After spending the last three years tirelessly laying the groundwork for restructuring the Princeton University football program, Bob Surace is ready to enjoy the fruits of that labor.
“In that first year, you are just trying to get everything organized and get everything right,” said Princeton head coach Surace ’90 at the program’s recent media day as he reflected on entering his fourth season at the helm of his alma mater.
“You are so intense on making sure everything is done. Now that we have practice schedules and scripts and a lot of our staff members have been here for multiple years, you are not coaching the coaches as much. You are not coaching the players as much because they know what the expectation is. Now you are just playing football and, for me, that is the fun part. Now you can go out and you just wake up so excited to enjoy the practice. I think we have got the process in a good place right now.”
Last fall, Princeton had some fun as it posted a 5-5 record after two straight 1-9 campaigns. In order to take the next step and move to the top of the Ivy League heap after going 4-3 in league play in tying for third place in 2012, the Tigers are fine-tuning their practice approach.
“We really have been hitting situations,” said Surace, noting that he replicates game scenarios in practice, complete with score, time remaining, and down and distance, to help sharpen his team.
“I got this off some things that have been done by a couple of NFL teams. Our coaches have really thought these things through. We are not going to hit all of them, we don’t have enough time in 28 practices for all of them but we can hit a lot of them. There are things you can coach up off the film, not only your technique but they have to know down and distance, they have got to know the score, they have got to know the opponent. They have got to know the tendencies.”
The Tigers face an interesting situation as they may use a quarterback rotation with juniors Connor Michelsen (146-for-238 passing for 1634 yards and six touchdowns in 2012) and Quinn Epperly (480 yards passing and 314 yards rushing in 2012) like they did last year.
“We’ll see how that plays out; they are competing,” said Surace. “We did play multiple guys last year and if that happens, it happens; but be creative and let’s push the envelope. If we have different guys who bring different skill sets, let’s utilize that.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach James Perry has no problem with that arrangement and sees it as making things harder for Princeton’s foes.
“Last year, it was somewhat of an organic process,” said Perry. “It evolved into some things that actually made us more dynamic and it evolved in a way that four years ago when I got here, I would not have foreseen. Not to say that it is old hat, it has only been one year but we are past the adjustment and growing pains along those lines which is nice. It is not particularly common to have quarterbacks in those positions, we have that luxury and using it is something we have grown accustomed to.”
Surace believes the Tigers are also blessed with the luxury of depth at running back with the return of junior Will Powers ( a team-high 455 yards rushing in 2012), senior Brian Mills, sophomore DiAndre Atwater (181 yards rushing), and sophomore Dre Nelson (63 yards rushing).
“Our running backs yesterday had the best practice since I have been here,” asserted Surace.
“Brian Mills, who came off a really good spring, he got yo-yoed back and forth. He had a couple of plays where he just dragged guys. There was a lot of short yardage plays; it was four-minute drill and goal-line. Will Powers has been playing better than he has. He has looked really sharp. DiAndre Atwater looked real. He made some guys miss in space, something that we saw last year when he was healthy. For Dre Nelson, those situations aren’t his cup of tea; he is better at them than he was but there have been times at practice where he has really been exciting in the open field.”
In Perry’s view, Princeton has some exciting options at receiver in senior All-Ivy performer Roman Wilson (a team-high 37 catches for 649 yards in 2012), senior Matt Costello (31 catches for 316 yards), junior Connor Kelley (23 catches for 242 yards) and junior Seth DeValve (20 catches for 219 yards).
“It helps to have some depth on the outside at the wide receiver position,” said Perry.
“From an offensive pass game standpoint, we are certainly past the first couple of years where we tried to install a mindset and how we want the pass game to go and it is reflective of how we are playing right now. We have four returners at the wide receiver position who all played a huge number of reps last year. Obviously we have two quarterbacks who played a huge amount of reps last year. From a pass game perspective, we are further along than we have ever been and the kids will try to push that further.”
A battle-tested offensive line that features senior Joe Goss, who has 28 starts, along with junior All-Ivy performer Spenser Huston, senior Max Coale, junior Jack Woodall, and junior Mike Ramos should provide a good push in the trenches.
“To have all the guys returning all across the board is a good place to be,” said Perry.
“Probably equally important, with the tempo that we play, we don’t play five linemen. We are going to play seven or eight linemen by design so we need that many guys ready to go.”
One of the biggest challenges for the 2013 Tigers is to make up for the production on the defensive line with the graduation of Mike Catapano, the 2012 Ivy Defensive Player of the Year who is now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Defensive co-coordinator and associate head coach Steve Verbit acknowledges that it will take a group effort to replace the 12 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss produced by Catapano last fall.
“You do it as a team,” said Verbit. “It is tough to replace an NFL football player but we think we have got some pretty good kids who work extremely hard. Our hope is that a number of those kids will pick up one or two sacks which will enable us to make up for those 12 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.”
Senior All-Ivy performer and team co-captain Caraun Reid, a pro prospect himself, should be able to pick up much of the slack.
“He is 6’2, 303 pounds and runs somewhere around a 4.8 40-yard dash,” said Verbit of Reid, who had 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2012.
“He is extremely explosive, those are a couple of qualities that make him special. He is experienced, he has started since his freshman year so he has a lot of games under his belt. He’s got great physical traits and he is an extremely hard worker in terms of not only understanding of what he has to do on the field, he studies the game off the field.”
Defensive co-coordinator Jim Salgado likes the work he is getting from his group of linebackers, which includes senior Jason Ray, senior Alex Polofsky, junior Garrit Leicht, and junior Mike Zeuli.
“The linebackers are looking good,” said Salgado. “We have a good group of guys there. They are out there working hard, getting better each day. We have good depth. We are happy about the freshman class that came in. That’s what it’s all about — competition.”
The Tiger secondary is certainly competitive, led by senior co-captain Philip Bhaya and sophomore All-Ivy performer Anthony Gaffney together with sophomore Matt Arends and sophomore Jakobi Johnson.
“We had guys moving around at different positions,” said Salgado. “We had two true freshmen playing at corner for us last year every game so they are back and more experienced. We got some good young guys that came in here that are going to be able to help us.”
Salgado is looking for safety Bhaya and cornerback Gaffney to spearhead that unit.
“Phil has played a lot of football for us,” said Salgado. “We had him out at corner and eventually got him to where he needed to be at safety. He had a great year for us last year and we expect another big one coming up. Anthony has improved; he is having a good camp.”
Princeton is expecting its defense to create more turnovers this fall. “We hear people talk about turnovers all the time,” said Verbit.
“It is about energy, it is about hustle, and it is about effort. The more guys you have around the ball, the more opportunities you have to get turnovers. The first guy in tries to secure the tackle and the next guys in try to get to the ball. If the ball pops out and you have 11 guys running to the ball, chances are that you are going to have an opportunity to get it once it is on the ground. We work at it each and every day and we stress it.”
Surace, for his part, believes the defensive emphasis on taking the ball away has served to make the Princeton offense better with the ball.
“They are thinking about creating more turnovers and that’s forcing our offense to take care of the ball better,” noted Surace.
“I love our approach that way. I think we were minus 10 turnovers in our last four losses; I think we gave up 11 and only got one. That’s not a recipe for success.”
In Surace’s view, honing the team’s up tempo offense is the best recipe for success.
“We ran a no huddle when I was with the Bengals for the best year we had on offense,” said Surace.
“You are still running the same plays but maybe you are getting a more vanilla defense or you are not getting substitutions on defense. I think for the players, if you asked them, they would rather run 85 plays than 60. I think it is exciting. I think recruits really buy into this.”
Princeton faces an exciting challenge in its season opener on Saturday evening as it hosts 2-0 Lehigh, who is ranked No. 19/22 nationally and owns a three-game winning streak in the series between the schools, including a 17-14 victory over the Tigers in 2012.
“Everybody in the world knows that Lehigh has two more games than us and they started camp three weeks before us and all these things we could use as excuses but instead let’s use it as a weapon,” said Surace.
“Let’s have more urgency at practice, let’s practice better because we can control how good we are. We can’t control the Ivy League schedule or anything else but we can control us. That’s a tough first game. They have been a nationally ranked team three years running, they have a lot of guys back, and they have a very respected program so that forces urgency. I think our guys are getting that. There is a time when you cross the line, school is out and everything else. You need to give us two great hours and they are doing that.”
If the Tiger players can maintain that focus, they could enjoy some great moments this fall.