You’re a high school football player in New Jersey and you want to play in college. But maybe your grades aren’t quite up to NCAA standards. Maybe you’re a bit small and you need time to build yourself up. Or maybe you’re a “late bloomer” or you got hurt and no one took a serious look at in you high school.
What do you do, especially if you can’t afford the prep school route for a year or two? Well, you could play junior college ball? A couple of years of JUCO at....oh, wait. No community college in New Jersey plays football. Ze-ro.
Of the nineteen community colleges - for most, county colleges - in the state, none play football. In fact, only 16 have any kind of athletic program at all, competing in the Garden State Athletic Conference.
So what? Is that a problem? For the athletes, maybe, maybe not. If they want to play football, there are other colleges nearby. Not a whole lot with football, but a few. There are six in New York State, including three in the NYC metro area (ASA College in Brooklyn, Monroe College in New Rochelle, and Nassau CC on Long Island). There’s also one in not-too-far-away Scranton, PA (Lackawanna CC. Say hi to Mike Dare if you’re nearby) and that’s about it for anything close.
By comparison, the state of California has 69 community colleges playing football, fertile ground for schools out west to farm for quick talent boosts and to plug holes. O.J. Simpson only played two years at USC; he was, though, a junior college All American at City College of San Francisco, where the Rams still play football today. And Cam Newton started out at Blinn College in Texas.
Flip that story around. What if you’re Rutgers and you see the potential in a kid but you aren’t ready to pull the trigger because of grades or skill or whatever. You can pass on him completely or...well, maybe that’s it. There’s no in-state option for a student-athlete to play at a junior college.
Well, maybe not at an actual college, but there are New Jersey football options at that level. One is new this year and it has a strong Rutgers connection.
The New Jersey Warriors, operate out of Jackson. Athletes playing for the Warriors can attend any community college in New Jersey. In fact they must. It’s the way head coach Chris Demarest wants it. If you’ve been following Rutgers for more than a couple of years, you probably remember Demarest as Greg Schiano’s secondary coach from 2004-2008. Most recently he was special teams coordinator at Hawaii for four seasons. “Demo” and Schiano actually go back together to 1989, when they were both graduate assistants at Rutgers under then-head coach Dick Anderson.
Demarest and Shawn Kennish are the operators of the team. Kennish also has a Rutgers connection as he served as Director of Football Operations for Schiano for several years.
Demarest is a Jersey guy, born and raised in Keyport. He’s been coaching and recruiting for 30 years, and he - along with Kennish - saw the need to offer something different for kids who needed more time or training or other preparation in order to play college football.
“This is a true junior college football program,” said Demarest, “where the kids in our program will have to be registered for four classes, 12 credits a semester. They're going to have to continue to make progress towards their degree. They must graduate with a minimum of 48 transferable credits. They have to have a 2.5 GPA or better. They are going to play two years of post-graduate football.”
The why of it was simple in the coach’s mind. “They're going to be bigger, faster, stronger, more mature. A better football player. And I’m looking to place them in Division 3, Division 2, Division 1AA, or Division 1. My whole goal is to help the kids in New Jersey and in particular central Jersey.”
So, has there been interest? Indeed there has. Demarest reached out to high school coaches and the reception, he said, was, “Unbelievable. I met with the Shore Conference coaches and they loved it. What I try to do is provide about a 45-minute radius drive around Jackson. I’ve attacked all the High Schools in that radius.” And it’s not only coaches that are interested in the Warrior program. “I've been contacted by kids from out of state, contacted by coaches out of that 45-minute radius because my program, just like Nassau [Community College], just like all those others (JUCOs), I do not provide housing for them. My concept was commute, stay at home, save money.”
It’s truly been a grassroots effort. When you’re creating a program like this from the ground up, you need to work hard and beat the bushes to get attention. Demarest is not shy about doing just that. “We have close to 50 kids. Mostly freshmen. This class will move on to next year and then I'll recruit another 50 behind them. Some of them have been out a year, already at Brookdale (Community College in Monmouth County), at OCC (Ocean County College). Most of my kids I say are from that 45-minute radius, majority of them from Monmouth and Ocean County, but I do have kids from Middlesex. I do have kids from Mercer, I do have kids from Burlington. What I've done is go out to the high schools -- multiple times. I met with kids in school and I told them about our website. Find out about me, find out about our program. Then if you like it, fill out the questionnaire. We’ll build a relationship and continue to build a program.” About 85 did fill out the questionnaire and Demarest was able to whittle that down to 50. And they showed up for uniform fittings - without a reminder. Practice starts August 1 and he expects they’ll all be there.
But you don’t do something like this on a whim. What drives a guy who has coached at every level to go this route? “This is myself and Shawn Kennish. We have gotten together to figure how to help kids from New Jersey. I'm a very passionate guy, I love my state. In particular I want to give back to the area I'm from. I got sick and tired of recruiting over the past 30 years, going in to try to recruit kids and I could not recruit them because the kid didn't have grades. So I wanted to give back and help. I've been doing this for 30 years, I've been to the mountaintop. I want to come back to where I was born and raised and see if I can help.”
Demarest and Kennish have worked together on the camp circuit, including as director of Brian Leonard’s football camp in upstate New York, Shore’s Best Football Camp, and the Bayshore Youth Football Camp. They saw the need that existed for a program like the Warriors, and approached it not as a business but as an opportunity for a certain type of player. “It’s always been a passion of mine, recruiting young men to play. And then I explained to them the way our program works and what I expected from them out there. There are no promises here, there's no guarantees except you're going to be prepared to play at the next level and get academics straightened out.”
And there are a lot of people - folks we know - who are willing to put their name out there in support of Demarest and his program. The Warriors’ website has several testimonials from Leonard, the McCourty twins, ad Gary Gibson, among other Rutgers players, in support of Demarest’s ability, knowledge, and passion for the sport.
Chris Demarest is confident in his abilities. He’s passionate about what he does; if you watched RU’s defense during his time at Rutgers you saw that every game. And he believes he can make a difference in the lives of kids who want to play college football but need a second chance because of grades or money or injury or whatever is limiting their opportunity to play now.
Rutgers has a couple of players on its roster who went the JUCO route. There are those who say that a team with too many JUCO players hasn’t been able to develop its own. Maybe, but this year, the top two JUCO players on Rivals list went to Alabama while numbers 3-10 went to those “challenged” programs Ohio State, Texas, Miami, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi State. In fact, most of the top players are heading to P5 squads. Bringing in a developed junior can provide a team with a needed player to fill a hole in the lineup. Maybe it can do that for Rutgers. But that isn’t Demarest’s goal. He’s just looking to give Jersey kids an opportunity to play.