Photo courtesy of Monmouth University/Spring Practice 2024

Monmouth's spring football practice is in full swing

WEST LONG BRANCH – Over half of Monmouth’s 15 spring practices allowed are already in the books, and the first of two scheduled full squad scrimmages will be held this Saturday.

Spring practice is not primarily about competition and battles for starting positions. It’s time for incoming players to familiarize themselves with the playbook and their new teammates.

It’s also about individual player development and teaching. It’s not about depth charts, that’s what preseason camp is for. What looks good on paper in the spring could drastically differ in the fall. You want your players to improve technically and fundamentally in the spring and hope it carries over into the fall.

Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan, the only head coach in program history, brings a wealth of experience from previous spring football practices and is a teaching savant.

“To me, spring is all about player development,” Callahan said. “It’s about improving the technique and chemistry between the offense and defense within each position. So, we spend a lot of time doing individual work. My idea is to develop our players in the spring, particularly in the early part, which is all about individual improvement and development.”

Monmouth, entering its third season as a member of the highly competitive Coastal Athletic Association, is coming off consecutive 4-7 seasons. Yes, the first two seasons in the CAA could be chalked up as a learning experience, so they get a pass, but they’re no longer newcomers to the conference, so it's time for the Hawks to stand up and be heard.

And that will not be easy. Player departures due to graduation, the transfer portal and declaring for the NFL draft have left the Hawks thin at a few position groups, including wide receiver, running back, and the defensive secondary.

At the same time, the Hawks have added depth to multiple position groups through the transfer portal and have attracted a significantly higher talent level on the recruiting trail since its move to the CAA. Monmouth has 90 players participating in spring practice, which is the most in program history. The Hawks' 2024 FCS recruiting class is ranked No. 9 in the country by On3 Sports.

“Year one and year two were a learning experience for our team as it pertains to playing in the CAA,” Callahan said. "I think the biggest lesson we drew from both years was that you must play every game like it's your last. It doesn’t matter what a team's record is coming into the game; it's all about what happens during those three hours on the field. There’s so much parity; everybody has talented players; everybody has great speed and is well-coached. So, you have to be at your best every single Saturday.

“Given that, I think we’ve improved also. This is just the second recruiting class we’ve been able to bring in since we’ve been members of the conference. I think we’re seeing an increase in the level of talent that we have, and the players coming back are working extremely hard, so I’m excited about this year. We go into it knowing what we’re going to be in for.


QUARTERBACK — Last season’s starting quarterback, Marquez McCray, declared for the NFL draft, initially leaving the quarterback depth lacking until they signed Maine quarterback Derek Robertson, the brother of Monmouth passing game coordinator Jimmy Robertson, out of the transfer portal. Robertson was an Honorable Mention All-CAA selection last season when he completed 258 of 404 passes for 2933 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Robertson averaged 266.64 yards per game, including a high of 503 yards against Campbell.

According to Callahan, Robertson will compete with Enzo Arjona, who is in his third season with the program, for the starting job. Callahan indicates he could name the starter after spring practice.

“Robertson brings a veteran maturity to the offense,” Callahan said. "He’s a guy who has played in the CAA and has started two seasons in Maine. And that is a huge advantage when you have a guy who understands the level of competition, understands the league, and has been through quarterback battles. So, he brings older leadership and the physical tools to be successful."

“Enzo is a competitor and a battler,” Callahan added. "If there is a guy in front of him, he’s never going to let that guy get too far in front of him. He’s always within striking distance. We rely on him quite a bit. He came in and played, so we know he can play in games, and it’s a great battle right now.”

RUNNING BACK – All-American Jaden Shirden is working out and waiting for next week’s NFL draft. You don’t replace a program legend like Shirden; you move on, and that’s what the Hawks plan on doing. The running back room is a little thin this spring, with just four backs in the rotation: fifth-year senior Jamir Barnes, sophomore Rodney Nelson, junior Makhi Green and graduate student Sone Ntoh.

Of the four, Ntoh, a second-team All-CAA selection last season, would seem to have the upper hand for the starting role. Ntoh rushed 411 yards on 56 attempts and a team-leading 14 touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. The three others combined to rush for 147 yards a year ago. The Hawks signed two promising running backs to their 2024 recruiting class who will be here in the fall, including 247 Sports 3 star recruit Elijah Jennings, who is also a track star and had offers from Pitt, Boston College, and Ole Miss.

“We don’t have great numbers at the running back,” Callahan said. "We only have four guys alternating through, so it's hard when we go live, but it’s going pretty good.”

WIDE RECEIVER — This is another position group that was hit hard. All-American Dymere Miller entered the transfer portal and is now at Rutgers. The Hawks' second-leading receiver, Assanti Kearny, graduated and is weighing his options. That leaves juniors TJ Speight (19-181,) Gavin Nelson (6-99-1) and sophomore Josh Derry (3-36-1) as the top returners.

Transfer portal signee Max James, who had 24 catches for 398 yards and five touchdowns last season for Lackawanna College, will be in the mix, along with some promising underclassmen and three incoming freshmen recruits, including two-time 6A All-State wideout Landon Kennel out of Manheim Township High School in Pennsylvania. In his senior season, he caught 64 passes for 1,119 yards and 25 touchdowns.

“Receiver is another position where we’re young,” Callahan said. “But the young guys are working hard and doing a good job. I really like what Speights doing and Nelson’s doing some really good things.”

TIGHT END — This is one of the deepest position groups on the team. Starting tight end Jack Neri (22-157-1) is back, as is junior Ashanti Caviness (3-40-1), who had a solid sophomore campaign. A number of underclassmen have had a productive spring and freshman Chase Wilkins, an early enrollee, has stood out. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wilkins had 14 catches for 513 yards and three touchdowns last season for St. Francis Academy, which was ranked No.2 in the country in 2022.

“The tight end is probably our deepest and most veteran position right now,” Callahan said. We have about seven guys there, and four of them have played in games for us. So, that’s a pretty good spot.”

OFFENSIVE LINE – Although the Hawks lost two All-CAA performers on the line they’re still in good shape. The Hawks return three starters and another three who saw extensive action. The addition of transfer portal signee, Andre Oben, who redshirted last season at Purdue and is the son of former Giant great Roman Oben, is a huge plus. Oben was a three-star recruit as a senior at St. Peters Prep and a first-team All-State selection.

“We’re experimenting with some guys in different spots along the line,” Callahan said. "We know who the top eight or nine offensive linemen are, but we don’t know what positions they’ll play yet, whether Gatling (Ed) is a guard or center or Lewis (T.J.) is a guard or center. So, we’re mixing and matching a little bit, but I like what they’re doing."

“Oben is doing a really good job,” Callahan added. “He’s still putting it all together. There’s a learning curve and a lot to learn on the offensive line. He has the physical tools, and he just needs to get more comfortable in the system.”

DEFENSIVE LINE — End Nick White, who came in with great hype as a pass rusher but never lived up to his billing, is gone. Unfortunately, standout tackle Logan Barnes, who had a huge upside after a solid freshman season, entered the transfer portal and is now at Wagner for reasons unknown. But the defensive line is actually in great shape.

Six players who either started or saw quality playing time are back, including fifth-year seniors Justin O’Bannon and Sheku Tonkara, juniors Bryce Rooks and Miles Mitchell, senior Isaiah Rogers, and graduate student Antonio Colclough, who is primed for a huge year after leading the Hawks in sacks (4.5) and TFL (5.5) last season. Colclough was a 2023 CAA Honorable Mention selection. Junior Chris King, a 2022 transfer from the University of Buffalo, is another option with a ton of potential if he can stay on the field.

The Hawks brought in defensive linemen Joel Parker from Kennesaw St. and Joe Loiseau out of Gannon University through the transfer portal. However, both are out of spring practice with injuries, as is senior Isaiah Oduro, who transferred from Lackawanna College a year ago. Freshman lineman Sebastien Acheampong is an early enrollee and has shown promise. He was an All-ECPP his senior year and a star wrestler as well. Incoming freshmen D linemen Lamont Lester, first-team All-State out of Don Bosco, and Hunter Watson, 34 TFL and 12 sacks for undefeated state champs Mainland, are a couple of dudes to look out for.

“All those players are really going to help us out a lot,” Callahan said. “We got some guys back recently, and for the most part, the linemen are doing a good job.”

LINEBACKER – Despite losing their leading tackler from a year ago, Jake Brown, the linebacker unit is still pretty much in tack and should be one of the stronger position units on the team. Graduate student Ryan Moran, who was second on the team with 63 tackles last year, is in his sixth season as a Hawk and is a fixture on the defense and a team captain. Junior Charlie Sasso (Wall) worked his way into a starting position last season, and expectations are way high for him this season.

Remi Johnson had a breakout sophomore season and finished sixth on the team in tackles and the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has unlimited potential. Junior Damir McCray, a South Jersey Defensive Player of the Year his senior year at Willingboro, worked his way into the lineup, seeing action in eight games, and is expected to take the next step this season. Another junior with plenty of promise is Sam Koroi who appeared in all 11 games a year ago.

Ryan Alexander, a heralded recruit last year out of Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn who missed last season with a knee injury, has looked good this spring and will factor into the mix. A couple of incoming freshman linebackers, Julian Casale (Caldwell) and Austin Linart, are both tackling machines and All-State selections, and they might make some noise once they get here.

“We’ve got veteran players at the linebacker position, and it’s probably one of our deepest units,” Callahan said. “I’m really pleased with how they’ve come together this spring, and a lot will be expected of them come fall. We’re trying to get Alexander up to speed after he sat out last season with knee surgery. He was highly thought of coming in as a freshman last year.”

SECONDARY – Attrition hit the Hawks defensive backfield hard with all four starters from a year ago out of the picture. Cornerback Eddie Morales III – 2023 CAA Honorable Mention selection – graduated and declared for the NFL Draft, cornerback Mike Reid entered the transfer portal and is now at South Dakota, strong safety Tyrese Wright – 2023 CAA Honorable Mention – declared for the NFL Draft and free safety T.J. Kamara entered the transfer portal and is weighing his options.

However, three underclassmen saw considerable playing time last season and should be ready to take the next step as starters. Safety Deuce Lee saw action in seven games last season as a true freshman and really came on strong as the season progressed. He finished the year fifth on the team in tackles (35) and added an interception and pass breakup. It should be a smooth transition into a starting role for him. Another sophomore, Israel Clark-White, got on the field for three games and posted four tackles, 0.5 TFL, and one pass breakup. He’s looked the part in spring ball and should slide into one of the starting cornerback spots.

Senior safety Justin Bennin saw action in 10 games a year ago, and he is super athletic and loves to hit at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He should step into one of the starting safety positions along with high expectations. Bennin was in on 19 tackles, including 12 solo tackles last season along with one TFL and one forced fumble.  Senior Kadeem McKnight saw spotted action last season on defense and was a special teams contributor and should be in the mix.

The Hawks will also welcome four outstanding freshmen defensive backs from their 2024 recruiting class, including Willie Love, an ESPN top 300 prospect and a 247 Sports three-star recruit. Jaden Jones is another interesting incoming prospect. He is a second-team All-State selection at safety, a third-team All-State selection at quarterback, and a USA Today All-New Jersey first-team pick. So, I guess it’s safe to assume Love is a tremendous all-around athlete.

“In the defensive secondary, there are only two guys who are juniors or seniors, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores,” Callahan said. "We have to continue to find guys in the secondary after losing all four starters back there. We have a talented group, but they’re really young. They’re learning and making mistakes, but that’s how you learn—they’re coming along pretty good.”

Position battles will become clearer as spring practices progress, including two full-squad scrimmages. The Sunday, April 21 scrimmage is open to the public. The spring transfer portal opens on April 15 and closes on April 30, so the final roster is still very fluid, with nothing being finalized until the fall.

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