WEST LONG BRANCH – As if a season-opener on the road isn’t hard enough to begin with, you then throw in a long flight to Florida for a game against a Football Bowl Subdivision (DI-A) opponent in the sweltering heat and humidity and it now becomes a herculean task.
That’s exactly what Monmouth University is up against this weekend as the Hawks travel to Boca Raton, Florida to take on FBS foe Florida Atlantic University.
Scholarships are capped at 63 for Football Championship Subdivision (DI-AA) schools such as Monmouth, while FBS schools are allowed up to 85 scholarships. Superior facilities and an enormous amount of funding funneled into their football programs put FCS teams at a decided disadvantage when they go up against a FBC school, but upsets do happen.
In the last 10 years, Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) teams have won 11 times versus FBS opponents, including two last season when Delaware knocked off Navy and William & Mary beat Charlotte.
Monmouth has been down this road before, but so far has come up empty going 0-5 against FBS opponents with its most recent loss to a FBS school dating back to the 2021 season-opener when they fell to Middle Tennessee, 50-15.
The score of that game, however, is a little deceiving. The game was tied 7-7 with 2:47 remaining in the first half with the Hawks driving to take the lead. But on second-and-6 from the Middle Tennessee 33-yard line, quarterback Tony Muskett was sacked and fumbled with MTSU taking over.
Four plays later, MTSU scored to make it 14-7 and then on the Hawks ensuing possession they fumbled the ball away again deep in their own territory at the 35-yard line with 57 seconds left in the half. Middle Tennessee scored two plays later to take a 21-7 lead at halftime and the Hawks never recovered from the sudden turn of events.
Although beating FAU will be a monumental task, it’s far from impossible, especially when you feature an All-American running back like the Hawks do in Jaden Shirden. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Shirden added 10 pounds of muscle over the winter after leading the FCS in total rushing yards with 1,722, yards per carry (8.36) and rushing yards per game (156.5) last season. He was also selected as the 2023 CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
Shirden ignored the transfer portal, staying true to the Hawks when he could’ve had his choice to play for any number of schools. He’s motivated more than ever this season to help lead the Hawks to the next level and that’s bad news for opponents.
Backing up Shirden will be Harvard graduate transfer Sone Nitoh, a 5-foot-11, 235-pounder who will man a role similar to the one Owen Wright took on last year. Look for senior Jamir Barnes, sophomore Makhi Green and freshman Rodney Nelson to get carries as well.
With Muskett now the starting quarterback for the University of Virginia, Sacred Heart University graduate transfer Marquez McCray beat out sophomore Enzo Arjona in a heated battle for the starting job that went down to the wire.
McCray has a ton of experience and that weighed heavily in him getting the starting nod. He helped Sacred Heart win three Northeast Conference championships and was an All-NEC selection. He led the NEC in passing last season with 1,973 yards through the air. For his career, he passed for 5,002 yards with 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while rushing for another 476 yards and seven touchdowns.
He’ll have two of the top wide receivers in the CAA to throw to this season in senior Dymere Miller and fifth-year senior Assanti Kearney, who both had breakout seasons a year ago. Miller was a 2022 second team All-CAA selection after leading Monmouth in receptions (55), yards (820) and touchdowns (seven) while missing two games with an upper body injury. He was voted to the 2023 CAA Football Preseason All-Conference team and was voted a team captain. Kearney caught 37 passes for 638 yards and four touchdowns and was a Phil Steele 2023 CAA Preseason fourth team All-Conference selection.
Fifth-year senior Dre Tucker had a solid fall camp and gets the nod as the third starting wideout. Tucker saw action in 12 games a year ago and finished with 12 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Junior T.J. Speight, freshman Josh Derry, sophomore Gavin Nelson and fifth-year senior Jordan Grey are the primary backups and will rotate in.
The offensive line looks to be a strength again this season with three starters back and two with extensive starting experience from a year ago. Graduate student Greg Anderson returns at right guard where he was a third team All-CAA pick last season. The massive 6-foot-5, 320-pound Anderson is a 2023 CAA Preseason All-Conference Honorable Mention selection as well as a Phil Steele CAA Preseason All-Conference second team pick while also being voted a team captain. Center Tyler Williams (6-foot-3, 310-pounds) started all 11 games a year ago and was also voted as one of this year’s captains and provides invaluable leadership across the line.
Fifth-year senior Jordan Hall (6-foot-4, 310-pounds) returns at left tackle where he started 11 games a year ago and provides a wealth of experience and toughness. Graduate student Will Argo (6 -foot-4, 320-pounds) gets the start at left guard after appearing in seven games last season with one start, while senior J.T. Cornelius (6-foot-6, 285-pounds) rounds out the starting five at right tackle. Cornelius appeared in seven games and had two starts a year ago when he displayed a ton of potential.
Redshirt freshman left tackle Matt Fries (6-foot-5, 275), junior left guard Kyrik Mason (6-foot-5, 315-pounds), fifth-year senior center Ed Gatling (6-foot-3, 320-pounds), junior right guard David Dutra (6-foot-4, 280-pounds) and junior right tackle Adrian Hawkins (6-foot-6, 290-pounds) will backup the starting five.
The overall success of this year’s team hinges on whether or not the defense can put last year’s mess behind them and create a new identity for themselves. The Hawks brought in a number of experienced players out of the transfer portal who can help immediately, and some younger players have shined in fall camp and are ready to contribute. There’s a core group of players returning from last season that have proven themselves to be invaluable. Reports coming out of fall camp have been glowing, so there is optimism surrounding the defense as we head into the season.
Defensive end Nick White was the crown jewel of the transfer portal acquisitions for the Hawks and expectations for the 6-foot-3, 260-pounds pass rushing specialist are off the charts. The four-year starter and two-time PSAC All-Conference selection out of Gannon University recorded 44 TFL and 19.5 sacks in his career at Gannon and word coming out of fall camp is that he’s the real deal. Senior Justin O’Bannon (6-foot-5, 250-pounds) returns at end opposite White after starting 11 games as a junior and recording 22 tackles, 3.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks. O’Bannon showed a lot of promise last season, so the hope is that he takes his game to the next level this season.
Sophomore Miles Mitchell (6-foot-4, 250-pounds) is another youngster who displayed a lot of potential last season and he’ll backup White while sophomore Chris King (6-foot-3, 270-pounds) and transfer Antonio Colclough (6-foot-4, 245-pounds) will backup O’Bannon. Both players had exceptional fall camps and defensive line coach David Kunyz is thrilled to have them.
After getting his feet wet last season appearing in three games as a true freshman, Bryce Rooks (6-foot-1, 300-pounds) won the starting defensive tackle job with an outstanding fall camp. Veteran Sheku Tonkara (6-foot-2, 280-pounds) will back him up. Captain Pat Hayden, in his fifth year with the Hawks returns as a starter at the other tackle spot. Hayden provides veteran leadership across the line as well as a savvy presence. Hayden (6-foot-2, 280-pounds) led the team with four sacks along with 28 tackles (19 solo) and 5.5 TFL. True freshman Logan Barnes (6-foot-1, 300-pounds) is another young player that forced himself into the lineup with an outstanding fall camp.
Monmouth plans on rotating nine to 10 players across the defensive line so there will be plenty of opportunity for all of them to make their marks.
Captain Ryan Moran returns at linebacker with 17 starts under his belt. He finished fifth in total tackles (50) last season, including 29 solo stops, 3.5 TFL, one sack and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Damir McCray, who stood out in fall camp, will backup Moran. Harvard University transfer Jake Brown adds a ton of experience to the linebacking group after making 30 starts at Harvard and earning All-Ivy League honors. He’s a Phil Steele CAA Preseason All-Conference fourth-team selection. Sophomore Charlie Sasso, who saw action in four games last season as a true freshman, will play behind Brown.
Look for junior linebacker Remi Johnson to have a breakout year. The powerful and quick Johnson showed flashes as a freshman and again last season in a reserve role when recorded 38 tackles (21 solo), 3.5 TFL and two sacks. He has the potential to take his talents to the next level. Sophomore Sam Korpoi, who saw the field in seven games as a true freshman, will backup Johnson.
Cornerback Mike Reid returns after finishing last season ranked fifth in the FCS with 11 pass breakups and being named third-team All-CAA while earning team defensive MVP honors. He is a Phil Steele CAA Preseason first team All-Conference selection. Look for the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Reid to have a monster year. Junior Jaylen Dotson, who had 10 starts a year ago and was second on the team with six pass breakups, will backup Reid but see plenty of action in nickel and dime packages.
Former All-Big South cornerback/punt returner Eddie Morales III was limited to four games last season with an upper body injury but is healthy and raring to go this season, which is great news for the Hawks defense. In 2021, Morales III finished with a team-high three interceptions and recorded six pass breakups and nine passes defended along with 57 tackles (35solo). Senior Jude Umanankwe stepped up his game in fall camp and earned a reserve role behind Morales III.
Underrated starting strong safety Tyrese Wright returns as one of the hardest hitters on the team. Wright, a Phil Steele CAA Preseason third team All-Conference pick, was third on the team with 54 tackles (35 solo), 3.5 TFL, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Junior Justin Bennin will back up Wright. Senior free safety Thomas Joe-Kamara returns as a starter. He was second on the team with 58 tackles and led the team with 44 solo stops along with one interception and one pass breakup. Fifth-year senior Davis Smith, who played in 11 games with six starts a year ago backs up Joe-Kamara but will see considerable playing time in various packages.
Although Florida Atlantic University has a new head coach and coaching staff, made the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference this season and brought in a load of players through the transfer portal, this will be the toughest game on the Hawks schedule this season.
You can be sure first-year head coach Tom Herman will have his team ready and raring to go. Herman had an overall record of 22-4 in two seasons as head coach at the University of Houston and had the Cougars ranked as high as #8 in the AP rankings during his tenure. Following the 2016 season, he was hired as the new head coach at Texas, but after going 33-16 in four seasons and posting four consecutive bowl-game victories he was let go following the 2021 season.
Running back Larry McCammon III will be the main focus on offense after rushing for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry last season when he was a first team All-Conference USA selection. He is a 2023 first team All-AAC Preseason selection in numerous publications including Phil Steele and Athlon Magazine.
The Owls backfield will also feature redshirt sophomore running back Zuberi Mobley who rushed for 534 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. They should get some traction out of Purdue transfer Kobe Lewis, who rushed for 146 yards on 43 attempts last season as a junior.
The offensive line returns four starters and is anchored by 6-foot-8, 315-pound right tackle Chaz Neal, a 2023 Phil Steele Preseason All-AAC third team selection, and 6-foot-4, 320-pound left tack Marquice Robinson.
Transfer Casey Thompson beat out Central Michigan transfer Daniel Richardson for the starting quarterback job. Thompson threw for 2,407 yards and 17 touchdowns last season for Nebraska after passing for 2,114 yards and 24 touchdowns the year before for Texas. Herman was his coach during his freshman year at Texas, so he’s familiar with him.
He’ll have junior Lajohntay Wester to throw to following a breakout sophomore season which saw him catch 62 passes for 719 yards and eight touchdowns and was named to the Conference USA Honorable Mention team. He is a 2023 Phil Steele first team All-AAC Preseason pick at wide receiver and third team as a punt returner. Senior wideout Je’Quan Burton also returns with some nice numbers. He caught 33 passes for 517 yards and four touchdowns a year ago and Tony Johnson is back with 23 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns.
The defense has 10 starters back but needs to improve on its numbers from a year ago when they allowed 26.6 points per game and 425 yards per game.
The Owls defense is led by 6-foot-3, 356-pound junior defensive tackle Evan Anderson, a second team All-Conference USA pick a year ago and a first team 2023 Phil Steele Preseason All-AAC selection. Senior safety Armani-Eli Adams led the team in tackles last season recording 69 tackles (42 solo) with one interception and seven pass breakups. He was named first team All-Conference USA by PFF and is a 2023 second team All-AAC Preseason pick by Phil Steele. Smoke Mungin also returns in the defensive backfield for the Owls at cornerback. He was second on the team with eight pass breakups along with two interceptions a year ago and is a fourth team All-AAC Preseason selection.
Senior inside linebacker Eddie Williams was second on the team with 65 tackles along with 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble and recovery in only eight games played. Junior safety Dwight Toombs II added 64 tackles (37 solo), three interceptions and five pass breakups.
Game time is 6:00 p.m. Saturday, August 2 at the 30,000 seat FAU Stadium located in Boca Raton, Florida and will be streamed live on ESPN Plus.
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