With the weight room and locker rooms at Nutley High School undergoing significant renovations this summer, the Maroon Raiders football team simply shrugged their shoulders and took the strength and conditioning program outside.
With weight machines under a tent behind the home sidelines at Tangora Field and several workstations on the field itself, all of Nutley’s sports teams made the most out of the unorthodox situation with at times over 100 athletes working at one time in what suddenly became perhaps the state’s only outdoor gym.
“It was something I think they all really enjoyed. It was actually really tremendous. It was great to see the kids come together like that,” head coach Chris Helm said. “That was the only adversity the kids had to overcome, not having a weight room to train in this summer, but we made it work.”
Over the course of their high school careers, these players have dealt with more than their fair share of adversity – most notably rare instability at the head coaching position as Helm becomes the program’s fourth head coach in four seasons.
Helm, who graduated from Nutley and spent two different stints as an assistant coach on staff, feels there hasn’t been a major adjustment period with the latest change.
“It’s a Nutley thing,” said Helm, who served as the offensive coordinator under acting head coach and longtime athletic director Joe Piro when Nutley went 6-3. “People say it all the time, but as a Nutley graduate, Nutley kids are Nutley kids. Nutley people are Nutley people and it’s a special place.”
Helm brought back with him a multiple set offense that he learned during his time at Wayne Valley under longtime head coach Roger Kotlarz. It’s a scheme that, while flexible, expects to gear more towards the passing game this year thanks to a strong group of receivers and one of Essex County’s most promising quarterbacks in Clark Mohrbutter.
Mohrbutter, a 6-1, 185 pound junior, saw extensive action last season. Thanks to his big arm, a year of experience under his belt and increased agility after playing lacrosse this spring. Mohrbutter appears primed for a breakout season.
“He’s got great arm strength and I think the kids know that,” said Helm. “You can see that they’re trusting him to be able to make plays. He has a big time arm, he can make throws on the run.”
Mohrbutter is sure to rely on senior Joe Volpe in the passing game. The 5-6, 160 pound Volpe moves from the slot to the outside, but should be a playmaker wherever he lines up.
“He’s not very big, but he runs great routes,” Helm said. “He finds a way to get open. His hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
Multi-sport standout Erik Thompson (6-3, 180), who joined the team late last season as a kicker is thriving in his first year as a flex tight end. Another newcomer is sophomore Jalyn Caraballo, a transfer from Paramus Catholic with a big upside. Jordan Small, best known as the leading scorer on last year’s basketball team is also out there for the first time for football.
Senior Sean McAloon takes over as the primary ball-carrier at running back and is a powerful runner. Tommy Devlin, a converted guard, is the starting fullback, while Antonio Bonassisa and freshman Aidan Rotbaum could also see carries in the backfield.
Junior right guard Damiano Farro is the lone returning starter on what is a young offensive line. Lucas Serritella, the lone senior of the quintet, is at right tackle. On the left side, junior Justin Bido is at tackle and Gerald Russo is at guard. Sophomore Sean Vilchez is likely to be at center.
The secondary should be the strength of the Raiders’ defense with Nate Arroyo and Volpe both returning starters at cornerback. Bonassisa and Small are the safeties, with Small growing into a potential safety/linebacker hybrid role.
“Jordan’s a super athlete and just has been phenomenal,” said Helm. “He’s reading his keys, getting to where he’s supposed to be, doing all the little things correctly. We’re very high on him.”
Thompson and Caraballo are other defensive backs vying for time on defense.
McAloon has starting experience at linebacker, an area that will also count on Devlin, Farro and sophomore Tyler Vonroth.
Bido, Serritella and Jayden Velez form a nice rotation at defensive tackle, with Russo serving as the veteran presence on the edge and senior Rocco DeLitta providing added depth on the line.
Nutley kicks off the season on Friday, August 25 at 11 a.m. when it faces West Milford in the first game of the Jim Grasso Classic that will be played at Westwood High School.
The Raiders follow it up with road games at rivals Bloomfield and Montclair before its home opener against Millburn on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Despite its overall lack of experience, Helm sees a team that could surprise this season.
“Everybody seems to be playing for each other. They’re super-coachable, everybody’s doing what we ask of them, they really are buying in. If we stay healthy and continue to do things the right way and continue to get better each day, I think that we could shock some people.”
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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.)