Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 37
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
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UPBEAT APPROACH: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace is all smiles during the program’s recent media day. There weren’t a lot of smiles last fall as the Tigers went 1-9 in Surace’s debut season at the helm of the program. Princeton will look to get on the winning track when it hosts 16th-ranked Lehigh (1-1) this Saturday evening on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.

Emphasizing Toughness, Execution After 2010 Downer, PU Football Aims to Start on High Note Against Lehigh

Bill Alden

Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher of the 1930s and 40s who starred in the Negro Leagues and the American League, wouldn’t seem to be a likely source of inspiration for the Princeton University football team.

But with the Tigers coming off of a 1-9 season, second-year Princeton head coach Bob Surace has cited Paige’s famous quote, “don’t look back, something may be gaining on you,” as a mantra for his team.

“Paige wasn’t a guy who was looking back or looking ahead, he lived in the present,” said Surace, whose team kicks off its 2011 campaign on Saturday evening when it hosts Lehigh on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.

“Every time we practice in the stadium, I tell the guys the scoreboard is 0-0 and there are 15 minutes to go. The season is going to start 0-0 with 15 minutes and that is going to be the standard.”

Surace acknowledges that looking at the scoreboard last season was a painful experience for the Princeton coaches and players.

“Nobody is happy with 1-9, starting with me,” said Surace, whose team was outscored 334-165 last fall and went 0-7 in Ivy League play.

“You learn from experiences. We weren’t strong enough and they have a chip on their shoulders. We are still not strong enough but we are stronger.”

Princeton is certainly stronger with the return of senior quarterback Tommy Wornham and senior linebacker Steve Cody from injury. Cody broke his leg in the 2010 season opener while Wornham broke his collarbone against Brown in week five.

“To have two veteran guys and two guys who play the game the right way and are leaders is huge,” said Surace.

“They are terrific football players. In addition to that, they are the voice of the team. Those guys along with Cat [defensive lineman Mike Catapano] are the captains and there a few other seniors who supplement them. It is so important to have guys who buy into everything.”

Offensive coordinator James Perry knows how important it is to have Wornham back at the controls of the Princeton offense. The QB had passed for 1,104 yards and five touchdowns last fall before his untimely injury.

“Tommy is an exceptionally hard worker in the weight room; he is stronger than ever and probably the fittest guy I have ever coached at that position,” said Perry, a record-breaking quarterback during his playing days at Brown.

“Equally important for him at that position is the mental development. The thing that probably makes you the most excited about him is just how hungry he is to get better and how much time he spent in the film room and on the chalk board with me. He has made huge steps; hopefully that will come to fruition on the field.”

Perry is hoping that junior running back Akil Sharp has made huge strides as he steps into the starting tailback role for the graduated Jordan Culbreath.

“At that position, you are definitely going to play more than one guy, that’s the nature of football today,” said Perry, who will also be using sophomore Brian Mills at tailback with sophomore Jason Ray starting at fullback.

“There is no doubt you are going to do that but at the same time you would love to have a guy who can get into rhythm at the tailback position. Akil has shown himself to be a guy who can do that.”

With the one-two receiving punch of Trey Peacock and Andrew Kerr lost to graduation, Princeton will need senior Isaac Serwanga and sophomore Connor Kelley to show something special.

“Isaac is a senior who is in fantastic shape; he just continues to make strides and to get better,” said Perry, who hopes to work tight ends Mark Hayes and Des Smith into the passing attack.

“His upside is very high. Connor started at quarterback last year and then switched positions. It was great for him to develop that way. It wasn’t a given by any stretch; he has done very well.”

Surace, for his part, believes his new starters at the offensive skill positions can do well.

“Those guys have been up to the challenge so far,” said Surace. “They are a talented group but talent only takes you so far. We have to get those guys ready to play a great opponent. I am excited about those guys and seeing what they are going to do against live competition.”

The return of blue-chip junior Kevin Mill after knee surgery has Perry excited about the Princeton offensive line.

“Getting Mill back was huge, having coached at Maryland and Delaware and places like that, his ability set is top level,” said Perry, whose starting line will include sophomore Joe Goss at center, senior Matt Allen at left guard, senior Mike Muha at right guard, senior Kevin DeMaio at right tackle in addition to Mill at left tackle.

“With the addition of Kevin and some of the linemen who missed games throughout the season last year, it has made it a really deep position.”

Defensive coordinator Jared Backus believes the team is blessed with depth along the defensive line, starting with senior tri-captain Mike Catapano and junior Caraun Reid.

“Mike and Caraun are guys that have a lot of ability; they are very good players and their work ethic is good,” said Backus, who noted that much-improved sophomore Greg Sotoreanos and solid senior Dan Fitzsimmons will also be starting at defensive line.

“That’s what you look for in the guys up front; they have to be very industrious and they have done that. You want to see that go on all season.”

Backus is confident that his linebacking unit of Cody together with junior Tim Kingsbury and sophomore Andrew Starks will have a big season.

“We have more experience there; Andrew was a first year starter last year and Tim hadn’t even played special teams the year before,” noted Backus.

“Those guys have a year under their belt; you always like to see where a guy is after playing a whole season and then a spring. Now they have that experience and those reps and with Steve right there with them.”

Experience should also be a plus in the secondary where the Tigers feature senior Blake Clemons and junior Mandela Sheaffer together with a pair of battle-tested sophomores in Jaiye Falusi and Phillip Bhaya.

“I am really excited about those four guys; they have an opportunity to be good,” said Backus.

As Surace looks forward to his team’s opening act, he is excited about how his players have progressed in training camp.

“I think we have done a terrific job coming together as a team, working hard and doing drills that are mental toughness drills,” asserted Surace.

“I am really happy about how our guys are coming along that way; it’s an important thing. We are looking at a schedule where there are no gimmes. Other teams probably have us circled on the schedule, they can’t wait to play us. We know it is going to be a grind; we have to grind out play after play to be successful in such a challenging environment.”

Princeton faces a big challenge this Saturday in 16th-ranked Lehigh, the defending Patriot League champions who have already played two games in 2011.

“Having played them last year, we have a pretty good idea about their personnel which is outstanding,” said Surace of the Mountain Hawks, who are off to a 1-1 start, having beaten Monmouth 49-24 in their opener before losing 48-41 to No. 13 New Hampshire last Saturday.

“They have got a lot of guys back who are elite players at this level. We have a pretty good gauge on who they are personnel-wise, now it is a matter of trying to get the right matchups and making sure that our guys are ready to go fundamentally, technically, and schematically.”

Noting that his returning players accounted for only three touchdowns last year, Surace acknowledges that he isn’t sure how his new faces are going to react under the gun.

“Whenever you have inexperience, these guys get in and its live and the lights come on at night and how are you going to handle that,” said Surace, who draws comfort from having an experienced kicker in Patrick Jacob and two talented punters in Joe Cloud and Otavio Fleury.

“We have to prepare them as coaches to get ready for the live action. We have to eliminate the mental lapses. We spend so much time on technique and fundamentals so that when we get in there in game action, we can come through consistently.”

If the Tigers can develop that consistency, they could spend the fall gaining on the opposition.

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