PISCATAWAY, NJ -- When the clock hit 0:00 on Dec. 3, 2016 and the Piscataway High School varsity football team was crowned champions of the Central Jersey, Group 5 playoff tournament, it marked the end of an era.
Elijah Barnwell, the program’s all-time leading rusher with 5,728 yards and 75 touchdowns on the ground, earned a ring in his final game as a Chief. The 34-13 victory over Manalapan marked the end of an era and a team that revolved around giving him the rock behind powerful offensive lines. Barnwell is currently a true freshman at Rutgers where he is set to redshirt and sit out this season after injuring his knee a few weeks ago during training camp.
“I missed Elijah as soon as that championship game was over,” Piscataway coach Dan Higgins blared out with a laugh last week chatting with TAPinto Piscataway. “He’s been the backbone of Piscataway football for a bunch of years. But now it’s other kids’ turns to step up, and that’s what all of this is about.”
Barnwell, quarterback Danny Haus, numerous starting offensive and defensive linemen including Abdel Mohamed and Terrell Hagans, plenty of wide receivers/defensive backs including Brevin Donerson, Joshua Boyd, Nazir James, Trey Hogan, and others have all moved on.
Despite losing tons of starters and experienced and older depth from the roster a year ago, Higgins isn’t calling it a “reloading” year.
“Every year you’re building. I mean, we did lose a lot of really good seniors, but there’s a lot of really good players (who returned). There’s a lot of hunger on the team, and we expect to be competitive this year, it’s not like the cupboards are bare,” Higgins said.
Starting on the offensive side of the ball, rising juniors quarterback Joey Hatcher and running back Juwon Jackson return after gaining experience and playing vital roles in 2016 as sophomores.
Hatcher filled in for Haus when he was banged up in the middle of the year and even took snaps when Haus was healthy and lining up wide as a receiver. As more of a speedy compliment and lightning to Barnwell’s thunder and bruising style, Jackson managed 811 rushing yards and seven scores. Hatcher recorded 163 yards through the air with a touchdown.
“A year of maturity definitely helps. They’re both bigger, stronger and more mature and that really helps,” Higgins said of Hatcher and Jackson. “You can just tell how Hatcher runs the offense, he’s in total command. He’s getting all the reps. He had a role last year. I’m excited because they’ve both grown quite of a bit from last year.”
Throughout the years, the Chiefs’ trademark and tradition has been a power-running game. Piscataway churns out talented running backs every single year. But this year, because of Hatcher’s ability to throw the pigskin, you’ll see runs from under center and in the shotgun, as well as a passing attack with three-four wide receivers at a time with a tight end.
On the outside, senior receivers Nahjir Woods and Keshawn Grant will be the main threats. They both saw action in 2016. You’ll also see guys like Isaiah Colon, Jordan Lockhart, Kamille Pryor, and Joe Bellamy catching passes as well. Running back Nasir Best will give Jackson a breather and carry the ball.
“Yeah, I think we’re going to be more multiple and see more balance,” Higgins mentioned. “That’s the post-Barnwell era. We do have really good running backs, but Hatcher gives us more of a passing threat and our perimeter players (wide receivers) are stepping up. So we’ll be more balanced.”
Despite graduating four-fifths of his offensive line, the trenches remain big and physical for the Chiefs. They won’t be as good as last year, but this year’s starters rotated in some last season.
Jordin Martell and Chris Long are the left and right tackles. Brijon Artis is the left guard, while Austin Mosier snaps the center and David Greene is the right guard.
Most of them will flip and play on the defensive line as well. Artis will start at one of the defensive end spots while Martell and Long are the tackles. Grant will rush the passer as a defensive end on the other side.
“I do,” Higgins said when asked if he feels good about his lines. “We lost a couple really tough players in Abdel, Terrell, Ibn (Robinson) and others. You don’t replace those guys, but we had a lot of depth behind them, and I’m seeing a lot of good play.”
On the next level, Piscataway returns two starting linebackers in Jevon Buckmire Davis and Michael Petite. Jackson and Matt Peterson join. Higgins praised the unit as the whole.
“The linebackers are the strength of the defense, we have two returning starters,” the coach said. “(Buckmire Davis) has a natural feel. He’s very thick and strong. His reads are really good. He makes up for the weaknesses that we have.”
Piscataway lost tremendous backend talent in the secondary who came up and made tackles all while shutting down receivers and not letting them catch any balls.
“It’s coming along,” Higgins said of his defensive backs. “We have younger players in the secondary so it’s going to take some time and experience for them to fully get comfortable in their roles.”
Demetrius Johnson, Woods, Colon, Pryor, Dellamy, Best, and Hatcher form the secondary rotation.
Special teams is always the most underrated part of football. The phase of the game could turn the tides during a contest one way or another. In the past few years, Piscataway has had really good kickers in Michael Stanleyj and Ryan Kuchnicki. Now, they’ll have a freshman in Robert Konya, who looks the part.
“I’m excited. He’s really hitting the ball well.” Higgins said. “The sound of the ball he hits is like ‘Boom’!
For Higgins, who is in his 14th season as the head coach of the program and is 118-30 in his career, the goals remain the same. The Chiefs want to win the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division and come out on top in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5 postseason bracket.
“We’re going to take it game-by-game,” the coach said. “We want to be competitive and play every game like it’s your last. It’s always the same, win the Red and win states.”
In order for Piscataway to earn their 10th sectional title, the team will need go through a tough regular season schedule facing the likes of South Brunswick, Old Bridge, Sayreville, and Manalapan. Should they get there, they’ll rekindle rivalries in the playoffs with teams such as Union, Elizabeth, Westfield, and Bridgewater-Raritan.
“The key is going to be a very well-balanced and solid team, that’s fundamentally sound,” said Higgins, who knows it all starts up front with the big boys. “We pride ourselves on doing the little thing right. I think all three phases have to be good. With the competition that we’ll face this year, it’s about how you play the game. If we play our game, we’ll be fine.”
For more on the schedule, CLICK HERE.
Piscataway HS varsity football 2017 schedule:
Sept. 8 vs. New Brunswick
Sept. 15 @ East Brunswick
Sept. 22 vs. South Brunswick
Oct. 6 @ Sayreville
Oct. 13 vs. Old Bridge
Oct. 20 vs. Monroe
Oct. 27 @ Manalapan
Nov. 3 @ Edison
Nov. 23 vs. Franklin
First Round of Playoffs: Nov. 10-11
Second Round of Playoffs: Nov 17-18
Championship Round of Playoffs: Dec. 2-3-4
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