Heading Into Season Opener Against San Diego, Princeton Football Has Some Key Question Marks
COACHES’ CORNER: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace talks with his coaches during the program’s recently held Media Day. Princeton is coming off an 8-2 campaign last fall that saw it share the Ivy League title with Penn. The Tigers get their 2017 season underway when they host the University of San Diego on September 16. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Although the Princeton University football team is coming off an 8-2 campaign in 2016 that saw it tie Penn for the Ivy League title and has been picked to finish first along with Harvard for the upcoming season by the media poll, Bob Surace doesn’t view his squad as a powerhouse just yet.
“I just reminded them today that you start the year 0-0,” said Princeton head coach Surace, speaking at the program’s recently held Media Day.
“Guys have to step up, it is never the same team from one year to another. It is how we mix and figure this team out.”
At the outset, Surace has two key issues to figure out as senior star and tri-captain John Lovett, a 2016 All-America honoree and Bushnell Cup Ivy Offensive Player of the Year, is currently sidelined indefinitely with an injury and the defense suffered some heavy graduation losses.
“We try to get the ball in the best player’s hands; he was the best player in the league, not just the best player on our team in so many aspects, catching the ball, running with it, and he was a quality thrower,” said Surace of Lovett, who rushed for 411 yards, passed for 582 yards, had 235 yards receiving and accounted for 31 touchdowns (20 rushing, 10 passing, one receiving) last fall.
“We are working through camp to figure out who is taking some of those reps as a ball carrier, as a receiver, and as a thrower. We lost six guys on defense who made some form of All Ivy. Our front seven has looked very good. We are going to need to develop more depth.”
Surace believes that the experience and skill of senior quarterback and tri-captain Chad Kanoff (168-for-272 passing for 1,741 yards and six touchdowns in 2016) will help make up for the absence of Lovett when Princeton kicks off its 2017 campaign by hosting the University of San Diego on September 16.
“It makes the practice go so much smoother; Chad knows the tempo, the calls, where all the guys should be, and what the offensive line calls are,” said Surace.
“His operational time for things is better than we have ever seen. He is getting the ball out quicker than he ever has, the throws are on the money. Chad has been on fire throwing the ball with his accuracy, getting the ball out on time, arm strength, his ability to make decisions, and make the right ones. It has been fun to watch his development.”
New offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson promises to retain the up-tempo approach instilled buy his successor James Perry, now the head coach at Bryant University.
“We are going to play fast, we are going to be physical,” asserted Gleeson.
“I came from an old school mentality that you can’t play this game without being hungry so from a motivational standpoint I want to see our guys eager and active at all times to make sure that we are putting the best product out there at all times.”
Princeton features speed at running back in junior Charlie Volker, who rushed for a team-high 574 yards and four touchdowns last fall and has won Ivy League sprint and relay titles.
“Charlie is a track guy too, so he is juggling double duty, it is not like he is just a running back 365 days a year, 24 hours day,” said Gleeson, noting that sophomore Ryan Quigley (156 yards rushing, one touchdown) has been making strides.
“I think in year three, what I have noticed in him is that his speed was something you could wow at, but this year, his foot quickness and his ability to make cuts is noticeable.”
Gleeson is looking at juniors Jesper Horsted (30 receptions for 413 yards and one touchdown) and Stephen Carlson (two receptions for nine yards) to lead the receiving corps.
“I think Stephen has done a nice job in the offseason transforming his body,” said Gleeson, who will be looking to get junior tight end Graham Adomitis involved in the passing game.
“Jesper without having been with us in the spring, because he is playing baseball, is getting back up to top speed. He is a tremendous athlete.”
Surace, an All-Ivy center in his playing days at Princeton during the late 1980s, views the team’s battle-tested offensive line as a strength.
“There are nine guys who played a lot of snaps last year for us and we only lost Mason Darrow who played a significant amount,” added Surace, whose top returners along the line include senior tackle Mitchell Sweigart, junior guard George Attea, senior center Richard Bush, senior guard Eric Ramirez, junior tackle Stefan Ivanisevic, sophomore tackle Reily Radosevich, and junior guard Jack Corso.
Gleeson tipped his hat to fellow assistant coach Andrew Zurich for his work with the position group last season.
“I think the credit goes to coach Aurich and his development of those guys throughout the year last year,” added Gleeson.
“Having played here and having played the position, he has brought those guys along very quick.”
In the view of defensive coordinator and senior associate head coach Steve Verbit, quick development will be a key for a Tiger defense featuring a number of new faces in key spots.
“We will try to get out guys to be great from a fundamental and technique standpoint and give them a chance to run to the ball,” said Verbit, whose unit led the Ivies in scoring defense (16.4 points a game), total defense (317.6 yards a game), and rushing defense (80.1 yards a game) defense during the 2016 season.
“We will add defenses as they demonstrate to us that they are ready to go. You audition a defense each and every day and when they have showed us they are good at it, you can move on.”
Verbit likes what he has seen so far as that process has unfolded.
“There are a bunch of the guys have pretty good athletic ability and pretty good speed; we are going to have a chance to get to the quarterback,” added Verbit.
“Our guys are tough and physical but you don’t know what you have until game day and until you go against a different colored jersey. They are a team that has worked very hard in the offseason.”
Verbit is depending on senior star defensive lineman and tri-captain Kurt Holuba to dominate in the trenches.
“Kurt is tireless in terms of the energy that he gives on the field,” said Verbit of Holuba, who earned third-team All-America honors with 8.0 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss.
“He helps make everybody better on every single repetition not only because of his great desire to excel on the field but also off the field in the meeting room, really stepping up and being another coach amongst the positional groups and amongst the units.”
Joining Holuba on the defensive line is junior Jake Strain and sophomore Mike Hampson.
“Jake has been around, he played 300 or 400 snaps for us last year,” said Verbit.
“Matt Hampson is a newcomer. He was a highly recruited young man coming out of Pittsburgh. Guys grow in the offseason, they understand the expectations at the college level. He is bigger, stronger, and faster. He is ready to go and to step up.”
Verbit believes that senior Mark Fossati and junior Thomas Johnson are ready to step up at inside linebacker.
“Mark is very fine football player, he has always been a great special teams player, now it is his time,” said Verbit, noting that sophomore John Orr, junior Jackson Simcox, and freshman James Johnson should also see time at linebacker.
“He is a guy who has made an unbelievably smooth transition from outside linebacker. Tommy Johnson is that guy who is going to run through a brick wall for you.”
In the secondary, senior Chance Melancon, junior Ben Ellis, and sophomore T.J. Floyd figure to lead the way.
“Chance started seven games; he was very good on the press coverage, he is ready to go,” said Verbit.
“Ben has been around, just not on the field. T.J. Floyd was our nickel last year, he was at the position he is playing right now for approximately 400 snaps. He is the guy that has to make the calls instead of getting the calls. He is a good football player, he is very physical and has great range.”
Looking ahead to the opener against San Diego, Surace knows that his team needs to be ready to battle hard.
“They are a really good program, they won a playoff game last year,” said Surace, noting that the Tigers fell 39-29 to the Toreros out west in 2014 in the third meeting between the teams.
“They are probably as talented as any team on our schedule. They are going have 10 more practices and two games so it is going to be a great test right from the get-go.”