WEST LONG BRANCH – With their grueling summer camp mercifully behind them, Monmouth University is now in game-planning mode for its 2021 season opener.
“We had a really good preseason period,” said Monmouth University head coach Kevin Callahan, entering his 29th season. “I thought the kids came in in great shape and a number of them were on campus for the majority of the summer so they had the opportunity to work with our strength and conditioning staff. Because of that they were really well conditioned when we began practice. I was happy with camp and I thought we got ourselves in good spot in all phases of the game.
“We broke preseason practice last Wednesday and began focusing our preparation on Middle Tennessee and this last week it’s all been about fine tuning our approach to them.”
The Hawks will travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to kick off the 2021 season against FBS opponent Middle Tennessee State University this Saturday with kickoff at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium scheduled for 7 p.m. and streamed live on ESPN 3.
Monmouth opened the 2019 season with a 48-13 loss to Western Michigan in its last game against an FBS opponent after the fall 2020 season opener against Rutgers University was cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Overall, Monmouth is 0-4 versus FBS opponents. But the Hawks, ranked No.10 in the FCS Coaches Preseason Poll, appear better equipped than ever to meet the challenge of knocking off an FBS program despite the discrepancy in the number of full scholarships allowed and the distinct advantage in recruiting that FBC programs hold.
“You still can’t forget the fact that they are FBS,” said Callahan. “They start with 85 scholarships which is 25 more than we have and that’s not even to mention the guys who have come back from the Covid year so they may have 100 guys on scholarship that were recruited to play at the FBS level.
“They’re a program that has had a lot of success at the FBS level going to bowl games and all that so you can’t lose sight of that. They’re certainly going to present a lot of challenges that we may not see in our normal FCS games. Hopefully we’re prepared for it and I know our kids are highly motivated to go out and play as well as we can.”
An FCS program beating a FBS program, however, is not as rare as you would think given the inequities between the two. Since 2015 there have been 39 upsets where an FCS team have beaten an FBS team, including North Dakota State’s 23-21 upset win over then No.13 ranked Iowa in 2016 and The Citadel’s 27-24 OT victory over Georgia Tech in 2019, just to name a couple.
“Our players feel this game has a bigger sense to it because it is an FBS opponent,” Callahan said. “It’s a Conference USA team and we’re playing up a level so our guys are very interested to see how we measure up. That’s what this game becomes in a lot a ways, a measuring stick, not only where we are as a team in 2021 but also it’s going to be a measure of how far we’ve come since we played in the spring and when we last played in the fall of 2019 so I think that’s exciting for our guys.”
There is one thing you can be sure of, the Hawks will be prepared to meet the challenge.
The Hawks are two-time defending Big South champions and are the overwhelming favorites to make it three conference titles in a row grabbing 16 of a possible 18 first-place votes (141 points) in the 2021 Big South Preseason Football Poll.
They placed an unprecedented 15 players – a school record - on the Preseason All-Big South Conference first team, including the Big South Preseason Offensive and Defensive Players of the year - redshirt junior running back Juwon Farri and fifth-year senior free safety Anthony Budd, respectively.
Both Farri and Budd along with senior center A.J. Farris were also named to the STATS Perform Preseason All-American team. Farris and Budd were second-team selections while Farri was a third-team pick.
Joining the trio on the preseason all-conference team is sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett, fifth-year senior tight end Gene Scott, senior wide receiver Terrance Greene Jr., and graduate student wide receiver Lonnie Moore IV.
The offensive line was well represented with graduate students Justin Szuba at right tackle, Farris at center, Manny Christian at left guard and Mahmoud Shabana at left tackle all getting the nod.
On the defensive side of the ball, graduate student Kahari Scarlett at end, graduate student linebackers Da’Quan Grimes and Eddie Hahn and senior cornerback Justin Terry were all first team selections.
Senior long snapper Kent Vines also earned preseason all-conference honors.
The Hawks also had four players earning honorable mention Preseason All-Big South, including senior Eddie Morales, who was selected at both defensive back and punt returner, Moore IV at kick returner, punter Ryan Kost and graduate student defensive lineman Erik Massey.
Entering summer camp 21 of last season’s 22 starters were projected to be back this season, however, injuries to two of their top players reduced that number by two.
Both Grimes and Szuba suffered season ending injuries during the course of summer camp – devastating blows to the Hawks.
Szuba, a mainstay on the offensive line since his sophomore year in 2018 and a two-time All-Big South selection, sustained a torn pectoral muscle in the weight room.
“Justin’s been a stalwart at right tackle for a few seasons now but what that does is provide an opportunity for younger guys like Greg Anderson or a guy like Oliver Jervis to step up and show what they can do. If it wasn’t for the Covid year a lot of these guys would’ve graduated anyway so their time has just come a little early. They’ve both done a really good job and will probably both play.
“While we are disappointed that Justin isn’t in there it is an opportunity for these guys to make their mark on our offense and on our program.”
Jervis – a senior who has starting experience, gets the starting nod at right tackle taking over for the injured Szuba with Anderson – a junior heavily in the mix for playing time.
A two-time All-Big South pick, Grimes – Monmouth’s leading tackler the last two seasons and arguably the heart and soul of the defense, suffered a lower leg injury that required surgery.
“DaQuan’s loss is equally as devastating on the defensive side as Szuba’s injury was to the offensive side,” said Callahan. “He’s a guy who’s been a leader, a guy who’s been an all-conference player and a guy who was projected to be all-conference and All-American this year and then suddenly we don’t have him. Injuries are part of football, a part nobody likes, and as a coach you hate to see that happen but you just hope you’ve done a good job a developing your depth and preparing the next guy in line because it is truly a next man up situation.”
Junior Tyler Delgado, who has appeared in 15 games in two years with a number of starts, will step in at Grimes’ MIKE linebacker spot after playing behind Grimes last spring with junior Ryan Moran taking over at the WILL position. Senior Ben Joseph will see time at the WILL position as well.
Fifth-year senior SAM linebacker Eddie Hahn, who was second on the team in tackles behind Grimes after transferring from UConn last spring, is a play maker and difference maker who came in and instantly made a name for himself. With Grimes now sidelined, the Hawks will need to lean on Hahn even more as a player with elite skills as well as a vocal leader of the defense.
Monmouth will replace departed defensive tackle Kurt Aumer with senior Lorenzo Hernandez who busted out in a big way last season after transferring from ASA Brooklyn. Hernandez recorded 2.5 sacks in four games last spring and was named the Big South Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against Charleston Southern. Look for Hernandez to make the leap to elite this season.
“Lorenzo is a guy who kind off burst on the scene in the spring season and did a really fine job,” Callahan said. “He’s very disruptive and not only gets after the quarterback but is really tough to block in the run game. We’re expecting big things from him.”
Underrated Nick Shoemaker starts opposite Scarlett, who led the team with 3.5 sacks in four games, at the other defensive end position and has started every game since his sophomore season – 18 straight games.
Massey – a first-team All-Big South selection last spring – has 28 starts to his credit since his sophomore year and has been steady as a rock on the defensive line since then. He had 14 tackles and two sacks in four games last spring earning All-Big South honors.
Monmouth’s often maligned defense made significant strides last spring and finished ranked second in the Big South allowing a mere 18.5 points and 295.5 total yards per game. The unit permitted just nine touchdowns in four games and recorded 18 sacks (4.5 per game). Its rushing defense led the conference allowing only 99.3 yards per game while giving up 196.3 yards through the air.
If the Hawks defense can duplicate or even surpass those numbers it will go a long way in helping the team achieve its ultimate goal.
Middle Tennessee State was picked to finish fifth in the Conference USA’s East division but is considered a dark horse in many circles. They’re coached by Rick Stockstill, who is in his 16th year at MTSU and has led the Blue Raiders to eight bowl games and the 2018 Conference USA East Division championship.
Monmouth’s elite secondary of Budd, Morales, Terry and Wright will be tested early and often against Middle Tennessee States passing attack.
The Blue Raiders brought in North Carolina State transfer Bailey Hockman – a strong armed pocket passer who passed for 2,088 yards and 13 touchdowns last season for the Wolfpack completing 64.3 of his passes. However, his 11 interceptions should have Budd and company licking their chops.
“They’re going to present challenges,” Callahan said of Middle Tennessee’s passing attack. “Their receivers as a position group are deep. They have big strong receivers and smaller guys with very good speed – guys who can take the top off the coverage. Their a veteran group that’s been around.”
Hockman will have seven of their top eight wideouts back led by Jarrin Pierce (59-584-3), Yusuf Ali (37-457-2) and C.J. Windham (31-331-3) so the Hawks secondary will be put to the test.
The Blue Raiders offensive line has four returning starters led by all-conference center Jordan Palmer.
Starting running back Chaton Mobley is back after rushing for 366 yards averaging 4.6 yards per carry with four touchdowns last season and MTSU added West Virginia transfer Martel Pettaway and Florida State transfer Amir Rashul. As a junior Pettaway rushed for 623 yards on 97 carries, a 6.4 averages, with six touchdowns so the Blue Raider have some depth and experience in the backfield.
“They have quite the potent offense with a new coordinator so I’m sure they’ll be some things that appear new to us they that they haven’t shown before.”
Defensively, MTSU is led by linebackers D.Q. Thomas (3.5 sacks) and Cody Smith (3 sacks, 8 TFL), lineman Jordan Ferguson and defensive backs Gregory Grate and Reed Blankenship. Blankenship is on the Bednarik Award watch list after making a team-high 76 tackles in 2020 while Grate was a first-team All-Conference USA selection.
“They will show some different fronts and they’re aggressive with their blitzes and pressures,” Callahan said of the Blue Raider defense. “Their secondary has a lot of experience and are physical with a lot of speed.”
Next up on the schedule for Middle Tennessee following the Monmouth game is Power Five conference opponent Virginia Tech out of the ACC but Callahan doesn’t expect the Blue Raiders to be looking past the Hawks.
“I think they were disappointed in their outing last fall going 3-6 before shutting down because of Covid,” said Callahan. “This is a team that’s used to going to bowl games and having winning records so there’s a feeling on their part that they have a little something to prove. They want to get back to where they see themselves in Conference USA and this is the first time they’ve gotten to play in a long time. I don’t think the opponent matters to them, they’re just excited to get out there and seeing what they have as a team. I certainly don’t think they’re looking beyond Monmouth.”
Monmouth boasts one of the most balance offenses in the FCS.
The Hawks offense ranked 12th in the country and first in the Big South averaging 441.8 yards per game. It averaged 182.0 yards rushing and 259.8 yards passing, 18th and 17th in the nation, respectively, while putting up 35 points per game – first in the Big South, 11th in the country.
Muskett burst on the scene last spring as an unknown freshman from West Springfield High in Springfield, Virginia. In his first game at the collegiate level he threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns and never looked back. He finished the season with 1,039 yards passing and nine touchdowns with only two interceptions in four games. A first-team All-Big South selection and the Big South Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, Muskett has super-star status written all over him.
“He’s done a really nice job this summer, you can see the continuation of his play from where he was in the spring,” Callahan of his young signal caller. “He’s pushing the bar even higher for this seasn. We’d be crazy not to expect big things from him after what he was able to accomplish in the spring. Now we know what we have in Tony and our expectations are even higher.”
Boasting, in my opinion, the best FCS wide receiver duo in country, the Hawks Greene Jr. and Moore IV give Muskett a couple of targets that can do it all on the football field. Both first-team All-Big South selections last spring, Greene Jr. had 23 receptions for 425 yards and four touchdowns in four games while Moore IV hauled in 22 balls for 295 yards and three touchdowns in just three games. These two gems are as reliable as it gets and thrive in big spots.
Graduate student Zach Treadway is the number three wideout and finished the spring season with nine receptions for 112 yards. He showed he’s not afraid of the big stage catching five balls for 79 yards in the Hawks playoff game versus eventual national champion Sam Houston State.
Sophomore Dymere Miller, junior Ezrah Archie and senior Assanti Kearny are all top-flight receivers and more than capable to step in when needed.
As Monmouth’s rushing game goes so does the passing game.
The Hawks rushing attack ranked second in the Big South last spring averaging 182.0 yards per game. Farri averaged 130.0 yards per game on the ground rushing for 520 yards on 104 carries with 10 touchdowns while averaging over 5.0 yards per attempt.
William and Mary graduate transfer Owen Wright will back up Farri with true freshman Owen Shirden expected to get carries as well. Wright’s 584 yards on 138 carries and five touchdowns led William and Mary in his junior season. Shirden ran for 5,529 career yards at St. Josephs High, 12th most in Connecticut State history, and is tapped with unlimited potential.
“They’re excited,” Callahan said of his team as they approach gameday. “They’re excited to go play and to have a normal season so to speak and they’re excited because we really haven’t played a fall season since 2019. I think what the spring did was increase their appetite to go out and play and they found out what it was they were truly missing. And they’re really looking forward to getting back at it and going to play.”
Monmouth Enters Game as Underdog
Monmouth is currently a 7.5 point underdog.