WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ – A new era of Monmouth University football is upon us, and the excitement of the move to the Colonial Athletic Association was the primary theme at Wednesday's football Media Day.
"We're very excited about it," said Monmouth Head Coach Kevin Callahan about the move to the CAA. "They're a lot of unknowns and a lot of new opponents, although some are familiar teams but not teams that we've played in our recent history. Every week is probably going to be a learning experience for us, and we're excited about the challenges that it brings. We're also excited to play in one of the top, if not the top, FCS conference in the country."
Callahan has been pleased with the attitude and commitment of his players in preseason camp thus far and feels the move to the CAA has heightened players' enthusiasm even as one practice after another brought brutal heat and humidity into the equation.
"I'm very optimistic about where this team is right now," said Callahan. "Through our first 13 practices of preseason I think we've made great progress each and every day. Some day's more than others, but as a whole I think we've moved far ahead as a team and really picked up where we left off in spring practice and have moved forward from there."
"The energy our guys bring to practice every day, the genuine excitement they have and the fierce competition we see every day on the field has been exciting. I think what you're going to see out of the 2022 team is an experienced team where we have veteran players in all phases of the game and we're going to rely on this experience to not only perform on a high level on the field but also to provide leadership to the team as we go through this CAA schedule."
It was announced in January that the Hawks would join the CAA effective this season. They became official members of the conference along with fellow newcomer Hampton University - increasing the CAA football membership to 13. North Carolina A&T will be added in 2023, pushing the conference total to 14 teams allowing for the possibility of eventually splitting into two seven-team divisions – most likely the North and South Divisions – with a conference championship game to determine the automatic qualifier for the FCS playoffs.
Four CAA teams are ranked in the 2022 STATS Perform FCS preseason Top 25 Poll: conference favorite Villanova (No. 6), Delaware (No. 19), Rhode Island (No. 22) and Richmond (No. 24). Monmouth, William and Mary and Elon were among the other conference members receiving votes.
"When you look at the CAA from what they've done in the past, you recognize the physicality of the league," said Callahan. "Every single week is a physical, physical team, so you've got to be able to withstand the cumulative effect of playing physical football every single week. So, we'll have to rely on our depth and we have to stay healthy because the team that wins the conference is usually the team that has the same players playing at the end of the season that they had playing at the beginning of the season."
Callahan has seen a significant uptick in interest from recruits since it became official that the Hawks would join the CAA. The CAA's reputation as a top FCS conference, the name recognition of member schools, a Northeast flavor compared to the Big South, and a much shorter travel distance to member schools are just a few reasons for future recruits to take notice.
"Without a doubt," answered Callahan when asked about the growing recruit interest in the program. "As soon as it was announced in January that we were joining the conference in 2022 immediately doors were open to us in recruiting that might not have been open to us in the past. The level of player that has an interest in Monmouth now is much greater than in the past. Now that we're playing the Delaware's, Villanova's and New Hampshire's and teams like that who are really recognizable brand names in this area it brings in another level of recruit. We saw it in our prospect camps this summer; the level of talent that came to our camp was at a much higher level than it had been in the past. That tells me there is an awareness now that's just growing."
As newcomers to the CAA, the Hawks might be a little undervalued. They were picked to finish 10th in the conference this season, much to the chagrin of those around the program.
"We all definitely saw that," said Monmouth standout quarterback Tony Muskett referencing Monmouth's ranking. "But that's not what we focus on. We have an expectation of greatness here; we want to win the conference; we want to win a national championship. So, although the media or coaches poll put us there, we don't really care about that. We know we have the talent in this locker room to win the conference and go win a national championship and that's how we come into work each day."
Muskett is an All-CAA preseason selection. Although expectations are sky high for the ever-rising field general, he brushes off any notion of pressure as irrelevant. He is instead consumed with team chemistry and always willing to do whatever it takes for the good of the team.
"No, I don't feel any pressure by it," Muskett said of his preseason selection. "Obviously it's an honor to be recognized with that but all this preseason stuff doesn't affect what happens on September 1. All I can do is focus on what I can do to better myself and what I can do as a leader on this team to make this team better. I don't think about pressure, and I just go out and play the game the way I play the game."
Callahan, low ranking notwithstanding, is ready for his next challenge as he begins his 31st season as the head coach at Monmouth University.
"We're ready for this and we're excited about this," said Callahan. "We're not intimidated about this move at all or intimidated about the opponents we're going to play. We feel like we belong here, that this is where we should be and we're ready to compete and ready to play."
"The truth is, we are much better prepared for this move from the Big South to the CAA than we were when we went from the NEC to the Big South. In 2017 we finally got to the same level of scholarships as everyone else and since then, we've won more games than any other FCS team in the Northeast."
Other News From Monmouth Media Day
- After missing last season with an injury, 2021 first-team All-Big South tackle Justin Szuba is healthy again and raring to go. "One hundred percent healthy. I can't wait to get back on the field and to play a CAA schedule and to get to play these schools in the CAA that do have big brands locally. You tell someone we're playing Rhode Island or Maine, people are automatically more excited than you saying we're going to play Kennesaw or Charleston Southern. The offensive line is coming together really nice. I think our communication level and how far along we've come along right now is some of the best I've seen in my time here."
- Senior running back Juwon Farri, a STATS Perform second-team preseason All-American selection and STATS Perform Walter Payton Award Watch List selection, is primed for a huge season. He also expects big things from running mates Owen Wright and Jaden Shirden. "We all try to motivate each other every day and make sure we're paying attention to what our coaches said. Coach Dorsett is one of the best running back coaches in the FCS so when he says he can trust all three of us we believe it and put it into practice every day. So, the three-back core is going to be a strong part of our offense and I can't wait to see what we can do."
- 2021 first-team All-Big South pick linebacker Da'Quan Grimes is back after missing the entire 2021 season and is full steam ahead, which is excellent news for the linebacking corps. "It was definitely a grind getting back here and I'm very excited for the season. I'm fully confident in my defensive guys and I know they got my back and I got theirs. I feel great physically; it's been over a year now and I don't even notice it anymore. I got more and more comfortable in spring ball and now I don't even notice it when I'm playing."
- Cornerback Eddie Morales III is a 2022 Preseason All-CAA selection as a punt returner after garnering first-team All-Big South honors at cornerback and punt returner last season. "I'm actually very, very excited to play alongside these guys. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football. This past spring and this summer has shown how well we're coming together and how cohesive we're being. Top to bottom, I think this is one of the most competitive groups we have on the team."
- Strong safety Tyrese Wright led the team in tackles a year ago and loves to hit, which bolds well for the CAA's physicality. He was a 2021 All-Big South selection and you can expect him to leave his calling card on CAA opponents this fall. "It's just a mentality thing. We just go out there and play full speed; from top to bottom, we just keep pushing each other to do that. I definitely enjoy the big hit because I feel like it brings everyone else on the defense up. They hear me screaming and you can just feel the energy of everyone just rising. And also it helps everyone else fly to the ball so I just push my teammates to be the best they can be."
Monmouth University opens its inaugural Colonial Athletic Association season on Thursday, September 1, at New Hampshire, with kickoff scheduled for 7:00 p.m.