Kearny has yet to play its first football game in its new division – the North Jersey Super Football Conference Ivy White Division – but head coach Stephen Andrew has already noticed a significant change within and around the program.
For the first time in years, the Kardinals have a schedule that allows them to be competitive and potentially have a winning season. That promise as compared to previous seasons where Kearny knew it would be outmatched by its opponents have brought improved participation and improved confidence from those involved.
“It’s a lot easier to recruit kids to (play football) because of that exact sentiment,” said Andrews, Kearny graduate now entering his fifth season as head coach. I think there was a sense of fear of having to go up against a Union City, going up against a Hudson Catholic and I think that kept us from getting our numbers up. Our numbers have been really good this year.
“They’re self-motivated because they truly do believe that this can be one of the most successful years that we’ve ever had as a program.”
With a veteran group returning to go with this much more manageable schedule, such optimism is certainly understandable and warranted.
The Kardinals welcome back senior Chris Carson at quarterback, who threw for more than 650 yards a season ago in his first year of football. After completing a full offseason program, Andrews is confident there will be a significant difference in Carson’s play.
“He knows the offense better than anyone. He’s a leader. He’s just a good football player,” Andrews said. ““He’s become a different person through the last six months. He could throw maybe 40 yards last year and now he’s throwing about 55. He’s added about 15 yards to his throws just working mainly on leg strength. I’m very interested in seeing how he does this year.”
Freshman Jonas Ruiz will serve as Carson’s backup.
Kearny also returns running backs Gabe Ferreira and Adonis Chong, both senior three-year starters on offense. Both seniors enter the season with the ambitious goal of each running for 1,000 yards this fall.
With so much experience in the backfield, Andrews has changed the Kardinals offensive scheme to a triple-option spread in the mold of the offense run by Coastal Carolina in order to take full advantage of the skills of Chong and Ferreira as well as Carson.
“With those two guys, this is their third year of starting together at running back,” said Andrews. “I think it’s going to be really hard to stop a backfield that has as much chemistry and experience as these guys.”
Kearny graduated 6-foot-5 Ryan Gill, the best receiver the Kardinals have had in years, but they still have experience at the position in the form of Ariel Martinez and Josh Ruiz. Both Martinez and Ruiz are able to spread the field while promising freshman Julian Franco gives Kearny a big target with a huge upside.Yasser Jalil is the tight end.
Andrews is also blessed with a group of linemen that is the biggest and deepest unit he’s ever had at Kearny. Three starters return on the offensive line with senior Steven Barreira back at left tackle and juniors Joseph Carbajal and Jayden Martinez return at the guard spots. Michael Charney, a senior who missed all of last season is at center and senior Andrew Dos Santos will be the right tackle and started some games at the position late last season.
The depth continues on the defensive side of the ball where freshman Ethan Sanchez takes one tackle spot while sophomore Brian Villatoro is the nose guard. Barreira will also see time inside, while Dos Santos, Chase Negron, Jalil and Zahir Aquino, a first-year junior will also see time on the line.
For the fourth year in a row Chong and Ferreira anchor the linebacking unit with junior Matt Ramirez starting in the middle.
Senior Tyree Hopkins, another first-year player, has emerged as the starter at cornerback opposite Ariel Martinez. Sophomore Anthony Alfieri and Ruiz are at safety.
Justin Rodriguez is the kicker, while Chong and Ferreira are the main kickoff returners.
Kearny opens the season on Friday, Sept. 9 at home against fellow Hudson County foe Memorial of West New York. The Kardinals then travel to Jersey City that following Thursday to play Ferris. Kearny will also host neighboring rival Newark East Side on Oct. 7 in what has become a bit of a rivalry in recent years.
With all the pieces to succeed finally in place, there’s another thing that surrounds the Kardinals for the first time in a long time – expectations.
“For me, the expectations are up. We gotta win some games here,” Andrews said. “The whole plan is to win games to help recruit, to help get more football in this community. You have to win to do that.
“It’s a big year for me, it’s a big year for them. Our expectations are up. We’ve worked so hard so I’m expecting really good things this year and so are they.”
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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 (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)