WEST LONG BRANCH – You could feel the excitement in the air at Monmouth University’s 2023 Football Media Day with the first game of the season a mere two weeks away. Optimism was the word of the day and Monmouth football has a lot of very good reasons to feel that way.
“We’re about to embark on a really exciting year, our second year in the CAA (Coastal Athletic Association) in terms of Monmouth football,” Hawks head coach Kevin Callahan said. “I think it’s going to be an historic season in the history of our football program. I know that the players are very excited about it as are all the coaches and everybody associated with football here.
The Hawks are a veteran team with a ton of experience and given the fact that this is their second season in the rugged CAA and they’ve already run the gauntlet of their inaugural season in the CAA, their confidence level far exceeds that of a year ago.
“We’re a veteran team, a deep team and yes we do have some new faces at a variety of positions,” Callahan said of the makeup of this year’s squad. “But I think they’ve been able to incorporate very seamlessly into the fabric of the rest of the team. A lot of the new faces joined the program in January, so they were with us for the entire winter program, spring ball and the eight-week summer program so it’s not like they just arrived in West Long Branch for the start of preseason. So, we don’t view them as new players in the program."
“We’ve got nine returning starters on the defensive side and seven returning starters on the offensive side,” Callahan added. “What’s deeper than that, that you don’t see when you just look at returning starters, is the number of players who have game experience. There are 25 players on defense who have game experience and 23 on offense who have game experience. So, I think that’s going to bode well for us as we go into the season.”
This all sounds good on paper but whether or not that translates into wins is another thing. Time will tell, but this year’s Monmouth team has some moxie to it, and that can go a long way.
Along with Callahan, CAA Football Preseason All-Conference selections, running back Jaden Shriden, guard Greg Anderson and cornerback Mike Reid were in attendance along with cornerback Eddie Morales III and new starting quarterback Marquez McCray.
Callahan was asked right off the bat what McCray brings to the team as the new starter.
“He’s a fifth-year player who has been a three-year starter," Callahan said about McCray. "He’s achieved at a very high level at his pervious school, which is Sacred Heart and he’s played for championships in multiple seasons there. He was the leader of their offense and was a very dynamic player for them. We really believe he’s a guy that can step in with the weapons that we have surrounding him with and can do some really good things here.”
McCray, fresh off a heated quarterback competition that went down to the wire, feels confident he’s ready to go full steam ahead. “The coaches do a great job with all the quarterbacks being very detailed about everything. I was lucky enough to come here in the spring and had summer too, so at this point I’m very comfortable with the offense and excited and ready to go. We have amazing receivers and an offensive coaching staff that is the best of the best, so it definitely excites me and we’re ready to score a lot of points.”
Monmouth’s offensive line should be a strong point this season with a veteran group of starters and a rotation of players that have all seen extensive action.
“We’re a veteran group that’s had a lot of snaps at Monmouth and I feel like this is the closest unit we’re ever had here,” Anderson said. “We’re all on the same page, we’re accountable for each other and we have each other’s backs out there.”
When asked what it’s like blocking for Shirden Anderson joked, “Even when we make a mistake, he makes it look right. We just try make things easier for him so when he goes out there, he can do what he does best and run.”
Shirden, a preseason all-American candidate after leading the country in rushing a year ago, has been swamped with preseason accolades but isn’t phased by all the hoop-la surrounding him. “My mindset going into the season is pretty much the same. Don’t change anything, just keep going. I listen to my coaches and rally around my team. And really there’s no pressure, because I know what I want to do and all the media and accolades come along with it, but I’m just ready to go and do what I got to do.”
With the crazy world of the transfer portal taking college football over by storm, Shirden could’ve bolted Monmouth, but he chose to be loyal and stick around for another year.
“For one, it was not something in my heart to leave and do,” Shirden said. “I feel like I have unfinished business here and I’m looking forward to winning and having a real good record with the team. That’s one of the things I want to do.”
Monmouth’s thorn in its side a year ago was its defense which ranked last in the CAA in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game. However, with the addition of a number of high-end transfers, rising underclassmen and another year of experience for it starters, they look to have turned the corner.
"The biggest thing that I’ve seen is a veteran presence and experience," Shirden said. "Last year’s defense that played in most of the games I think seven of them were first-time starters. The other thing was we had eight first-time opponents last year that we knew very little about in a conference that was at a much higher level than we were used to playing. Every team has an identity and until you play them, you don’t know what that identity is and you don’t know how to approach that game. Now we know who these people are. We learned a lot last year and what we learned is going to pay huge dividends this year.”
A year ago, Monmouth’s pass rush ranked 10th in the CAA and 71st in the country when they recorded a total of only 20 sacks and Callahan is confident those numbers will improve exponentially this season.
"We’ve added some personnel that are going to greatly affect our ability to pass rush," Callahan said. "The addition of Nick White, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end, is going to be a force on the edge for us and Antonio Colclough, another 6-foot-4, 240-pounder, gives us another guy on the edge. Justin O’Bannon is back for another year and he’s really starting to come into his own. And we’ve also bolstered ourselves on the interior with Logan Barnes, a young player, who’s a stout 300-pounder that will play the inside position and sophomore Bryce Rooks is another 300-pounder that is very stout against the run but can also rush the passer. Isaiah Rogers is a guy who came in from Central Michigan and he’ll add to that group. In that front four group, there’s probably 12 who will play on a regular basis that are all capable to make plays. You want to keep your pass rushers fresh, and we’ll be able to do that."
Monmouth also brought in All-Ivy league linebacker Jake Brown who has already distinguished himself as a leader.
“Jake’s a veteran player who understands football, who really understands the game,” Callahan said. “He’s a leader of that unit even though he just got here in January. I think he’s going to have a big impact on what we do.”
Morales III, an All-Big South selection in 2021, was injured most of last season but is encouraged by what he’s seen of the defense so far in camp.
“Our group has made a lot of progress coming from spring ball into the summer," Morales III said. "We have a lot of newer things coming in that our DB coach has been teaching us and he’s (Bishop Neal) helped us out a lot. The linebackers and front seven have made a lot of improvements, so I think we’re in a good place and a have a good group to do more than what we did last year.”
Reid, a sophomore last season, ranked fifth in the FCS with 11 pass breakups and was fourth on the team with 52 tackles when was named to the All-CAA third team. He’s a 2023 Phil Steele CAA Preseason All-Conference first team selection that has his best football ahead of him.
“Mike’s a prime-time cornerback,” Callahan said. “He’s 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, a Preseason All-CAA selection and All-CAA last year. He’s a guy who we’re not afraid to assign one-on-one coverage and let him go – and there’s some darn good receivers in this conference. But Mike’s a guy that can more than hold his own in those situations. He’s a guy we’re going to depend on. He’ll face a lot of challenging matchups throughout the season, but they're challenges he’s more than up for. He’s a student of the game and works very hard at it watching a lot of film and is a tireless practice player. He’s a special guy.”
With Morales and Reid at cornerback along with junior Jaylen Dotson, who had a really solid year filling in for Morales and fifth-year player Tyrese Wright – Phil Steele CAA Preseason All-Conference third-team selection – and T.J. Kamara – second on the team with 58 tackles – along with Davis Smith, who led the team with three interceptions, at the safety position, the secondary should be a strength of the defense.
Monmouth will conduct its second and final intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, at 2:30 at Kessler Field.
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