After Getting Derailed by Rash of Injuries Last Fall, Tiger Football Has Depth in Place for Ivy Title Run
VOICE OF OPTIMISM: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace makes a point during the program’s recently-held media day. Princeton is coming off a 5-5 campaign in 2017 as it was decimated by injuries and lost its final four games after starting 5-1. With some of the injured stars returning and other players having gained valuable experience last year in their stead, Surace believes the Tigers have the depth to be an Ivy League title contender this fall. Princeton opens its 2018 season underway when it plays at Butler University (2-0) on September 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
After routing Harvard 52-17 last October in improving to 5-1, the Princeton University football team appeared to be on track for a run at a second straight Ivy League title.
But derailed by an avalanche of injuries, the Tigers lost their last four games in slipping to seventh place in the league standings, finishing the season at 5-5 overall and 2-5 Ivy.
While it hurt to not have the services of such stars as Kurt Holuba, Mark Fossati, and John Lovett, among many others, the flip side is that back-ups gained valuable experience last fall as they were pressed into action.
With the return of Holuba, Fossati, and Lovett along with the battle-tested younger players, the Tigers appear to be a deeper squad this year.
“When a guy is injured, I never look at that part as the blessing, but you do feel like there are more guys returning on defense that have seen action and have been successful,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace, whose team plays at Butler (2-0) on September 15 as he starts his ninth year at the helm of the program.
“Obviously we have to continue to build depth, that is a huge thing in camp because the lineup we put out versus Butler is not going to be the same lineup we put out against Penn at the end of the year. The years we have been able to be successful with that, we have been celebrating at the end of the year. The years that we weren’t able to do that, it has been a tough road at the end.”
The return of lineman Holuba and linebacker Fossati should make the Princeton defense much tougher this year.
“Mark and Kurt are both very talented players,” said Surace, whose defense gave up 26.5 points and 407 yards a game in 2017.
“Kurt has been a multiple All-Ivy type guy and almost won the Bushnell Cup as top defensive player a couple of years ago. Mark was playing at a level at linebacker that would have put him in that range.”
The Tigers are also welcoming back Lovett, the 2016 Bushnell Cup winner as the league’s top offensive player when he accounted for 31 touchdowns passing, running and receiving, who was injured before the start of the 2017 campaign and was sidelined all fall.
“To John’s credit, he has worked really hard to become a more accurate thrower; it is showing in camp,” said Surace, whose squad was picked to finish second behind defending champion Yale in the Ivy preseason media poll.
“You want the ball in his hands, whether it is throwing, which will probably be the majority of time, but running it, catching it, and doing other things. When it makes sense, we will try to do those things.”
Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson likes his quarterback situation with the return of Lovett as the program deals with the voice left by the graduation of Chad Kanoff, who enjoyed a record-breaking campaign last fall on the way to winning the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy Offensive Player of the Year.
“We have a ton of talent in the room,” said Gleeson. “In John’s case, since he wasn’t here in the spring and didn’t play last fall it is a matter of getting him up to speed mentally and physically. For the rest of the guys, the underclassmen, it is just continuing to develop in the offense and physically so they can be ready when called upon.”
Gleeson believes that star running back Charlie Volker (600 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns in 2017) is ready to have a big senior year.
“If there is one thing I can say about Charlie and the rest of the seniors, it is that I am extremely excited about the level of conditioning that they are at right now,” said Gleeson, who also welcomes back sophomore Collin Eaddy (376 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and junior Ryan Quigley (225 yards rushing, three touchdowns) in the backfield.
“It is really apparent to all of the coaches what kind of shape they are in. We have had a great buy-in voluntarily from all of these guys to get jobs in and around the area to stay here and work out in the summer. Charlie would be amongst those guys.”
While Surace, a former All-Ivy center during his playing days at Princeton, feared that the offensive line might be in bad shape with the loss of three starters in Erik Ramirez, Mitch Sweigart, and Richard Bush, he has been pleasantly surprised.
“Those guys on our offensive line have had a tremendous offseason,” said Surace.
“They are going up against some outstanding defensive linemen who have played a lot of football and they are doing well. Coach Andy Aurich does a great job with those guys. If they keep growing we have a chance to be really good there.”
The Tigers boast two really good receivers in senior All-Ivy performers Stephen Carlson (71 receptions, 935 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Jesper Horsted (92 receptions, 1,226 yards, 14 touchdowns).
“They are big and they can run; they are particularly good at going up and getting the ball in the air, whether it is a vertical route or just fighting against a defensive back over the course of a game,” said Gleeson, whose receiving corps will also include junior Tiger Bech (40 receptions, 596 yards, two touchdowns) and senior Jordan Argue (14 receptions, 159 yards).
“When you are a big body and you can go up and grab the ball, it is a nice asset to have; we saw that with Jesper and Steve last year.”
Gleeson sees a potential secret weapon in senior tight end Graham Adomitis (20 receptions, 173 yards, two touchdowns).
“Another senior that gets overlooked a lot and has played a lot of football for us is Graham Adomitis,” said Gleeson.
“I expect him, with the gains he has made in the weight room and the way he is practicing early on, to emerge as a guy who we depend on.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator and senior associate head coach Steve Verbit is depending on the return of Holuba and Fossati to impact the whole unit.
“The game is about experience and knowledge,” said Verbit.
“The more you know, the more you see things and the faster you are going to react. Kurt continues to get better and he may be at his best right now. Mark was having a fantastic season last year before he went down against Columbia. He has picked up exactly where he was at that time. We are going to be better stopping the run and we are going to be better getting to the quarterback with those two guys back.”
One of Princeton’s better units appears to be the linebacker group, which features Fossati along with fellow senior co-captain Thomas Johnson, junior Johnny Orr, senior Jack Simcox and Johnson’s younger brother, sophomore James Johnson.
“Those five guys, in particular, have all played a lot of football and they are all very good football players,” said Verbit. “We are five strong at those positions.”
With the return of senior Ben Ellis and junior T.J. Floyd along with a pair of sophomore standouts in Delan Stallworth and C.J. Wall, the Tiger secondary is in good hands.
“We got two experienced safeties in Ben and T.J.; they had very strong springs and are having very good camps,” said Verbit.
“They are leaders; they get the guys lined up where they are supposed to be. They give them confidence because they will make the calls and make the checks. Young guys like C.J. and Delan had experience last fall and we are going to reap the rewards of that this season.”
While Surace is confident that Princeton has the depth to enjoy a big season, he knows the Tigers face a tough road starting with their first two games as they play at Butler this Saturday and then host Monmouth (1-1) on September 22.
“Our schedule is very demanding; Butler is typically a top-three team in their conference and Monmouth is as talented as any team we have had on our schedule,” asserted Surace, noting that most Princeton games this fall will be broadcast on the ESPN+ package.
“They are returning a ton of players from a team that has a chance to go deep in the playoffs. If we take Butler lightly, we are going to come home on a long flight. If we take Monmouth lightly, it is going to be a long day at home.”