Matt Harbison doesn’t need to be a fortune teller, a few tea leaves. a tarot card reader or a registered soothsayer to know what the future holds for him as a football player.
But the soon-to-be Nutley High School junior realizes that he stands to be the starter on the Maroon Raiders’ grid team this fall – if and when there is a season.
And if that’s the case, then Harbison has to fully prepare to be the guy who will replace two-year starter Justin Lucia calling the signals for the Maroon Raiders.
So Harbison started to look around for someone who could make him into a better quarterback.
Lamar McKnight is a Jersey City native who played quarterback at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, had a fine JUCO stint at Contra Costa Junior College in California, then went to Tennessee State and ended his playing career at Adams State in Colorado.
Talk about well traveled.
Since graduating from Adams State and getting a couple of looks from some pro teams, McKnight went into coaching, now serving as the offensive coordinator at Union City High School.
But McKnight has also started a venture called the Lamar McKnight Quarterback Academy, where he trains with some up and coming signal callers from all over the East Coast, but especially in his home state of New Jersey.
McKnight holds regular workouts for a handful of aspiring quarterbacks, including a Sunday morning get-together at Berry Lane Park in Jersey City.
It didn’t matter if Harbison had to make the journey east to Jersey City to work with McKnight. He was going.
“I heard a lot about him,” Harbison said. “Right before the quarantine (for the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic), I was asking around about quarterback training. I called Lamar and got what he’s all about. That’s how it all started for me.”
So incredibly, Harbison, the son of Nutley head basketball and head baseball coach Bob Harbison, was all set to go – and then everything got shut down.
When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy gave the go-ahead to systematically open the state’s parks and recreational areas – provided social distance requirements are met and participants wear facial masks – Harbison was ready to begin his sojourn into becoming a better quarterback, ready for the challenge of being the next man up to lead the Maroon Raiders in the fall.
And Harbison will get the chance to play for veteran head coach Steve DiGregorio, who will return to the Nutley sideline this fall after having to sit out last season to battle cancer.
Seeing that the opportunity is there for Harbison to be the starter under center, there were a handful of changes that Harbison had to make in his game – and McKnight was the man to do it.
“I had to become better all around,” Harbison said. “I had to work on my footwork. I had to be able to move in and out of the pocket and still be able to throw. Lamar works a lot with pocket movement. It’s what I needed the most. It’s perfect that we found him.”
Harbison was always blessed with a powerful right arm – too bad he doesn’t play baseball anymore, or Dad would have had him on the mound – but McKnight worked on a few things with Harbison to improve his throwing.
“There were all kinds of stuff,” Harbison said. “He made some small adjustments in my arm angle, like holding my elbow higher. I definitely felt like I needed work. Lamar pointed out all the things I could improve on. I knew I had to get my feet quicker. I don’t necessarily have to try to get faster. That might be hard at this point. But I needed to improve getting my feet quicker.”
Although the training sometimes gets strenuous, Harbison feels it is all for the better.
“I think Lamar is incredible,” Harbison said. “Between Lamar and Coach DiGregorio, I should be in good hands. I’ll do whatever Coach DiGregorio says, but when it comes to the personal stuff, I have Lamar. He’s been a great mentor. I can definitely see the improvement in myself.”
McKnight can see the improvement in Harbison as well.
“He’s improved big time,” McKnight said. “He’s a kid who works incredibly hard all the time. I think he’s going to shine this year for Nutley. He has great size. It will be like a man against boys. He’s a big, strong kid who is going to bring that size every snap. And he can certainly throw the ball. Everyone can see that. I’m excited to go see him play this season.”
Harbison, who stands about 6-foot-2 and weighs about 220 pounds, doesn’t want to think like he’s already won the starting job as the Maroon Raiders’ quarterback.
“I’m still competing for a spot,” Harbison said. “I am waiting to see if there’s any competition there.”
Harbison doesn’t want to think about the possibility of not playing this fall.
“Of course, it will be frustrating if we don’t play,” Harbison said. “But I have to make sure like we are playing. I’m willing to do whatever helps the team win. That’s what it’s all about.”
And Harbison is glad to be out and about, running and throwing.
“With the quarantine, I felt a little lazy,” Harbison said. “Now it’s easier to get out. When I was home alone, I was trying to figure out what I could do on my own. Now I have a better schedule.”
Harbison likes training with the other top quarterbacks in the workouts.
“I definitely have a lot of confidence in myself,” Harbison said. “I’ve been watching the other guys and what they do. I’m looking at ways than I can improve. I have a ton of respect for the other guys I train with. I can learn from them all.”
Last week, Harbison was working out with Zamar Wise of Barringer, who recently signed a national letter of intent to play football at the University of Massachusetts in the fall.
And as for McKnight’s tutelage?
“The one thing I noticed in him is that he’s never tired,” Harbison said. “He’s always the same with a good attitude and positive thinking. That’s what pushes me. I see someone who is so excited about the game. It makes me feel the same way.”
Nutley’s Matt Harbison seems to be in midseason form as he works out with the Lamar McKnight Quarterback Academy in Jersey City. Photo by Jim Hague
Lamar McKnight (right) offers quarterback tips to a handful of prospective signal callers, including Matt Harbison of Nutley (center) and Zamar Wise of Barringer (left), who is headed to UMass in the fall. Photo by Jim Hague
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”