'I'm not taking anything from anyone': How New Jersey football mentality drives Notre Dame

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame head football coach Ara Parseghian, center, poses with Quarterback Joe Theismann (7), left, and All-America defense tackle Mike McCoy, in Dallas, Texas, Dec. 29, 1969.

SOUTH BEND — From quarterbacks Frank Tripucka in the ‘40s and Joe Theismann half a century ago and on through Anthony Fasano, Theo Riddick, Quenton Nelson and Brandon Wimbush, the football talent pipeline from New Jersey to Notre Dame has never stopped flowing.

The current scholarship roster boasts 10 players from the Garden State, second only to the 11 that hail from California, and their fingerprints were all over Marcus Freeman’s first career win last Saturday over Cal.

Audric Estime bashed his way to 76 rushing yards and the go-ahead touchdown early in the second half.

The Ademilola Twins, Jayson and Justin, lived in the Bears’ backfield and recorded three combined sacks.

Howard Cross III, the undersized defensive tackle and son of the former Super Bowl-winning New York Giant, led the Irish in tackles for the second straight week.

Punter Jon Sot, the Harvard grad transfer from Metuchen, N.J., kept pinning the visitors back in the shadow of their own goalpost.

And cornerback Clarence Lewis, unperturbed by the end of his team-high streak of 19 consecutive starts, came off the bench to make a late interception that would have sealed the victory if not for JD Bertrand’s targeting penalty.

Tight ends Kevin Bauman and Davis Sherwood (two seasons at The Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J.) thrived as a run blocker, but freshman quarterback Steve Angeli and freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy, teammates at Bergen Catholic High School the past two seasons, did not see action.

For a team that received a training camp pep talk from rock star Jon Bon Jovi, whose 1988 album “New Jersey” has reportedly sold 19 million copies worldwide, the Jersey-soaked victory was entirely fitting.

Bon Jovi:'Live in the moment': Rock legend gives Notre Dame football a pep talk

According to 2021 U.S. Census figures, New Jersey ranks 11th among the 50 states in population (9.4 million) despite occupying the fifth-smallest land area. Just 2.8% of Americans live in New Jersey, but the Garden State accounts for 11.8 percent of the 85 scholarship players on this year's Notre Dame football team.

Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Illinois were next with five products apiece, followed by four states with four products on this Irish team: Texas, Michigan, Maryland and Florida.

What is the New Jersey football mentality and what are the factors that cause it to form? A sampling of responses from those carrying on the tradition at Notre Dame and beyond:

Jayson Ademilola, DT, Jackson, N.J.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Justin Ademilola (9) and Notre Dame defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) celebrate during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“When you get a New Jersey guy, you’re getting a tough dude who comes in to work. We got that tough mindset that we can’t be stopped. Put us anywhere, any sport, put the ball down, whatever it may be, any time, any day (slaps right fist into left hand) and we’re coming up and we’re showing out. That’s what we do.

“I would say at a young age I picked that up just from playing sports. Jersey has some of the toughest dudes. As you can see, we got a lot of New Jersey guys on the team. We breed the same thing, we preach the same thing. We like to play hard-nosed, tough football.”

Justin Ademilola, DE, Jackson, N.J.

“It’s a different mindset. Me and my brother and a few other (Jersey) guys try to get the rest of the guys along with teaching the mindset. Like, every day you’re out there, it’s a killer mindset. It’s a dog mentality, survival of the fittest. I’ve been trying to keep on sharpening that mindset so come game time, I just let that beast out. It’s in there.”

Al Golden, DC, Red Bank, N.J.

“The Jersey mentality? Jersey football has always been unheralded relative to (other areas), but it’s very densely populated, so the numbers are large. If you touched down in Newark and you went recruiting, you’re talking about a lot of the nation’s population there within three hours. There’s a mentality, there’s a toughness and there’s a competitiveness. And the other thing is there’s fierce rivalries. When you are dense, there’s another school two miles down the road. Sometimes when I’ve been recruiting in rural areas, you’re driving for 45 minutes or you’re driving for two hours to get to the next school. It’s not like that in New Jersey. Where I went to high school, Red Bank was a half mile (away) and Rumson was a mile from Red Bank Catholic. It's really close. And Middletown South is close and on and on. These intense rivalries develop over time, and I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Johnny Langan, TE, Rutgers, Wayne, N.J.

“We’re very tough, we’re passionate, we’re competitive, we’re (going at) a very fast pace. We’re hard- nosed and not afraid to get our hands dirty. Everything we do, we do it to win. Very competitive. And yeah, that’s New Jersey.  I think the concentration of all the people raises the level of competition. It creates that within all of us from New Jersey.

“At Bergen Catholic, we’re really close with the school, so I’ve been keeping up on Steve Angeli. He did a really nice TD (to win the Blue-Gold Game). He was in the eighth grade when I was a senior. I heard about it. I played against the Ademilolas and (former Irish linebacker) Shayne Simon when they were at St. Peter’s Prep. The twins were definitely a force to play against. We played them every year. My senior year we beat them in the state championship.”

Steve Angeli, QB, Westfield, N.J.

“It’s toughness. Jersey toughness, that’s what it comes down to. The way we play football is different from all around the country, in my opinion. There’s a sense of toughness we bring to the collegiate level. Mentally and physically, being tough is something that’s our staple.

On Jersey driving: “Obviously you’ve got to be a defensive driver, keep everybody safe. Everything is definitely a little tougher. People are just more up-tempo. It’s the East Coast. A ton of stuff is going. Everybody’s got somewhere to be. People commuting everywhere. But really it’s just kind of the way we were raised. All the people I know, especially up in Bergen County, the Italian Americans there, it’s just a different sense of the way people operate and the way people work.”

On Al Golden: “He’s from Colt’s Neck (N.J.). When he was in this spring, we talked about one of our pizza restaurants that we liked called Federici’s. I asked him about it in stretch line since he always comes around and says, ‘What’s up?’ Now knowing everybody and where everybody’s from, we have a lot of Jersey people on the team and the staff as well. It’s pretty cool to make those connections.”

Kevin Bauman, TE, Red Bank, N.J.

Notre Dame tight end Kevin Bauman (84) reaches for extra yards during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“My junior year we beat (Clarence Lewis’ Mater Dei) in the state championship, and then my senior year they beat us (Red Bank Catholic) in the state semifinals. We’ll clown with each other a few times here and there, but it’s all love. We both got each other once, so it’s even. He was great. We didn’t go against each other much. He was playing more perimeter on defense. I played more linebacker/defensive end. But I would get matched up with him sometimes in the pass game. He was always great competition, especially knowing that’s going to be your brother, your (Notre Dame) teammate.

“What are you getting? You’re going to get tough, you’re going to get hard-nosed, you’re going to get gritty and you’re going to get someone who’s going to get the job done at all costs. We’re a tough group of people. We like to do things the right way. We like to be tough when we do it. We’re just all about grit, toughness, having fun. We love to have fun while we do it. That’s the best part of this. You get to physically dominate people and have fun while doing it. It’s just great. I always say Jersey’s the best place on Earth. Obviously, a lot of people disagree with that, but I love it. That’s something I take great pride in. It will always be my home.”

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Clarence Lewis, CB, Edison, N.J.

“When you’re from Jersey, you just have that grittiness in you. It’s just that grit. When you hear ‘Jersey,’ you just usually think of a gritty guy that will put his head down and work and definitely be a physical guy. Honestly I really don’t know (what causes that). If you’re from there, you’ve just got a certain grittiness to you. In my game, I’m trying to just show I’m all-around. I’m smart. I’m going to come up and make the tackles and I’m good covering, zone and man. I liked (former Michigan star) Jabrill Peppers coming up. He’s from Paramus. He’s my all-time favorite Jersey football player. You could put him anywhere and everywhere, and he was just a playmaker.”

Audric Estime, RB, Nyack, N.Y./Montvale, N.J.

“Jersey is great football, man. It’s known for physical football, the best of the best. If you look at all the players who came to Notre Dame, all across the NFL, there’s a lot of New Jersey guys. There’s a certain standard and something you have to (uphold) when you’re from Jersey. You’ve got to have that attitude like, ‘I’m not taking anything from anyone.’ It’s about a whole bunch of confidence. You’ve just been playing good ball against good competition your whole life, so it’s something you just have to translate to the next level.

“A lot of people overlook Jersey, so we have a chip on our shoulder. No matter who it is, we just have to prove ourselves every day. Every day’s a new day. I got to be physical every day. I got to smart every day. I got to be fast every day. I just can’t take a day off. And I feel like all Jersey kids, no matter what school you’re at – Notre Dame, Alabama, Rutgers – I feel like everyone just has a chip on their shoulder.”

Howard Cross III, DT, Paramus, N.J.

Notre Dame's Howard Cross III during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 05, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“It’s the competition. I’ll get a lot of hate and heat for this, but Jersey is probably one of the top five (football) states in the nation: Don Bosco, Bergen Catholic, St. Peter’s with the (Ademilola) twins. I went to St. Joe’s (Regional). They’re all in the same league. We all played together. Just going through that competition. Every team we played in our conference had a D1 player going somewhere — every team. The four main schools, each one would have like 3-4 players going D1: Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford, USC. Just playing at that level got you ready for the next level: ‘All right, these guys are going to the next level and I’m playing them right now.’  

“(Growing up there), it kind of ruined me a little bit. Honestly, Jersey, no, we’re not all angry Italians. I’d like to say that right now. But yes, Jersey driving is a real thing. Everybody is angry on the road. It’s kind of funny. Why they’re angry, I have no idea. I couldn’t tell you. But everybody is, for some reason. Angry driving is kind of like a thing when you go to New Jersey.

“Jersey is essentially one massive suburb, and then down the Shore, everybody goes to one beach. I mean, literally living anywhere (else) in the Northeast is just farmland to me. If I don’t see a town for like 10 miles, I get nervous. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ I’m used to being around people.”

Jon Sot, P, Clark, N.J.

“New Jersey football is awesome. There’s a lot of talent, and we take a lot of pride in that. The brand of Notre Dame football in New Jersey is real. I played receiver and I was a kicker at St. Joe’s in Metuchen. (Cross and Estime) went to St. Joe’s Regional in Montvale. I love New Jersey. It’s all I know. You just fall in love with it. It’s where I grew up. We have a house down on the Jersey Shore. If you try to go down to the Jersey Shore on a Friday in the summer, good luck. That traffic is going to be bad, but it’s a great place to be.  

“(Jon) Bon Jovi’s a legend. He was here. I didn’t get the chance to (meet him), but he actually went to the same high school as me, which is pretty cool. I didn’t want to bother him. He talked to us (in August), and it was really inspirational. He was just trying to make sure we all know the opportunity that we have, it’s so limited. Try to take advantage of everything on a daily basis because it’s going to be over before you know it.”

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