Photo courtesy of Monmouth University

With Spring Practice winding down, Monmouth football appears stronger with improved depth

West Long Branch - Spring practice is winding down for the Monmouth University football team and from all indications, this year's squad looks to be much improved from a year ago, while the depth on both sides of the ball appears to be as deep as it's ever been.

Spring ball sets the tone for the upcoming season regardless of how the team did the previous season. There's a positive vibe and energy that transcends the usual routine and the feeling of a new beginning gives hope to every player on the practice field.

It is, for the most part, about individual player development. Players improve technically and fundamentally during the spring because the time for that is limited in the fall when attention is more focused on the upcoming season. Spring is about improving the physical characteristics of each player, especially the younger, inexperienced players.

Kevin Callahan, entering his 32nd season as head coach of Monmouth, knows something about spring practice. He likes what he's seen so far after three of 15 allotted spring practices, including Sunday's inter-squad scrimmage, remaining.

"I like the development that we're seeing across the board in all position groups," said Callahan. "We really spend a lot of time during the spring developing our younger guys. Our freshmen, our sophomore's - guys who have not been on the field a lot for us. It's important that we get them up to speed and really accelerate their development."

"Honestly, that's what spring is for. So, when you get to fall camp, they're coming in as true veterans. The faster we can bring them along the better it's going to make our fall practices."

Monmouth finished 5-6 last season – their first in the Colonial Athletic Association – but in hindsight, their record could've been better. They suffered agonizing losses that might have gone their way if not for a damaging play here or there. Three of their losses were by a combined nine points, including a 48-46 seven overtime loss to Rhode Island – ranked 19th in the country at the time – and a 31-21 loss to ranked New Hampshire, where the Hawks held a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

"The year in the CAA showed us the level we have to be at," said Callahan. "It's not being on one week and then off the next week - we've got to be on every single week. If there's anything we learned from our first year in the CAA it's that if we're not at our absolute best on Saturday afternoon, you are not going to win. It doesn't matter what either team's record is. It's the team that comes out and plays at their best in terms of performance that has the best opportunity to win."

With last year's starting quarterback Tony Muskett now expected to be the starter at the University of Virginia after entering the transfer portal, sophomore Enzo Arjona and Sacred Heart transfer Marquez McCray have gotten most of the snaps under center this spring.

Arjona, a true freshman last season, started the final three games after Muskett got hurt and did a credible job. He completed 40-of-66 attempts for 548 with four touchdowns and one interception. Arjona won two state championships at Northern Highlands Regional High School, where he passed for 5,298 yards and 51 touchdowns and ran for 1,678 yards with 16 touchdowns in his career.

A three-year starter at Sacred Heart University, the 6-foot-2 McCray is a graduate student with one year of eligibility remaining. He was a second-team All-NEC selection his junior year and last season as a senior led the NEC in passing yards with 1,973 to go along with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He led St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia to the 2016 PIAA Class 6A state title and was a two-time first-team All-Catholic League and All-City selection.

"Enzo has really taken another step in terms of his performance and what he's shown us what he can do," said Callahan. "He's got a very good command of the offense from a knowledge standpoint, and I think he's improving from a physical standpoint."

"And then we got Marquez McCray from Sacred Heart who put up really good numbers there," added Callahan. "And he's providing a high level of competition here. He's doing a good job (of picking up the offense) getting it all thrown at him. The more he does it the more he'll feel comfortable with it. And that's why spring is so important. If he gets comfortable with it (the offense) now, then he can hit the ground running in August."

Whoever wins the quarterback competition will have a veteran offensive line returning to protect him, which is a huge plus.

Starters Jordan Hall (LT), Will Argo (LG), Tyler Williams (C), and Greg Anderson (RG) are all graduate students and returning starters. Senior J.T. Cornelius and junior Adrian Hawkins are battling for the starting right tackle spot, and both have starting experience. Ed Gatling, T.J. Lewis and Kyrik Mason will provide experience as reserves. Anderson was a third-team All-CAA selection.

All-American junior running back Jaden Shirden opted to return to Monmouth and in this day and age of the transfer portal, that's never a given. His dedication to Monmouth University should be applauded and not taken for granted. I'm sure there were plenty of suitors knocking on his door.

There's some good competition for his backup, with sophomore Makhi Green, senior Jamir Barnes and freshman Rodney Nelson battling it out.

Callahan likes what he's seen from all three this spring. "Rodney is doing really good. He's just a freshman and enrolled in school in January, but he's doing a really good job. Jamir is doing a really good job, although he's a little banged up now, but we're hoping to get him back so he can get significant action in Saturday's scrimmage. Makhi has a special gift in his speed, and we try to create scenarios where he can use that speed."

As a senior at Franklin High School in Maryland, Nelson rushed 109 times for 1178 yards (10.8 yards per carry) with 14 touchdowns.

Harvard transfer graduate student Sone Ntoh will join the team in the fall. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Ntoh looks to be a short yardage/goal line option for the Hawks. He rushed for 254 yards on 64 carries last season for Harvard.

Second-team All-CAA wide receiver Dymere Miller has had a great camp, along with graduate student wideout Assanti Kearney. They make up one, if not the top receiver duos in the CAA. Andre Tucker, Gavin Nelson – Rodney's brother – and T.J. Speight will also contribute at wide receiver after showing up strong this spring.

Senior Jack Neri and graduate student Sean Fleming give the Hawks two quality options at the tight end spot.

Defensively, the Hawks bring back a ton of starters and have brought in a couple of stud transfers and freshmen that have looked like immediate contributors this spring.

Graduate student defensive linemen Antonio Colclough and Nick White – the brother of legendary Reggie White Jr. - will immediately fortify the defensive line. White – a four-year starter at Division II Gannon University – had 47 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last season and is a two-time first-team All-PSAC selection. The University of Delaware heavily recruited him, but the Hawks won out for his services. Colclough is a 6-foot-4, 245-pound bruiser who played in 20 games for James Madison after one season at Temple.

Returning defensive tackles Pat Hayden, Sheku Tonkara and Bryce Rooks, ends Justin O'Bannon, Chris King and Logan Barnes have all had their moments this spring. King, who originally signed with the University of Buffalo, was coming on strong last season as a freshman before he got hurt and missed the final seven games. Barnes totaled 209 tackles, including 93 tackles for loss and 25 sacks for his career at Curtis High School in Staten Island. Hayden and O'Bannon are returning starters and Tonkara is a solid backup with plenty of on-field experience, while Rooks has a ton of potential.

At the Rush position, graduate student Isaiah Bishop and sophomore Miles Mitchell had starts there and looked good this spring.

At the linebacker position, Ryan Moran, Remi Johnson and Caleb Dennis are the veterans of the group, with Harvard transfer graduate student Jake Brown making his presence felt immediately this spring. Brown was an All-Ivy League Honorable Mention selection last season and has become an instant leader of the group with his standout play this spring. Sophomore's Charlie Sasso, Sam Korpoi and Damir McCrary got their feet wet as freshmen and look to take the next step this season after getting after it this spring.

"Moran and Remi Johnson are back and both have played an awful lot of football for us," said Callahan. "Then you got the transfer, Jake Brown, and he has been looking really good. So, I'm very happy with those three and then you got Caleb Dennis who has been on the field for us and then the younger kids who have been doing some nice things for us."

The secondary might be the deepest and strongest unit on the team. After missing all but four games last season due to injury, cornerback/punt returner/captain Eddie Morales III is back and looks better than ever. Morales III was a 2021 All-Big South first-team selection and his loss was a massive blow to the Hawks' defense last season.

Senior cornerback Mike Reid was a third-team All-CAA selection last season and led the team and was fifth in the FCS with 11 pass breakups. Junior cornerback Jalen Dotson had an outstanding year in 2022 and was second on the team with six pass breakups and added 42 tackles. Tyrese Wright returns at strong safety, where he was third on the team with 54 tackles and second on the team with two interceptions. At free safety, senior T.J. Kamara is back after a stellar first year at Monmouth, as he was second on the team with 58 tackles and added an interception and pass breakup. Graduate student free safety Davis Smith had six starts last season and led the team with three interceptions, four pass breakups, a forced fumble, and 44 tackles.

"This is one of the positions with a lot of experience with returning guys," said Callahan referencing the secondary. "We get a guy back like Eddie Morales who is kind of the leader of that group on that side of the ball. Then you got Mike Reid who was all conference and Tyrese Wright and on and on. It's just a really good group from top to bottom."

As if that's not enough, two of the most impressive players this spring have been true freshmen defensive backs Dana Johnson Jr. and Ayden Martin and Callahan expect them to contribute immediately. "I tell you what, I've been very impressed with what they've been able to do as first-year players."

Monmouth will wrap up spring practice this Sunday with the Spring Showcase at Kessler Stadium, featuring an inter-squad scrimmage followed by a players meet and greet with fans. It all begins at 1:00 p.m. and admission is free.