By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Chuck Smith cut his teeth under legendary Mainland Regional coach Bob Coffey years ago. So if there were any Mustangs players who came into this year’s training camp thinking there would be a let-up in the tough, disciplinary style they had been used to — they were mistaken.
Smith, who coached at Oakcrest the past half dozen years and led the Falcons to a couple of South Jersey Group 3 playoff appearances, takes over for Coffey, who stepped down at the end of last season, closing out a 30-year career at Mainland. He brings the same type of intensity that Coffey did, and has about the same patience for nonsense that might distract from winning football games.
Following a walk-through Friday evening in preparation for a Saturday scrimmage against defending sectional champion Delsea Regional, coach Smith made it crystal clear that if there was any moping around or lack of hustle by any of the players, he’d have a spot reserved for them on the bench.
“We’re just concentrating on working hard, getting the offense right, getting the defense right, and figuring out a couple of positions where there are question marks,” said senior two-way lineman Jack Bergman.
One of the biggest question marks Smith faces in his first season as skipper of the Mustangs is who he’s going to put under center. There are several players vying to replace Sam Jackson, who led the team as quarterback for several seasons before graduating this past spring. Mainland likely will rely heavily on the running game, especially early on, but it has some good backs with guys such as Tahir Campbell and Kobe Roberts.
The offensive line also has some holes to plug following graduation, but will be manned by Bergman, Matt Epstein — who is an honors student and one of the top 20 students in his senior class — and perhaps even Dalton Raring, another senior. Raring is a starting linebacker, but may have to fill in on the offensive line until Smith and his staff can develop some depth.
“One main thing is positivity. We’re up-tempo and the intensity is there. We’re starting to come together as a unit, one big team and one big family,” Epstein said. “We graduated (some linemen) from last year. We’ve started off kind of slowly, but they threw everything at us at once and we’re starting to get it. We’re starting to mesh, and I think we’re really starting to get there.”
“It’s up-tempo. Everybody is excited and flying around. We think we’re going to have a really good shot to be good this year,” said Bergman, whose twin brother, Teddy, is one of the best defensive backs in the area. “We’re still learning the signs for the offense, and that’s been the hardest part. But once we get that down, we’re all in great shape and we’ve spent a lot of time on conditioning, so we’ll be flying around with an up-tempo offense. It should be fun.”
A few years ago, Mainland won an Under Armour challenge and received brand new uniforms that featured black with hunter green trim. But Smith, who has been teaching at the school since the late 1980s and spent the bulk of his coaching career in kelly green, has gone back to a more traditional look. Gone is the black and hunter green, replaced by kelly green with white helmets. The players seem to like the new threads and headgear.
“I remember when I was a kid and watching the old Mainland, with the kelly green uniforms. That 2008 team, I always looked up to them and now we are those guys who kids in the stands are looking up to. It’s exciting,” Bergman said.
There still is some time left in training camp, but Bergman and Epstein said they are ready to lace ’em up and start trading some helmet paint with St. Joseph. It won’t be an easy season opener for the Mustangs, who enter into the West Jersey Football League’s Independence Division, which also features Cedar Creek, Oakcrest, Absegami and Ocean City. Mainland also must face teams such as Bridgeton, Vineland and Egg Harbor Township in non-divisional games.
“Myself, Matt Epstein and Dalton Raring are the captains, so we have to set the example every single day of working hard and coming out strong, no moping around and no doing anything that’s negative toward the team,” Bergman said. “We have to come out and play hard every day, have a positive attitude and keep everybody upbeat.”
“I was ready from Day One to start hitting. The intensity is there, we just have to play hard and stay aggressive, and that’s what we’re starting to do,” Epstein said. “It’s not easy, but we know we have to put in the time and the effort. Once the fundamentals are there, we’ll continue in our progress and we’ll get a lot better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays