By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When you are growing tomatoes, you have to have patience. You can’t plant them and a week later expect to have ripe, red slices that are worthy of topping a monster bacon cheeseburger. If you’re willing to wait a little bit, however, the payoff is delicious.
Reggie Jean-Charles was born with the talent to be an outstanding running back, but it took a while for that talent to shine through on the area high school football scene. But when it did, man, was he fun to watch.
Jean-Charles, a senior, transferred to Holy Spirit from Absegami as a sophomore, but an injury wiped out much of that season. Last year, Jean-Charles finally got the chance to be the featured back under first-year coach A.J. Russo, and all he did was rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first full year as a varsity starter.
Buoyed by the taste of success he got last season, Jean-Charles hit the weight room like a man possessed this past winter. The 6-footer packed on 25 pounds — bulking up to 210 from 185 — but still kept the speed that makes him a special back. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, benches 335 pounds and squats 515 pounds, according to nscasports.org, a recruiting website.
“He’s a great player, and a great leader as well. He’s definitely going to be a playmaker for us this year. He’ll help us move the ball on offense, which is something we struggled with a few times last year. But this year, I think we’re starting to put it together offensively,” said junior quarterback Mike Costabile. “He’s definitely been real good with working hard. He’s always the first guy in the weight room and he’s always lifting the most. He works hard, day in and day out.”
Holy Spirit is used to having outstanding running backs. In recent years, guys such as A.J. Dawson, Franco Rifici and Nigel Jones have led the Spartans to outstanding seasons. Jean-Charles said he hopes he’s the next in line to have his name chanted by adoring fans in the stands.
“I just want to play to the best of my ability. We’re looking for an intense season. We have 16 returning starters, so it can only get better from last year. That makes everything go faster,” Jean-Charles, a Galloway resident, said. “Last year, we changed the offense from the double wing to the pistol, and that set us back a little bit learning the new offense, but now we’re comfortable with this offense. I think we can do great things this year.”
“He worked really hard in the offseason. He was one of the leaders in the weight room from December through June. He put on a lot of weight, got a lot stronger but still kept his speed. So we’re looking for some big things from him this season,” Russo said. “He’s definitely put the work in. He’s a great kid in this school, he does great academically, and his effort in the classroom and the weight room is unmatched. So, we’re very happy to have him be a part of Holy Spirit High School, and, obviously, be a part of this football program.”
Russo had planned to run the double wing offense, but quickly scrapped that idea and went to the pistol, which allows Jean-Charles to get a nice running start from the backfield into the line. Jean-Charles is a punishing downhill runner, and the offense the Spartans run now suits his talents. Still, both Jean-Charles and Russo believe there is plenty more to come and that Jean-Charles is just beginning to scratch the surface of what he is capable of.
“We knew it was going to be harder last year because we had a new coaching staff, but this year we’re a lot more comfortable with each other. It’s a process. There’s a lot more in me that I can do. After football season, I went to (Ryan) Ojeda, the sports performance guy, and he taught me a lot about keeping my weight up, what to eat and what not to eat, so that helped a lot for me to gain some weight and keep it on throughout (summer) camp,” Jean-Charles said. “I felt like I could have done much better than I played last year.”
Jean-Charles showed what kind of athlete he is during the wrestling season. He had planned on not wrestling in order to concentrate on building his body up for his senior football season. But the Spartans needed some help in the upper weights for the playoff run, and coach Ralph Paolone and some of the Holy Spirit wrestlers convinced Jean-Charles to come out and wrestle for a few weeks. During the Non-Public B South championship, Jean-Charles came up with a huge win at heavyweight despite giving away 85 pounds to his opponent, and helped the Spartans beat Holy Cross for the school’s first wrestling sectional championship. He then went straight back to football workouts, foregoing an opportunity to wrestle in individual districts.
“I wanted to wrestle, I just couldn’t because I needed to get my weight up to a certain point. But coach (Paolone) said they needed me, so I tried to help them out as best I could,” Jean-Charles said. “(My opponent) was a big boy. I definitely couldn’t use the moves that I like to. But it felt great that I was a part of it.”
“He gives an example for other kids to follow. The best thing about Reggie is that he hasn’t reached his full potential. He knows there are things that he can fix to get better, and he continues to work on those things,” Russo said. “He hasn’t reached his plateau. He’s only going to get better. Last year was a learning experience for him, so this year we hope to see the improvement in game situations.”
With Jean-Charles running the ball the way he has in preseason, the Spartans have reason to be optimistic. They also have 16 players returning with varsity experience, including fellow running back and linebacker Justin Figueroa, and a star-in-the-making in freshman tailback Elijah Gray.
“Him and Justin, they are both explosive, both diving for every yard. They have been working too hard for it not to be a big year for both of them. When I can turn around and hand the ball off to them, and rely on them, it opens everything up,” Costabile said. “When (defenses) come down to stop the run, throws open up for me. And Elijah has come in as a freshman and is doing really well. With Reggie and Fig in front of him, he’s learning a lot. They all motivate each other and they work hard every day trying to make each other better. They never complain about who is getting more carries.”
“Our offensive scheme allows us to do multiple things. I’d love to hand the ball off to him 30 times per game, but at the high school level, unless you are that dominant of a team, you really have to mix things up a little bit,” Russo said. “Behind Reggie we have a good stable of running backs in Justin Figueroa, who is a senior, Ralph Bright, who is a junior who played a little bit last year and Elijah Gray, who is a freshman. We like to keep a rotation going to keep guys fresh. With Reggie as a leader and those guys behind him as a change of pace, that will be a good thing for us.”
Despite his physical attributes, Russo said that Jean-Charles lacked confidence at times last year. Which is hard to believe considering his combination of size, strength and speed.
“Last year, of the 11 starters on offense, only two of them had any experience. One of the things we asked Reggie to work on was his confidence. You look at him, and his physical attributes are unbelievable. But with his confidence now, you’ll see an improvement with him on the field. And that goes for our whole team, as well. Last year, we weren’t a confident team. We were kind of on our heels a little bit. But this year, with last year’s growing pains, we hope we’ll be a more experienced team,” Russo said. “Reggie has the body type of a man, but he’s still a young kid, and with no experience at the varsity level (prior to last year) he had to grow into what he is. And you have to remember, too — and Reggie will be the first one to tell you this — without an offensive line blocking in front of you, you can be an Adonis and not get yards. The offensive line is going to be the key to this.”
“Last year was the first year with these coaches and we were just getting to know each other. This will be my second year playing varsity, so I’m much more confident in myself and more comfortable,” Jean-Charles said. “Last year, at one point, my confidence was low and coach Russo talked to me about keeping my confidence up.”
Jean-Charles is a favorite among his teammates, and Russo said the offensive linemen love blocking for him because they know on every carry he’s going to keep his legs churning for every extra yard.
“The linemen know he is a good kid. But that’s the great thing about Holy Spirit High School, they are all good kids. And they want to do things for each other. They want to support their teammates and they’ve bonded really well, so I think that bodes well for us,” Russo said. “He’s done some very good things in some of our scrimmages, so I think if he continues to build on that we will be saying this kid is a very good running back. It’s a work in progress, so he has to continue to improve. He’s solid right now, and I think he’s going to keep getting better. He’s explosive, and that’s where his confidence comes in. He has to know that he has that and that when he hits the hole no one is going to want to tackle him if he’s running hard. He’s a big kid and a fast kid. When he reads the blocks and hits the right hole, watch out.”
A more confident Jean-Charles could spell disaster for some of the teams on Holy Spirit’s schedule. Just ask Costabile, who saw his teammate pull off an impressive run during a recent scrimmage against Absegami.
“He’s a quiet kid because he’s very respectful of the public image of the school. But in the locker room, he’s a funny kid. He’s actually one of the most outgoing kids, and definitely one of the best leaders. He’s quiet until you get to know him,” Costabile said. “His speed and his size are impressive. He runs a 4.5, and when he put on all that weight, it’s all muscle. When he gets going, it’s all downhill and he runs hard. He’s a tough guy to bring down.
“I saw him get hit by four or five kids (against Absegami) and I turned around and was looking for the next play. I hear everybody start screaming and I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ Then I saw Reggie running down the sideline and going in for a touchdown. I was like, ‘how did he just do that?’”
Added Russo, “Reggie has the potential to be as good as some of the guys we’ve had in the past. We’re hoping that in the first few games that he takes the ball, runs with it and does a fantastic job. If he does that and the offensive line does the job, combined with our defense, I think we’ll be a very successful team.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN