It’s the third year of Keeon Walker’s regime as the head football coach at Hoboken High School, the place where Walker was once an All-State superstar running back/defensive back, leading the Redwings to NJSIAA state championships in both his junior and senior years, before heading off to have a fine career at Syracuse University.
Since Walker took over the program in 2017, he has been forced to deal with his fair share of adversity, stemming from a host of injuries and illnesses, academic woes and questionable calls from officials.
The result has produced a combined 7-12 record over Walker’s first two campaigns, so totally uncharacteristic for a program that didn’t lose 12 games in a span of seven years, dating back to Walker’s underclassman days and continuing until Walker was perched as a defensive back in upstate New York.
“Good teams know how to handle adversity,” Walker said. “I think the pressure’s on me a little bit this year. We’re expected to win here. I put pressure on myself to be a better coach and do a better job. We’re Hoboken. We’re supposed to win.”
Unfortunately, the Redwings dropped their season opener last week against Lincoln, losing 16-15 on a field goal on the final play of the game.
“Every week this year, we’re facing a challenge,” Walker said. “The schedule is very competitive. We face some really good teams.”
The Redwings face Shabazz, which used to be a perennial opponent in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs. The Redwings also face state playoff regulars like Cedar Grove and Verona.
“Verona hurt us last year,” said Walker, referring to a 42-19 drubbing the Redwings received at the hands of Verona in October, 2018.
But the Redwings are blessed to have senior running back Nyjon Freeman back in uniform and contributing.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Freeman was well on his way to becoming one of the all-time great Redwing running backs, much like Walker and his buddy and former teammate Tyrell Dortch, who was an All-American during his days at Hoboken and who went on to play at Michigan State. Both Walker and Dortch are members of the Hoboken Fire Department and Dortch is an assistant coach under his close friend Walker.
Freeman had all the makings of being like Walker and Dortch, but he suffered a horrific knee injury in October of 2017, tearing both the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his knee. Freeman missed the rest of his sophomore season and missed all of last year as he rehabilitated from the knee.
But Freeman is back this season – and that’s an absolute gift from the heavens.
“It was really emotional for everyone when Nyjon got hurt,” Walker said. “They all grew up together and when he got hurt, it was like a family member got hurt. Having him back means everything to the team. It gave the team a big lift.”
Walker believes that Freeman serves as an inspiration to the Redwings.
“He worked his tail off to get back where he is today,” Walker said. “Anyone coming back from that type of injury is amazing. Not just physically, but mentally. It says a lot to be that mentally tough to want to come back. He should help us tremendously.”
Walker said that he basically has a young team, but it’s a team that does have some experience.
“Some of them have already played two years together, so that helps,” Walker said. “We’re a young team, but we’re a mature team. At this point, they’ve pretty much seen everything. There’s a lot of talent on this team, but they need to execute.”
The Redwings will not be strictly a Delaware Wing-T offensive formation squad, like they were under the tutelage of former head coaches Ed Stinson and Lou Taglieri, who still remains an assistant coach on Walker’s staff.
Junior Jason Blanks (5-10, 165) is the Redwings’ starting quarterback. Blanks was the starting signal caller last year. He’s the son of former Redwing quarterback Jason Blanks, Sr., who was The Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year in 2002-2003.
“My only issue with him was that because he has such a strong arm, he tends to overthrow his receivers,” Walker said of Blanks. “But he’s made some adjustments and he’s learning every day. He’s a good athlete who can run as well.”
Junior Kyrin Rhone (6-2, 230) is a major talent who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, earning Hudson Reporter All-Area honors. Rhone is a massive runner with great size and speed who is already getting his fair share of college scholarship offers.
“Some schools love him a lot,” Walker said of Rhone. “I think he’s starting to realize the talent that he has. Being that big and strong and with the ability to run with it. I still don’t think he understands how good he can be. He’s a load. No one wants to tackle him. He’s bottom heavy with strong legs. You don’t want to hit him low. It’s a very tough task to tackle him.”
Freeman is going to help Rhone be even more dangerous this year.
“We have him like he’s on a pitch count, getting 12-to-15 touches until he’s ready for more,” Walker said. “As he gets stronger, that number will go up.”
Even after the gruesome knee injury, colleges are also interested in Freeman.
“He’s been contacted by a number of schools,” Walker said. “They all know who he is.”
Also in the Redwings’ backfield is junior Anthony Henriquez (5-8, 220). He’s the son of former Redwing standout Anthony Henriquez, Sr., who is also on the current Redwing staff. The elder Henriquez had a sensational college career at Kent State in the early 2000s.
The elder Henriquez is also the father of former Hoboken standout athletes Jaeda and Alicea Henriquez, who are now soccer and softball players at Goldey Beacom College in Delaware.
“He’s a very good blocker,” Walker said of Henriquez. “He’s a good runner who is going to get his share of yards. He just crushes people. He has the same mentality as his father.”
Sophomore Jason Jeannot (5-9, 175) is another talented running back in the Redwing backfield.
“He’s very versatile,” Walker said. “He can play wide receiver or running back. He’s our slasher. He started some games as a freshman last year. He catches the ball well and runs well. He’s a threat.”
The wide receivers are seniors Damon Murray (6-2, 185) and Jihad McCall (6-2, 190).
The tight end is junior Joey Gonzalez (6-2, 240).
The offensive line features three returning starters in junior tackle Steven Hampton (5-10, 255), senior guard Ali Mendoza (6-1, 260) and junior guard Ezire King (6-0, 255). Senior tackle Rodney Classen (6-0, 250) never played football before, but has joined the squad this season. Junior center Tyrese McClain (6-0, 300) is a tough customer to deal with on the ball.
“We have good experience and size in our line,” Walker said.
Defensively, the Redwings utilize a 3-4 alignment, with McClain on the nose and Mendoza and Hampton at defensive tackle.
One outside linebacker is sophomore Avante Vargas (6-1, 205), who Walker believes is going to be an excellent football player.
“He was actually going to be another running back,” Walker said. “But he got hurt in a scrimmage last year. We put him at linebacker and he just got his game going.”
Classen is the other outside linebacker, with Henriquez and Rhone standouts at inside linebacker.
Murray and sophomore Alfredo Gonzalez (5-9, 170) are the cornerbacks with McCall and Jeannot at safety.
Needless to say, the talent is there for a great runner in the Mile Square City, a town where Friday Night Lights became a staple of gridiron excellence.
“I think we have a chance to be pretty decent,” Walker said.
He couldn’t really say that the last two years, but he can now.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com (this week, Jim looks into the New York Giants’ messy situation) and you can follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.