the coop but the 5-foot-9, 195-pound dynamo stayed true to himself.
“This is a great program at Monmouth,” said Shirden. “I love my coaches and teammates so I’m just looking forward to another season with my guys.”
Monmouth’s super talented wide receiver, Dymere Miller, was a first team Preseason All-CAA selection following a breakout campaign in 2022. Miller was a second team All-CAA pick a year ago when he had 55 receptions for 820 yards and seven touchdowns. Offensive lineman Greg Anderson was a CAA Preseason Honorable Mention selection as was cornerback Mike Reid. Anderson was a 2022 third team All-CAA selection and was recently chosen for the 2024 East-West Shrine Bowl 1000 list. Reid was also a third team All-CAA pick a year ago after ranking fifth in the FCS with 11 pass breakups and was fourth on the team with 52 tackles (42 solo) along with two forced fumbles and an interception.
Cornerback/punt returner Eddie Morales III suffered a season-ending broken arm in the fourth game of the season last year but is now healthy and raring to go. Morales was a 2021 first team All-Big South selection at cornerback and punt returner and his injury last season was a huge blow to Monmouth.
“I was grateful to be part of two Big South championships early on in my career,” said Morales at Tuesday’s CAA Football Media Day. “I think being one of the last guys to play on those teams and having that experience, I just know what it takes to get those (championships). I understood the team we had and the chemistry we had and the product that we put out each week to win that championship.
“I know we’re in a new conference with bigger, better competition, but I do think we have a formula to win those games and I still think on both sides, we have the players to get us back to that level.”
With Muskett gone, Monmouth brought in Sacred Heart graduate transfer Marquez McCray to compete with sophomore Enzo Arjona, who started the final three games of last season after Muskett went down and did an okay job, especially for a true freshman pressed into action. Arjona is a winner. He led Northern Highlands Regional to two sectional championships and the North Jersey Group IV title. He was a first team All-State selection his senior year when he threw for 2,429 yards and 30 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound McCray helped Sacred Heart win three NEC championships. He led the NEC in passing with 1,973 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions and was a second team selection.
“Probably early on in camp,” said Callahan when asked about the timeline for deciding on the starting quarterback. “There was great competition throughout spring practice. I think both of them had some really good days where they were better than the other guy. I think we need to make the decision (on the starter) sooner rather than later so the rest of the guys become comfortable with that guy in the huddle. So, I think we’re going to go through the first seven or eight days and see what happens and hopefully make the decision no later than week two.”
Monmouth will hit the field for the first day of summer camp on August 2.
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