Belleville football team looks to build off last year’s 6-4 record

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. | Editor & Broadcaster

As a top assistant coach under Jermain Johnson, Brian Antab has seen first-hand the progress that has been made by Belleville’s football program over the past four years.

But with Johnson having departed to take the head job at Montclair this spring and several key graduations from last year’s 6-4 team, both Antab and his young roster have tried to build up as much experience as it could this summer before Friday’s season opener against Passaic.

“A lot of the changes were based on trying to get a lot of reps for these young kids and getting them as much experience as we can,” said Antab, a former offensive lineman at Bishop Ahr (now St. Thomas Aquinas) and Montclair State University. “A lot of them don’t have a lot of experience and are first year starters this year. We’ve tried to maximize the amount of reps we can get to the 1s and really try to utilize their talents to the best of our abilities.”

Antab’s Buccaneers will be relying on several sophomores to fill big roles on both sides of the ball this season.

Of that group of sophomores, one in particular who is poised for a big season is running back Jeremiah Cook, who brings a physicality that goes beyond his listed size of 5-7 and 175 pounds as well as big-play ability.

Cook flashed some of that ability as a freshman, rushing for 179 yards and two touchdowns on just 30 carries, but it set to be the lead runner this year.

“We’re really hoping to see some big things from Jeremiah. He’s a really talented young kid,” Antab said. “He’s got good balance, very good cutting ability and he has some breakaway speed. He’s pretty tough to tackle in the open field. He’s somebody that we’re really hoping for some big things out of.”

Senior Johan Rivas and junior Moses Dorleon are also going to get some carries at running back as well as junior fullback Adrian Rodriguez.

Cook is sure to be helped out by a veteran left side of the offensive line with senior guard Melrich Amante (6-0, 305), a three-year starter on the line, and Tayshaun Holland (6-0, 245), who kicks outside to tackle after starting at guard last year.

“They’ve taken the lead, especially with that line group. They’ve shown those guys the way a little bit,” said Antab. “We’re looking to utilize them a lot and try to get the ground game going, especially with the talented running back we have in Jeremiah Cook. I think he’ll do a good job running behind those two.”

Junior Isaac Aguilar (6-2, 265) takes over at right tackle with senior Jericho Perez (5-8, 247) at right guard. Sophomore AJ Clenaghan (5-8, 205) will start at center for a group that Antab believes will be a strength of the team.

Another sophomore starter will be found at the most important spot on the field as Anthony Torres (5-9, 140) takes over at quarterback. Despite his youth, Torres has already grasped Belleville’s spread offense, while also showing a leadership beyond his years.

“Anthony’s done a great job taking over and really trying to step up as he’s really matured and taken on a leadership role,” Antab said. “He understands the position that he’s in, of being the starting quarterback and what comes along with that. That’s a big leap that he’s taken this offseason.”

Promising juniors Khalil Bey and Nicolas Franco are poised to be Torres’ top two targets. Bey (6-0, 175) brings big play ability from the outside, while Franco (6-0, 180) is a hybrid tight end who can line up all over the field. Senior Sammy Perez and sophomores Elijah Pickering and Anthony Giunta are also going to see time at receiver.

Belleville is set to play a 4-2-5 on defense with Franco and Rivas set to be the linebacker-safety hybrids that are key to the scheme. Rodriguez (5-6, 205) and sophomore Demetri Moya (5-11, 170) are the inside linebackers.

Bey is the starter at one cornerback spot and is poised to enjoy a breakout year after playing for the first time last season.

“This is only his second year playing football and he’s taken a really big leap this offseason,” Antab said. “He really changed his body in the weight room. He really looks like a football player now and he’s taken some major strides in the offseason.”

Pickering is set to start at the other cornerback spot with Cook at free safety.

Amante is a returning starter at defensive tackle and will start alongside Perez. Holland is at defensive end with senior Xavier Pallet on the opposite end.

“Xavier is a smaller guy, but he has a big engine. His motor never stops,” said Antab. “He’s going to chase everything and he’s got a good speed rush off the edge.”

Belleville opens the season with three home games, starting with Passaic Aug. 26, followed by Bayonne and Wayne Valley the following weeks. Road games at Hackensack and West Essex as well as an Oct. 7 home date with Nutley are among the highlights of a schedule that is one of the toughest the Buccaneers have had in recent memory.

“I think these guys know what they’re up against,” Antab said. “They’ve seen some talented teams, we played against West Essex last year, we played against Wayne Hills. They’ve seen some high-level football before. I know they’re not the most experienced  and they haven’t gotten the most time playing against that level of competition, but they have seen it, they’re ready for the challenge and they’ll get to see what it’s like to play at that level this year.”

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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)