After Having 2020 Season Canceled Due to Pandemic, PU Football Excited to Hit Field for Preseason Camp
RARING TO GO: Players on the Princeton University football team about to burst on the field for their season opener against Butler in September 2019. Princeton, which didn’t get to play last fall as the Ivy League canceled competition due to COVID-19 concerns, starts preseason training for the 2021 season this Saturday. The Tigers, whose last regular season game was a 28-7 win at Penn on November 23, 2019, kick off the upcoming season by playing at Lehigh on September 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
While August 21 is about four months away from the holiday season, it will seem like Christmas morning for Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace.
With Princeton not getting a season last fall as the Ivy League canceled competition due to COVID-19 concerns and having limited practices this spring, the Tigers will be hitting the field this Saturday to start preseason practices for the 2021 campaign.
“I just had a lunch with a player and one of his advisers,” said Surace.
“I told the adviser, you don’t understand how excited we are. It is hard to put into words. We got a tease of it in the spring but it wasn’t the same.”
With a number of veteran players not enrolling in Princeton for the 2020-21 school year, the spring sessions had a smaller turnout than usual.
“The hard part was that the numbers were lower, not everybody came back to school,” said Surace.
“Everybody had their individual decision and nobody knew how it was going to go. We had 53 players and we usually have about 75, so it was a much lower number. At times, it limited the full 11-on-11 certain days.”
While there were limits, Surace believes that a number of younger players still made progress.
“That was one of the real benefits,” said Surace. “A lot of the guys who weren’t there were upperclassmen. We tended to have a guy or two at each position who was an upperclassman and a really good leader. If you are wide receiver and a freshman you had Dylan Classi or if you are a tight end, you had Carson Bobo. Our freshmen and sophomores were probably 40 of the 53.”
Surace and his staff had a really good time getting back on the field.
“We hadn’t coached for almost a full year from March 2020; it was great for us to be able to go out on the field,” said Surace, whose team’s last regular season game was a 28-7 win at Penn on November 23, 2019 and will kick off the upcoming season by playing at Lehigh on September 18
“The players missed the competition but you also miss the camaraderie, you miss the banter, the talk, and all of that. Those things are a big part of it and the culture of the team. You have that back. You have the guys come out and they worked their tails off.”
Looking ahead to preseason camp, Surace believes that the extra conditioning work the players have gotten over the last year will pay dividends.
“They know what a football camp with our staff is and the expectations; we will find out when they get here,” said Surace, noting that approximately 75 players stayed in Princeton over the summer to train.
“I would say that this group has been nothing but terrific the entire time. The pandemic was really hard, they showed an amazing attitude and amazing work ethic. Put it this way, I will be very surprised if they are not in great shape and ready. These guys have had since literally March 2020, and really since December 2019, so all they have been doing is training for about 20 straight months. It is pretty incredible when you think about that. I haven’t watched them work out but I have had lunch with them and I have seen them at my house. There are guys that we recruited that had that long, lean body type where we thought that it might take a couple of years to fill out. These guys have gone from 6’5, 240 and now they are 6’5, 290.”
With many upperclassmen returning to school after a year away from Princeton, there will be about 130 players on the field this Saturday at the beginning of the preseason.
“Every school did it differently, I don’t know what is the right way,” said Surace.
“We had 17 seniors who weren’t enrolled last year, so those 17 guys will be part of our senior class this season. We have a much bigger group of seniors. Because of that, we took about 10 less freshmen. By position, there is about a guy more than typical at each position. What I didn’t want to do was to have 17 extra seniors, take the biggest recruiting class and have two guys extra at each position.”
A major point of emphasis for Surace and his coaches will be to foster a sense of community with five classes making up the squad.
“We used to have freshman football, so the varsity team was sophomores, juniors, and seniors and we only had three classes,” said Surace.
“Now we have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and two classes of seniors. It is going to be a little bit harder to stay connected when you are expecting three guys at your position to graduate and those three guys came back.”
In order to get everyone on the same page, there will be a focus on organization and personal responsibility.
“We are going to have structure again, we are
going to get back into leading that way and doing things that way,” said Surace.
“I think it is going to be really helpful, these guys are all going to graduate and have jobs.”
While there are currently no COVID-19 restrictions in place for on-field work, the Princeton players and staff will have to wear masks when indoors, something Surace views as a minor inconvenience when looking at the bigger picture.
“We make a lot more sacrifices in football, our guys sacrifice their summers to be here,” said Surace.
“They sacrifice so much to play a sport. It is not just football, as a varsity athlete you sacrifice a lot of things. Wearing a mask is not the end of the world. I said to the players who were juniors in 2019 who took the year off to come back and play football and have closure that we can’t have an outbreak. If you tell me that we had 10 games because we wore a mask and we only got six if we didn’t, it is ‘wear a mask, please.’”
Coming off an 8-2 season in 2019 and having gone 10-0 in 2018, many expect the Tigers to win a lot of games this fall as they were chosen to finish first in the Ivy League media preseason poll. The 18 wins in those two campaigns are the most Princeton has had over a two-year stretch since the 1950-51 seasons.
“I don’t care about polls, they are for excitement,” said Surace, a 1990 Princeton alum who was an All-Ivy center for the Tigers.
“We are going to play the games in late November and one team and maybe two teams will win the title and they will celebrate at their banquet. I have had 15 years where I have been intimately involved with the league as a player or coach and the other 20 years, I feel like I know the league. I didn’t know it perfectly but I followed it. I don’t know if there has ever been a better group of players going into the preseason because every team has five classes.”
With the surplus of talent around the league, Surace expects some wild shootouts this fall in Ivy competition.
“When I got here in 2010, we were at the bottom of the league so the other teams could circle that as a win,” said Surace.
“As time has gone on, different teams have made it to the top from the bottom but there were always teams at the bottom. You would have to not show up to lose to those teams. Now in 2021, the difference between the team picked last [Cornell] and our team is going to be who plays the best on that day. If you don’t come to play, you are going to get blown out and if your team comes to play, it is going to be a classic game. That is it how it is going to be for seven league games.”