Making hard choices has helped lift Kean back into contention

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Rob Meade has a attitude that made him both ideal to be moved from quarterback to linebacker, and made him willing to accept a move for his senior season.
Kean athletics photo 

Between 2006 and 2012, Kean coach Dan Garrett had led the Cougars to the program’s greatest period of sustained success. A New Jersey Athletic Conference championship and playoff victory in 2011. Three trips to ECAC bowl games and two wins. No losing seasons.

But in 2012 and 2014 the program took a step backwards. After a pair of 2-8 seasons, doubt had crept back into the program. Sure they were competitive, no one on their schedule aside from Mary Hardin-Baylor had really wiped them out. But losing takes a toll.

“When you’re not winning you hear it all,” Garrett said. “I learned to develop a thick skin. It’s even harder to swallow because you’re so close.”

And sometimes you can get the greatest prospective by going home.

Nine-year old Shane Garrett could see the hurt in his hard-working father after he came home from another tough loss while waiting for a hug.

“He told me, ‘Dad, it’s okay, stay committed to your convictions and believe in your program.’ ”

“Holy cow, my wife’s doing a great job raising this kid,” Garrett joked.

All head coaches do a postseason autopsy on their teams. Garrett’s revealed a change in locker room culture was needed. The coaching staff needed to win the players and focus on getting more buy-in. He also knew he had a fairly young and talented team returning that could be responsive to change.

“We spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about leadership and how to handle yourself,” Garrett said. “It was more about team and the chemistry and synergy that’s needed to have a chance at success.”

So far in 2015, the change in locker room culture has paid off. Kean has won four of its first five games heading into this Saturday’s game at fourth-ranked Wesley.

The Cougars are all in.

“It really started from the first day of the offseason and continued through spring practice and into the preseason. This team has just bought into what I call our Kool-Aid. When a coach can get the players to buy in and trust them, the players just worry about playing and performing. We have a great group of guys that are doing that right now.”

One of the tweaks, Garrett felt he needed to make was at quarterback. Senior Rob Meade returned after getting most of the snaps the past couple seasons but junior Tyler Rodriguez had been productive too. Sophomore Charles App was also in the mix.

Head coaches are paid to make hard choices. Garrett decided to go with Rodriguez. He would ask the 6-foot-3, 240 pound Meade to move to linebacker for his senior season.

“It was probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make,” Garrett said. “When you talk to a young man, you have to be the one to look him in the eye and say thank you for everything you’ve done at quarterback. We’re going to move you to defense.”

But Garrett had another motivation too. He knew Meade would bolster his defense. His defensive coaches had joked during a staff meeting when he first arrived at Kean a few years ago that they should make him a linebacker. Meade had been at Division II Lock Haven on scholarship. He started three games before breaking his kneecap and then dropped out of school for a couple of years to work and help his family. While at quarterback, Meade also showed a love of contact. He modeled his game after Tim Tebow by running over defenders instead of around them.

“I really love contact,” Meade said. “I’d rather run over somebody than throw a deep ball for a touchdown.”

But getting a senior leader to change positions? That would test Garrett’s mission of getting more buy-in from his players right away. But Meade accepted the change and continued to lead by example by working hard every day.

“It wasn’t about my personal feelings,” Meade said. “It was about what I could do to help the team. The best thing for me to do was make the switch and keep working hard and not let the kids see that it bothered me a little bit. The last two years, if you compare them to this year, it’s a completely different atmosphere.”

Though he admits as a competitor his first reaction was to fight it out for his position, his trust in Garrett and the coaching staff has paid off. He currently leads the team in tackles (45). The unit has played solidly allowing just 287 yards a game, respectable in an age of high octane offenses.

“If this guy had been touted as a linebacker back in high school, I truly believe that’s he’s playing somewhere at a big-time Division I level.” Garrett said of the native of Colonia, N.J. “He physical, athletic and can run with receivers. He made me look good for making the move. People probably thought I was crazy at the time.”

When you are a team’s starting quarterback and most visible player, there is a certain level of pressure and expectation. Meade has found the transition to linebacker a bit freeing.

“Switching to linebacker has allowed me to loosen up, play football and not worry as much,” Meade added. “It came pretty naturally. I’m just fine tuning everything now.”

And the knowledge of offense that he learned as a quarterback has helped him with formation recognition and making checks.

“I thought it would be hard, but it was exactly pretty easy,” said Meade, who wants to join the Marine Corps and go to Officer Candidate School when he graduates. “I know what to look for.”

Coming off their most complete performance of the season in last Saturday’s 35-10 victory over Christopher Newport, the Cougars will face their biggest challenge of the season thus far against Wesley. In 2011, a 31-28 upset of the Wolverines gave the Cougars the confidence that spurred a run to a conference title and trip to the playoffs.

“In your backyard growing up you always dream about playing one of the best teams in the nation,” Meade said. “I am happy and excited to play in this game.”

Meanwhile, Rodriguez broke his hand in a win over William Paterson and is out for the season, but App has stepped ably into the starting role at quarterback. The sophomore was 14-of-22 for 202 yards and a touchdown against CNU after making his first start in the Cougar’ lone loss at Frostburg. Poor special teams played a larger role in the loss than problems on either offense or defense.

Running back Damian Corredor has carried the run game by averaging 122 yards a game, while tight end Jonathan Schmitt is a match up problem for any defense.

But even if the Cougars can’t repeat history and upset the Wolverines on Saturday, football is fun again at Kean and headed back in the right direction. Sometimes it’s not always about the end result.

“It’s really enjoyable again,” Garrett said. “It’s not even really about the wins right now. It’s about being around a special group of guys who bought in since the very first day. I’m more excited about that feeling than the wins. When you have that feeling that’s wins typically happen.”

Top 25

Wesley (5-0, 4-0 NJAC) moved up one spot to No. 4 after defeating TCNJ 45-14 and UW-Whitewater’s loss to UW-Oshkosh. The Wolverines trailed 7-0 and 14-7, before a 28-point second quarter. Joe Callahan passed for 367 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another.

Albright (5-0, 4-0 MAC) debuted in the poll at No. 21 after scoring a season-high 62 points in a trouncing of Wilkes. Mike Knight completed 13 of 16 passes for 197 yards, while rushing for 89 and two touchdowns to lead a Lion offense that rolled up 593 yards.

Withler Marcelin had 190 yards and three touchdowns but Rowan (4-1, 3-1 NJAC) dropped eight spots to No. 22 by falling to Salisbury 31-28. The Sea Gulls (3-1, 3-0 NJAC) enter the poll for the first time this season at No. 23. They’ve won three straight since dropping their opener on the road to Albright.

Ithaca (4-1, 2-1 E8) is back in the poll at No. 24 after defeating Hartwick 47-19. After trailing early, the Bombers limited the Hawks to minus-19 rushing yards in large part due to nine sacks. Wolfgang Shafer passed for 297 yards and three touchdowns.

Cortland State (5-1, 3-1 E8) and Hobart (4-2, 2-1 LL) both dropped out after losing on Saturday. The Red Dragons fell to Buffalo State 29-21, while the Statesmen gave up 35 second half points to Springfield to fall 35-13. Each is still receiving votes.

St Lawrence (5-1, 3-0 LL) is the lone remaining team in the Liberty League without a conference loss after beating RPI 24-21. The Saints, who led 24-0, received four votes. Utica (4-2, 3-1 E8) is also getting four votes.

Trending Up

Montclair State. The Red Hawks (2-3, 2-2) have won two straight in impressive fashion after opening the season 0-3. After averaging 16 points in their three losses, Montclair has exploded for 109 points the past two weeks and allowed just seven.

Frostburg State. The Bobcats (4-1, 3-1) won their third straight and have equaled their win total from last season by beating William Paterson 37-19. This week against winless, but scrappy, TCNJ is their best chance to secure their first .500 season since 2005. They end the season against Christopher Newport, Rowan, Montclair and Salisbury.

Buffalo State. The Bengals (3-2, 2-2 E8) won their second straight by knocking off nationally ranked Cortland State 29-21. They came back from a 21-9 halftime deficit to shut out a Dragons’ offense that had been averaging over 40 points in the second half. They registered six sacks and allowed just 34 yards rushing.

Delaware Valley. The Aggies (5-1, 4-1 MAC) forced a turnover and scored with 43 seconds left to defeat previously unbeaten Stevenson. With four straight victories since a puzzling loss to Wilkes in Week 2, Delaware Valley now has two weeks to prepare for current MAC leader Albright.

Lebanon Valley. The Dutch (3-3, 3-2) have scored 97 points in winning their last two games and climbed back to the .500 mark. Brendon Irving ranks seventh in the country in rushing (816 yards). They did win the MAC in 2013 with two conferences losses, and sure they’d need a lot of help, but they do have Albright and Delaware Valley still left on the schedule.

Utica. Moose on the Loose. The Pioneers (4-2, 3-1) played their third straight overtime game and won their second straight by topping Brockport State 22-19 on the road Saturday.

Springfield. The Pride (4-2, 2-1 LL) announced their entrance into the Liberty League with a dominating second half against Hobart.

Games to Watch

Rochester (4-1, 2-1 LL) at RPI (4-2, 2-1 LL) at St. Lawrence (4-1, 2-0 LL). One team stays in the hunt for the Liberty League championship, they loser is probably out of contention. This conference looks like it’s up for grabs for the first time in half a decade.

The Empire 8. Brockport at Ithaca, Alfred at Cortland State and Utica at St John Fisher. All of these teams still have a shot at the conference championship. Enjoy.

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Jason Bowen

Jason Bowen has 10 years of Division III coaching experience at Wesley, where he was also the Sports Information Director. He currently provides color analysis on broadcasts of Wesley games on WDEL Radio 1150AM and has served as a staff and freelance writer for the Delaware State News in Dover. He has been a contributor for D3football.com since 2006. By day he teaches high school biology. He is a 1992 graduate of and three-year letter winner at linebacker for Mansfield (Pa.) University.

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