The Next Wave: 2022 Donovan Catholic High School Football Preview
Coaches rarely use the word “rebuilding” when talking about a new season because it’s an acknowledgment that they’ve lost most of their top players and people should not expect the success they recently had.
However, those of us in the media can use it when appropriate so let me say that Donovan Catholic does face a massive rebuild in 2022 simply because of the players they lost due to graduation. Gone are six Shore Sports Network First Team All-Shore selections in quarterback Jalin Butler, running back Nunes Bukula, wide receiver Kyree Drake, tight end/defensive end Levi Wilkins, offensive lineman Caron McNair, and linebacker Nat Ianello. Add in another five players who earned second- or third-team honors and you are talking about 11 All-Shore players.
The last person who will moan and groan over that is head coach Dan Curcione, who took over the Griffins program following a winless season in 2016 and has built them into a Shore Conference power.
Donovan officially went 6-5 in 2021, but on the field they went 9-2 losing only to Rumson-Fair Haven and Bergen Catholic. The Griffins had to forfeit three games for using an ineligible player which clearly tainted what was a very good season that included a win over Red Bank Catholic, who finished 11-1 and won the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship.
They remain in the American Division, which is the powerhouse group in the Shore Conference and is comprised of RBC, Rumson, Manalapan, Middletown South, and Wall. There are no easy games on the schedule but you can be sure Donovan will factor into the division race because players we have not heard of will emerge once they get some experience.
On paper, the Griffins only return two starters on offense and two on defense in sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas III, senior guard Elijah “EJ” Smith, and linebackers Dante Vernieri (Sr.) and Hunter Johnson (Jr.). Those four will be counted on to provide leadership on and off the field for a team that is loaded with underclassmen, many of whom did see a decent amount of playing time last fall.
The quarterback running the spread offense will be junior Todd Lambertson, who is very different from the graduated Butler. Lambertson is described as more of a pro-style player who has a strong arm and has shown leadership ability. He does have a very talented receiver in sophomore Michael Thomas III, a speedster who has already received offers from Penn State and West Virginia, among others. Sophomore Eric Zebrowski, freshman Emanuel Gerena, and senior Lucas Zydzik round out the rest of the receiving corps.
The Griffins had back-to-back 1,300-yard rushers in Jahdir Loftland (2020) and Nunes Bukula (2021) and the new featured running back is Najee Calhoun, who Curcione says “is not your typical freshman.” Calhoun has shown himself to be ready for the challenge in a backfield that will also see Vernieri and junior Ethan Kalinauskas get some carries.
The offensive line remains a “work in progress” with a lot of new faces. The lone returner is EJ Smith, who will line up at left guard with sophomore Louis Dibiase on the right side. The tackles are junior Adam Yevchak and either senior Tommy Meehan or freshman Kai Pritchard.
The Griffins have a bit more experience on defense as all three projected starters on the line saw action last season. Dibiase and junior Sam Rock III will line up at end with Meehan to handle the nose tackle spot in their 3-4 alignment.
The group of linebackers is solid and features Vernieri, who is among the best in the Shore. Joining him inside will be junior JJ Correa, who did start some games last season and performed well. On the outside are junior Za’eir Day, a converted lineman, and Johnson, a returning starter who rounds out what is the strength of the defense.
Senior Richard Davis and junior Roman Moyers are expected to start at cornerback with depth provided by junior Najee Morgan and sophomore Eric Zebrowski. Thomas, in addition to playing wide receiver, will start at strong safety with senior Lucas Zydzik at free safety. Elijah Davis (Soph.) and Jahmeil Brown (Jr.) will also see action at the safety spots.
First-year starter Dante Priolo (Jr.) will handle both the kicking and punting chores.
Curcione acknowledges that the schedule is challenging but said the Griffins look forward to it. Ironically it was only a couple of years ago that many felt Donovan had a soft schedule because of the division they were in. Clearly, that’s not the case any longer.
At a Glance
Projected starters (RS=returning starter)
QB: Todd Lambertson, Jr.; Jahmeil Brown, Jr.; Zach LaBarca, Fr.
RB: Najee Calhoun, Fr.; Ethan Kalinauskas, Jr.; Dante Vernieri, Sr.
WR: Michael Thomas III, So. RS; Eric Zebrowski, So.; Emanuel Gerena, Fr.
TE: Za’eir Day, Jr.; Hunter Johnson, Jr.
LT: Adam Yevchak, Jr.
LG: EJ Smith, Sr., RS
C: Chris Poskay, Jr.; Colin Keating, So.
RG: Louis DiBiase, So.
RT: Tommy Meehan, Sr; Kai Pritchard, Fr.
DE: Louis DiBiase, So.; Daniel Herald, So.
NG: Tommy Meehan, Sr.; Adam Yevchak, Jr.; EJ Smith, Sr.
DE: Sam Rock III, Jr.; Kai Pritchard, Fr.
ILB: JJ Correa, Jr.; Joe Czerwinski, So.
ILB: Dante Vernieri, Sr., RS
OLB: Za’eir Day, Jr.; Ethan Kalinauskas, Jr.
OLB: Hunter Johnson, Jr. RS; Teague Hibbard, So.
CB: Richard Davis, Sr.; Najee Morgan, Jr.
CB: Roman Moyers, Jr.; Eric Zebrowski, So.
FS: Lucas Zydzik, Sr.; Jahmeil Brown, Jr.
SS: Michael Thomas III, So.; Elijah Davis, So.
K/P: Dante Priolo, Jr.
Head Coach: Dan Curcione, 6th year (33-17)
Career record: 50-32
Team record last five years:
2021: 6-5 (9-2 on the field)
Assistant coaches: Chip LaBarca Jr. (Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator); Jack Nascimento (QB/Special Teams); Dean Helstowski (RB); Jon Power (OL); Sean McIntosh (WR); Ryan Wells (OLB); Ron Mammano (DL); Dean Helstowski, Jr.(DB); Eric Bruno (Football Operations). Freshman coaches: Charlie Dowling (HC), Vinnie DeStasio, and Jack Cluely; Mark Deppen (Strength & Conditioning); Paxton Titus (Asst. Strength & Conditioning); Athletic Trainer: Bob DeStefano.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Michael Thomas, So., WR/S
Kyree Drake caught most of the passes last season but he has graduated. The Griffins expect Thomas to fill his role as WR1. Just a sophomore, he has great speed, learns fast, and can be dynamic. Colleges are well aware of him and he already has offers from Penn State and West Virginia.
PLAYERS UNDER THE RADAR: Todd Lambertson, Jr., QB and Najee Calhoun, Fr., RB
Replacing First Team All-Shore players Jalin Butler and Nunes Bukula IV is not easy but these two will need to step up and deliver for the Griffins to be successful. Lambertson will direct the spread attack and hand off to Calhoun who while only a freshman can be something special.
X-FACTOR: Offensive Line
Only senior guard EJ Smith started and saw meaningful action last season. This group will need some time to gel although they are considered talented and hard workers. How quickly they come together will be a key this season.
RIVALRY GAME: Sept. 23 at Red Bank Catholic
The Griffins handed RBC their only loss of the season last year and these two parochial schools have built a pretty good rivalry in recent years.
Sept. 2 - vs. Lacey, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 - @Rumson-Fair Haven, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 - vs. Manalapan, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 - @Red Bank Catholic, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 - vs. St. Joseph (Montvale), 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 - vs. Wall, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 14 - @Jackson Memorial, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 - vs. Middletown South, 6:30 p.m.
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