Princeton Football Celebrating 150th Anniversary, Facing Hard Act to Follow After Going 10-0 Last Fall
STARTING POINT: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace makes a point to reporters at the program’s recently-held media day. Coming off a 10-0 season in 2018, the program’s first perfect campaign since 1964, Surace will be looking for the program to make more history this fall in conjunction with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the sport which started when Princeton played Rutgers in November, 1869. The Tigers kick off their 2019 season by hosting Butler University (1-2) on September 21. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
As the Princeton University football players file into their locker room tucked in the bowels of Princeton Stadium, they pass by a sign that reads “Where Football Began.”
With college football celebrating the 150th anniversary of the sport, which started when Princeton played a game at Rutgers on November 6, 1869, the milestone holds special meaning for the Tigers.
“Players need to understand how important it is to Princeton as a university; those early years really started what we now have in this game,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’91, a star offensive lineman for the Tigers during his college days.
“I tell the guys as you are running out of the tunnel you are representing a lot of things — obviously yourselves and the team and a lot of people in the stands, their memories of playing the game or as students, enjoying such great memories.”
Last fall, Princeton produced a batch of great memories, going 10-0, the program’s first perfect season since 1964.
But that heritage means little as Princeton kicks off its 150th campaign by hosting Butler University (1-2) on September 21.
“You are losing a lot of significant, experienced players,” said Surace, whose 2018 squad was led by such senior standouts as two-time Ivy Offensive Player of the Year John Lovett and two brilliant receivers in Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson, all three of whom are with NFL organizations on practice squads or injured reserve.
“The thing that I love was the Sunday after the season, once the seniors left the meeting, we were very honest. The next season is going to start 0-0 and will come down to how we work.”
Surace likes the work ethic he is seeing from the 2019 group. “Our weight room numbers have been the highest they have ever been,” said Surace, whose team will face Dartmouth at Yankee Stadium on November 9 in a special celebration of the 150th anniversary.
“This is the best the guys have done in coming back in shape. Mentally, we are not making alignment mistakes. We continue to get better.”
Unquestionably, there will be growing pains as Princeton works new faces into the mix.
“We know we are at the point where they are some inexperienced guys at the receiver spots, the O-line spots and as you go down the depth chart at running back,” said Surace.
“They will make some mistakes, we have to get them out of their system now. They are getting better. The mistakes that were made day one, weren’t made day two. The guys have moved on.”
With Lovett moving on to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he is on injured reserve, the quarterback situation is up in the air, with Surace declining to reveal his starter. Surace, though, did note that he is happy with the progress he has seen from his four returners — senior Kevin Davidson (33-for-50 passes for 386 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2018), senior Zach Keller (13-for-13 for 117 yards), junior Cole Smith (2-for-4 for 49 yards and 1 touchdown), and highly touted sophomore Brevin White.
“Those four guys have really put themselves in a good position,” said Surace.
“That is not one position I am losing sleep over with the culture in that room, the work ethic in that room, and the way they practice.”
On the other hand, Surace will be losing sleep over the receiving corps with the graduation of all-time great Jesper Horsted, the program’s leader in receptions (196) and touchdown catches (28), along with two-time All-Ivy performer Carlson.
The options at that spot include junior Jacob Birmelin (7 catches for 44 yards in 2018), sophomore Dylan Classi (7 catches for 110 yards and one touchdown), and senior Andre Griffin (3 catches for 31 yards).
The secret weapon in the passing game could be senior tight end Graham Adomitis, who made 10 catches for 61 yards and one touchdown last fall as he earned first-team All-Ivy honors.
“He is a really good athlete,” said Surace. “The one thing I hope we can take advantage of the match ups and his athleticism a little more with a guy who is 6’ 4, 255 pounds.”
Princeton features some good athletes at running back in junior Collin Eaddy (663 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns in 2018), senior Ryan Quigley (330 yards, 4 touchdowns), and sophomore Trey Gray (202 yards rushing).
“Collin has been an outstanding player for us, he came in as a freshman and found a role,” said Surace.
“Last year, he had a bigger role and when Charlie Volker was out, Collin played some incredible football there. Quigs has been the Swiss Army knife. He catches the ball so well. He is not a guy who has been a 15-20 carry a game guy ever but in his seven to 10 carries, he has been really efficient. We are starting to see Trey Gray emerge; he is one of the better athletes that we have. I am starting to feel better about out depth there.”
Along the offensive line, senior center Alex Deters and senior tackle Brent Holder lead a deep group that also includes sophomore Luke Aschenbrand, sophomore Henry Byrd, senior David Garfunkel, junior Riley Held, junior David Hoffman, junior Ryan Huth, junior Nikola Ivanisevic, sophomore Ford Roberts, sophomore Connor Scaglione, and sophomore Zackary Zambrano.
“Alex Deters has been steady center for us, last year I thought he played at a really high level,” said Surace.
“We have been really solid at tackle. We haven’t had to help our tackles much since I have been here the last six or seven years. I really feel good about our tackles, Brent Holder was one of the better players in the conference last year. When Reily Radosevich went down with an injury last year, we were able to see Henry Byrd step up in the Penn game. One thing we do is we play a lot of linemen because of the number of plays we run. We are not a just play five guys team. We are typically playing eight or nine guys. You are always going to have some butterflies but it is not going to be the anxiety of your first start.”
With a defense featuring such key returning starters as senior lineman Joey DeMarco, senior lineman Jake Strain, junior lineman Sam Wright, junior linebacker Jeremiah Tyler, sophomore defensive back Christian Brown, senior defensive back T.J. Floyd, junior defensive back Trevor Forbes and junior defensive back Delan Stallworth, that unit should not cause anxiety for Surace.
“A lot of those guys have played for a couple of years,” said Surace.
“They have been awesome in practice with the way they run to the ball. I am watching a guy like Sam Wright, who had a great role last year. He technically struggled at some things, he never used his hands the way he should. He has improved. I am watching practice and he has made this jump that we need. We are watching guys do that, guys like Jeremiah Tyler. I felt like almost every big moment last year that we needed a stop on defense, he took advantage of opportunities and made the stop. We are watching practice and he is doing the same stuff. We are using him in different positions and moving him around. He has really been a top player for us.”
Producing an encore performance of last year’s perfect campaign isn’t weighing on Surace, as his top priority is getting ready for the next foe.
“I always want to win, I don’t think there is any more pressure than there was in 2010,” said Surace.
“I will feel the same way each week, focusing on that week and going into that game. That is what our guys have done really well. We have been on the other end of it and when somebody knocks you down, you might have a little more of a chip on your shoulder. At the end of the day when the ball is kicked off, you are running down the field to make a tackle and somebody is trying to crush you. Nobody is thinking about last year.”
This week, Surace is thinking about Butler (1-2), who the Tigers defeated 50-7 in last year’s season opener.
“It was great to go out to Indianapolis and our midwestern alums got to take part in that,” said Surace, who has guided the Tigers to three Ivy crowns in the last six years.
“They have been a top three team in their conference for a majority of my time here. They are well coached. We really got off to a great start last year. I remember walking up the tunnel and I said to one of our coaches, if we don’t mess this up, we have a chance to be pretty good.”