Four storylines to watch in the NJAC for the 2019 season
Highlighting some of the biggest storylines Division III football fans should watch in the New Jersey Athletic Conference this season.
The 2018 NJAC football season was filled with upsets and dramatic finishes. It also featured an extremely high level of play that is not seen in most of Division III football. With the 2019 season starting in only a matter of weeks, the landscape of the conference has changed dramatically from last season. This has led to a variety of storylines that will play a significant role in how the conference will play out this season. While some teams are looking to compete for a conference title, one team is looking to end a two-year losing streak. Meanwhile, a star running back and his team look to bounce back from a tough 2018 campaign.
Can William Paterson finally end their two-year losing streak?
It’s been a tough time to be a Pioneer fan over the past few seasons and for good reason.
The Pioneers last taste at victory came back in October of 2016 when they defeated Montclair State 18-13. Since then, the Pioneers have lost an astounding 24 straight games. This streak includes two consecutive 0-10 seasons in 2017 and 2018.
2018 had to be particularly disappointing for first-year head coach Dustin Johnson, who was tasked with rebuilding the Pioneers program. Dealing with a team that featured just eight seniors last season, their inexperience showed at times. This season, the main goal for William Paterson will undoubtedly have to be ending this dreaded streak once and for all.
Unfortunately, the Pioneers play in the unforgiving NJAC, filled with talented teams across the board that will make it difficult for the Pioneers to accumulate wins. Even the teams who are considered “lowly” such as Kean or TCNJ, field very competitive rosters this season.
There should be a strong sense of optimism in Wayne as the Pioneers should be much better on both sides of the ball this season. Many inexperienced players were thrust into starting roles last season. There are several returning starters on both sides of the ball including senior star linebacker Corey Anthony, who was second in the conference in tackles per game (9.8).
The road to achieving that elusive win won’t come easy as the Pioneers begin their 2019 season at home against a Western Connecticut squad which finished 8-2 last season.
Can Wesley rebound after such a disappointing season in 2018?
It was a tough 2018 for the Wesley Wolverines football program. They faced an uphill battle from the start of the season as former head coach Mike Drass suddenly passed away last year. In his 29-year coaching career, Drass took a Wesley program from relative obscurity to one of the most dominant programs in Division III.
However, there was a reason to be hopeful. Chip Knapp was elevated to head coach after serving as Wesley’s offensive coordinator since 1991. Star running back E.J Lee was back. All-Conference players such as wide receiver Alex Kemp and standout quarterback Khaaliq Burroughs were primed for huge seasons. Expectations ran high in Dover for a second consecutive NJAC title.
Unfortunately, the Wolverines hit a wall late in the season as the team lost four of their last sixth games to finish the regular season with a 6-4 record. Wesley ended the season defeating Westminster (Pa.) for ECAC Clayton Bowl to finish with a solid 7-4 record. However, there was much disappointment surrounding a team that was expected to win the conference title.
Something to note was that all four of Wesley’s losses came within two points or less. It’s going to be important for Wesley to win these types of ball games this season, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can close out games in 2019.
Another important factor to look for is if E.J. Lee can return to his 2017 form. Although Lee was still effective in 2018, it’s important to note that he only rushed for 952 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. This was down from 2017 where Lee rushed for 1582 yards rushing with 5.8 yards per carry. Lee is still a premier back, but for Wesley to be a contender for the NJAC title, he will need to have a better season then he did in 2018.
Among other concerns for Wesley include finding a new quarterback to lead a talented receiver core returning this season. With several starters returning on both sides of the ball, it’s safe to say that Wesley will be an interesting team to watch in 2019.
Will Jachera Be The Answer for TCNJ at the Quarterback Position?
The College of New Jersey had an extremely disappointing 2018 campaign after being named a dark horse contender by NJAC coaches in the preseason. The Lions dealt with controversy at the quarterback position all year, which explained why their offense struggled to stay in sync. Despite their lackluster season, one of the few bright spots of that season was 2018 NJAC Offensive Rookie of The Year, freshman quarterback Dave Jachera.
Jachera played in all ten games this past season, throwing for 787 yards and six touchdowns but also threw eight interceptions as well. However, his most dangerous ability certainly has to be his legs. Jachera can scramble out of a potential sack better than any quarterback in the NJAC, and it showed throughout the season. He finished the season with 412 yards rushing.
Although Jachera showed promise at the position, he still has to prove that he is the Lions quarterback for the foreseeable future. In 2018, he often went back and forth battling for the starting spot with junior Andrew Donoghue, who is more of a pocket-passer then Jachera. Donoghue began the season as the starting quarterback but eventually lost the starting job later that season to Jachera, who improved immensely towards the end of the season.
2019 is a big season for Jachera and TCNJ. He will most likely come out of camp the starting quarterback and needs to take a big leap in production for the Lions offense to thrive. Although we know that he has a remarkable ability to run when needed, he will undoubtedly have to become a better passer. Hitting the deep ball accurately should be one of the main things that Jachera will have to improve on in 2019.
However, if Jachera continues to improve the way he did in 2018, the sky is the limit for what he can do in 2019.
The NJAC Title Race Is The Most Wide Open In Years
With defending champion Frostburg State moving up to Division II, there is a lot of excitement among teams that this could be their year to claim the conference title.
The conference couldn’t be more talented from top to bottom. Contenders Wesley, Montclair State, Salisbury, and Christopher Newport appear to be some of the top returning teams in the conference that have the talent to compete for the title.
An interesting team to look for is Montclair State, as they return a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. The Red Hawks were only a few wins away from the NJAC title last year, finishing 8-2. They are very well-rounded on both sides with a solid passing attack, decent running game, and solid defense despite the loss of All-American linebacker Mauro Altamura to graduation. However, the team’s biggest strength is their secondary. Defensive backs Jaier Garrett, Jalen Harris, and Dylan Elliot are all excellent playmakers and maybe the heart and soul of this talented defense this season.
Another team to look out for is Salisbury. The Seagulls are coming off a heartbreaking 38-35 overtime loss against Frostburg State that had not only the Regents Cup on the line but also the prestigious NJAC championship. You have to believe that Salisbury hasn’t forgotten about that game and will be looking to reclaim the title in 2019. Graduation losses were heavy for Salisbury. All-Conference running back Kaddrius Campbell, the team’s biggest offensive threat, is gone as well as several starters from last year.
The dominant linebacker duo returns as seniors Patrick Bernado and Harold Kwigova will be back to wreak havoc on NJAC offenses once again. The duo will be a big boost to a Seagulls defense who will rely heavily on their production.
A dark horse candidate to watch could be Kean. The Cougars have a large number of defensive standouts returning next year, headlined by junior defensive lineman DeShawn Reed, a first-team All-NJAC selection last season. He along with the 2018 NJAC Defensive Rookie of The Year Anthony Bassani will be crucial to Kean’s hopes at improving on their 1-9 record last season. Kean’s defense will be the key to their success this season as their offense has several question marks after finishing with the second-worst offense in the conference by total yards.
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