Jermain Johnson has traveled down this coaching road before, tackling the challenge of leaving comfortable confines of Wayne Hills football, where he was a highly respected assistant coach for many years, to become a head coach of a struggling program.
Johnson did it once, going from Wayne Hills to take over the reins at Paterson Eastside in 2009, going to the school that Joe Clark made famous with bat in his hand, all the way to a major motion picture called “Lean on Me,” starring Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman.
Johnson did his best to turn the Ghosts into winners and came real close, posting a 15-23 record as the head coach over four seasons.
But then Johnson went back to Wayne Hills, back to the comfortable existence of being a perennial winner. Johnson didn’t have to concern himself on whether his linebacker got that science project done in time or why a wide receiver missed health class three straight times. Johnson didn’t have to deal with irate parents or angry alumni. He just did his job as a defensive coordinator and went home.
However, after one year as an assistant at his college alma mater, Montclair State, and five years as an assistant at Wayne Hills, Johnson wanted to get back into head coaching once again.
So the 45-year-old native of Bloomfield threw himself back into the head coaching waters once again and has taken over the head spot at Belleville High School, taking over a program that has enjoyed a winning season only once in the last 20 years and made one trip to the NJSIAA state playoffs during that time.
People might be asking Johnson, “Why would you want to do this? Why take on the headache of being a head coach again, especially at a place where winning is an afterthought?”
Johnson has been the head football coach at Belleville for the last three months and already he is answering the aforementioned questions on his own.
“It’s been very surprising,” Johnson said of the response of his players. “The kids are coming in every day. They want to be there. They’re reporting on time. They’re not offering any excuses. They’re coming in and taking care of business. They want to learn.”
That idea pumped Johnson up and raised the tone in his voice.
“The thing I’m most excited about is their willingness to learn,” said Johnson, who was a standout player at Bloomfield, Montclair State and eventually the old New Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena Football League. “They are like sponges. They’re soaking it all up. It’s been very positive all around. Step by step, day by day, we’re teaching the kids how to play football. It may be a slow moving process, but it’s a process, brick by brick, day by day.”
Johnson believes in that philosophy so much that it has become the motto for the 2018 Belleville Buccaneers.
“We put that on T-shirts,” Johnson said. “We believe in that. I told the kids in the first meeting that I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get kids to come out. I’ve been in kids’ homes. I’ve been on the phone with their parents. I’m selling the program to everyone. What these kids see every day is the real me and they know it. I put my heart and soul on my sleeve so everyone can see it. I’m not going to run away from them. I’m not making excuses for them. They believe in what I have to say.”
Johnson is impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“These kids have been coming every single day,” Johnson said. “They believe in what I have to say. If they just believe in the process, we’re going to be just fine.”
The Buccaneers plan to use a pro set offense with multiple plays coming from that initial formation.
Senior Matthew LaTorre (5-10, 170) is the starting quarterback, where he was a year ago.
“Matthew has shown good chemistry with the running backs,” Johnson said. “He has had to learn a lot in a short time. When he’s been healthy, he’s been very good. He wants to be good and wants to be proud of Belleville football and that’s a big help.”
The top running back is sophomore Derek Leigh (5-11, 175).
“He’s a strong runner,” Johnson said. “He’s able to break tackles. People just bounce right off him. He’s going to be a good one.”
Junior Ray Leak (5-9, 180) is a transfer from Piscataway High School who will be eligible to play right away.
“He brings a little different attitude to the backfield,” Johnson said. “He makes one cut and then he goes. He has a little bit of a slash in him.”
Senior Jerson Rivera (5-9, 175) is another running back.
“We have three running backs and all three bring different styles,” Johnson said. “We have good depth in the backfield.”
The wide receivers are seniors Eric Rivera (6-2, 190) and Travon Merrick (5-11, 170).
The tight end is senior Joe Monroig (6-2, 230), who is one of the better two-way performers in the area. Monroig has been a three-year starter for the Bucs.
“He leads by example,” Johnson said of Monroig. “He’s not really vocal, but he’s in control of the huddle. The others listen to him.”
The offensive line does not have a ton of experience, but there is some good size there.
Senior James Johnson (6-2, 275 and no relation to the coach) is one of the tackles. He missed all of last season due to injury. The other offensive tackle is junior Jimmy Rodriguez (6-1, 230). Senior Demetrie Samayoa (6-2, 265) is one of the guards, with junior Adam Ruales (5-10, 230) and sophomore David Peterkin (5-11, 220) battling for playing time. Peterkin “has a lot of potential,” according to Johnson. Junior Chris Freid (6-0, 215) is the returning starter at center.
“It’s now just getting off the ball and getting that first push,” Johnson said. “They have to learn to drive block. It has taken some time to teach them, but they’re developing.”
The Bucs utilize a 4-4 base defensive set.
Monroig is a terror at defensive end, where he’s joined by junior Enrique Martinez (5-9, 180).
Samayoa is at defensive tackle, where Johnson called him “a stud…he comes off the ball so well. He’s worked hard at becoming a better defensive lineman.”
Ruales and Perkins are also defensive tackles.
Freid and Leigh are the inside linebackers, along with senior Gabriel DiPalma (5-8, 180).
The outside linebackers are senior Omarie Wilmore (6-3, 210), junior Hakim Fennell (5-9, 190) and Rivera.
“Wilmore is going to make a lot of noise this season,” Johnson said of the outside backer. “He has a nose for the football.”
Junior Justino Cecere (5-5, 155), senior Trevon Myrick (5-11, 170) and Jerson Rivera are the cornerbacks, with Leak at safety.
The Bucs open the 2018 season Sept. 7 against Dickinson at Doc Ellis Field in Belleville at 7 p.m.
Johnson isn’t promising championships in his first year, but he thinks the Bucs will be competitive. That’s the first step.
“When I first took this job, I had a lot of challenges,” Johnson said. “But I love challenges. These kids have been stepping up to the plate. The kids want to win and that’s what I love.”
The Belleville football team promises to be improved this season under new head coach Jermain Johnson. From left are offensive linemen Joe Monroig, Demetrie Samayoa, Adam Ruales, Johnson, Chris Freid, James Johnson, David Peterkin and Jimmy Rodriguez. Photo by Jim Hague