WEST LONG BRANCH – After taking the field at Kessler Stadium with his teammates for the first time Monday as Monmouth opened spring practice, graduate transfer quarterback Marquez McCray had no problem summarizing why he was there.
“We have similar goals,” the Philadelphia native said. “They want to win a conference championship in the CAA and go to the FCS Playoffs, and I’ve been able to do that a few times in a very competitive conference, so we’re all just trying to get to the highest level.”
In McCray’s case, there was his 29-yard TD in overtime to former Manalapan star Nasaim Brantley to win the Northeast Conference title and put Sacred Heart in the playoffs during the 2021 spring season, before leading them back to the postseason that fall. And while the Pioneers didn’t make it last year, McCray’s highlight reel included a win over No. 15 Dartmouth and a 400-yard passing effort in another game.
Because after losing All-American quarterback Tony Muskett, who transferred to Virginia where he is likely to be the Cavaliers’ starter this season, finding an experienced quarterback to join sophomore Enzo Arjona, who started the final three games last season when Muskett hurt his knee, was imperative.
“Marquez is a guy who had a lot of success at Sacred Heart,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said. “He knows what it takes to win, and that’s a good thing. Losing Tony was tough, but you have to turn the page and move on and start building for the next season, just like he’s doing at Virginia.”
Big shoes to fill
There are some big shoes to fill at the position. Muskett, who threw for 5,687 yards and 51 TDs in 23 career games, took over from Kenji Bahar, who rewrote the program’s passing record book, won a playoff game and is currently with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers.
McCray, 6-2, 200, threw for 1,973 yards last season, with eight TD passes and four interceptions, but is a pure pocket passer who absorbed 31 sacks and found himself under a lot of pressure in 2022. For his career, he’s completed 63 percent of his passes for 5,002 yards and 26 TDs.
Whoever’s under center for the Sept. 2 season-opener against Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Florida – Callahan makes clear it’s a competition between McCray and Arjona, the former Northern Highlands star – will have the luxury of being surrounded by a lot of talent.
Junior running back Jaden Shirden was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the FCS’s top offensive performer, after leading the nation in rushing, piling up 1,722 yards in 11 games. Dymere Miller is one of the CAA’s most dynamic receivers, while the offensive line is expected to be solid after gaining experience a year ago.
“I have been blessed to play with some great running back in my time. I played with D’Andre Swift in high school and Julius Chestnut at Sacred Heart, both NFL guys, and Jaden Shirden is a great player, so it takes some of the pressure of the quarterback,” McCray said. “They have some season vets on the line and talented receivers, and they know how to score points.”
Let the competition begin, with the Hawks, who started fast last season but eventually missed the postseason for the second straight year.
“Enzo played three games last year as a freshman, but there are a lot of things he can do to improve and now he understands there’s a veteran guy coming in who is used to being the guy,” Callahan said. “I think the two of them have a great relationship. They understand the situation. They’re going to have to come out there and compete and the best guy is going to play.”
Next level success
The Hawks are well represented in professional football this spring, with six former Hawks set to take the field.
In addition to Bahar, in his second season with the Gamblers, two other former Monmouth players are in the USFL, with record-setting running back Pete Guerriero and punter Matt White with the New Orleans Breakers.
The Hawks also have three guys in the Canadian Football League in receiver Reggie White with Montreal, wide receiver Lonnie Moore with Toronto and linebacker Dejaun Cooper with Winnipeg.