Alan Balkan admits he doesn’t have overwhelming talent. New Utrecht isn’t blessed with years of varsity experience, either. But what the Utes do have — and what last year’s disappointing 3-6 team lacked — is a unified front full of hard workers.
“That’s what we’re basing ourselves on — being the hardest-working team,” said senior Frankie Hakaj, New Utrecht’s lone returning full-time starter. “There’s been extra practices, more hours in the weight room, more conditioning drills, more hours on the field.”
Forty players were part of the Big Apple Games. Not one player has missed a practice yet and while that might not sound like much since the season officially started on Sunday, it is significant compared to last fall when many starters were unable to scrimmage.
“Our strength is gonna be that we’re a team that will play well together; they like to practice, they want to be there,” Balkan said. “They’re very disciplined, they listen. Sometimes when you’re not as good as other teams physically or speed-wise, that can go a long way.”
He later added: “We didn’t have that last year; that’s why we were 3-6.”
Balkan is thrilled with his senior leadership this year, led by Hakaj. The dynamite 6-foot-3, 185-pound upperclassman, who the coach is receiving calls about from Football College Subdivision programs, will lead New Utrecht on both sides of the ball, as a play-making tight end on offense and hybrid defensive end and linebacker on the other side of the ball.
“We’re putting a lot on his plate, but the thing about Frankie, he’s so smart all the things we’re giving him offensively and defensively, he knows exactly what to do,” the coach said.
Hakaj, who had 34 tackles, two sacks and an interception last year, said he likes his role as the team’s unquestioned leader, but he does need help.
Balkan has yet to name a starting quarterback as Richard Cancel, Dyquann Whitesalter and Ryan Witherspoon are all battling it out. Cancel was three-year star Jordan Paul’s backup, but took very few snaps, Whitesalter saw time at wide receiver and Witherspoon, a sophomore, started for the JV. Witherspoon has the best knowledge of the position, Cancel has the biggest arm and Whitesalter can move the chains with his feet.
“We’re gonna see who has the hot hand, who makes the least mistakes in scrimmages and that’s who we’re gonna go with,” said Balkin, who did say all three will get their opportunity during the regular season.
Balkan is confident three sophomores — wide receiver and safety Richard Wright, running back and cornerback Vaughn Grant and offensive tackle and defensive end Sam Aristie — can all contribute on both sides of the ball while junior corner Davin Collins and senior safety Luis Rivera make up the backbone of what should be a tough secondary to beat.
New Utrecht will almost certainly not resemble the offensive dynamo it was under Paul, the talented signal-caller now at Gardner-Webb. Leading rusher Devon John and receivers Terrence Chillious, Dillon Fortune and Owen Salim also graduated. It will have its work cut out for itself from the get-go, with Lincoln, Port Richmond, Sheepshead Bay and John F. Kennedy making up its first four games and defending champion Fort Hamilton in Week 6.
“It’s gonna be a challenging season for us, but I think we’re up to the challenge,” Balkan said. “So far what I’m seeing is we’re a very young and inexperienced football team. We have really hard-working kids, but we’re very raw.”