Gus Ornstein is excited. Augie Tieri’s voice was raspy at best. The second-year head football coach at John F. Kennedy High School just interrupted an interview for about 10 seconds while he barked instructions at his players. When he returned, his voice was just above a whisper.
“This is what happens when you have a younger team,” Tieri said, with a laugh. “I have no voice left from these guys.”
Yes, Kennedy is a little on the younger side these days after graduating such program stalwarts as quarterback P.J. Franklyn, stud running back and linebacker Chizrum Umunakwe, and stellar linebacker Tyreek Noble. They were a trio who played a huge part in leading the Knights to a 6-3 record and a berth in the Public School Athletic League quarterfinals last season.
They have all graduated, however, which explains Tieri’s Janis Joplin-like voice these days. But when pressed to talk about his team, it seems there are more than a few reasons why Tieri’s voice should return to normal once the 2017 regular season finally kicks off next weekend.
“We definitely have a younger team than we had last year, but I’m very confident in the young talent we have because a lot of them started on varsity last year,” Tieri said. “So even though we have a young team, they have experience. They were part of the winning culture of last season, and I feel like that has definitely trickled over to this season.”
The loss of Franklyn doesn’t seem to faze Tieri as much as one might think as he gushed about his new signal caller for this season.
“I definitely have an heir apparent for P.J. in Joshua Rivera,” Tieri said. “He’s a kid we’ve been grooming on J.V. for the past two years, and he’s a really talented quarterback. His pocket presence and his ability to throw the football, he’s definitely more of a pure passer than P.J. was. P.J. We’re definitely tailoring the offense to his skill set, so we will be passing more this season.”
Kennedy has long since been a run-first team and had a gem in the backfield last season in Mario Agyen. But Agyen moved to New Jersey and left the Knights in a lurch, that is until Tieri discovered he had three talented running backs on his roster who really caught his eye in camp.
“We have what we’re calling a three-headed monster in our backfield now,” Tieri said of Jahmeal Martin, Isaiah Miller and Jayquan Wright — all who bring in their own unique running styles.
“Jahmeal is kind of quick and shifty, a lot like Mario was, kind of a jack of all trades,” TIeri said. “Isaiah is more of a pure bruiser. He has a very physical style of running and is very fast for his size. He’s a very well-built kid who weighs about 225 pounds. And Jayquan is a pure slasher, he’s a very shifty running back.”
Last season Kennedy depended on Agyen to provide the bulk of the rushing yards, but this season the onus won’t be on just one player to pile up the yards. Sort of a silver lining in Agyen’s departure.
“I feel by Mario leaving, it opened up some doors for me to kind of focus on some other talent,” Tieri said.
“So now instead of putting all our eggs in one basket with him, we now have such a diverse skill set back there that it’s going to help us that much more.”
Replacing Umunakwe might prove more difficult as he was the fire that kept the rest of the team burning, both on offense and defense. But there are some solid returners on defense who Tieri thinks will eventually fill Umunakwe’s rather large cleats.
“Chiz is irreplaceable,” Tieri said. “He brought tremendous leadership, but defensively we retained a lot of our starters from last year. One of them is Jeremy Hernandez, who is a junior middle linebacker and one of our captains. He started for us all year last year as a sophomore, and was a real physical presence for us.”
Tieri also is returning another linebacker, Quentin Flowers, who Tieri admits is a tremendous leader and player.
With a restocked backfield, a promising quarterback, and enough talent back on defense, Tieri thinks the makings are there for another deep run in the PSAL playoffs this season — and maybe even for seasons to come.
“I would say we’re definitely as good as last year,” Tieri said. “I definitely think we can repeat what we did last year and potentially be better. Like I said, this is a very young team, so whatever we achieve this year is house money and we’ll really be built to win going into the future. We can win and be very successful this year but with all these guys coming back the following year, the sky’s the limit.”