Having Lost the 2020 Season Due to COVID-19 Concerns, Princeton Football Returning to Action with Trip to Lehigh
RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace answers a question at the program’s recently-held Media Day. After last season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Princeton is returning to action by playing at Lehigh on September 18. The Tigers last played on November 23, 2019 when they defeated Penn 28-7 to finish that season 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy League. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
There is a din of screeching, thumping, and hammering going on around the Princeton University football team as it has gone through its preseason practices with a soccer stadium and parking garage being constructed nearby.
But that racket hasn’t distracted Princeton head coach Bob Surace as he goes about the task of building his 2021 squad into a winner after last season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“You saw all of the construction; I feel like those things 10 years ago when I was a little less mature would have bothered me,” said Surace, standing in a corner of Powers Field at Princeton Stadium fielding questions in the program’s recently-held Media Day.
“But when you have a year off, you are smiling on the way to practice. Stuff is going on all around us and nothing bothers me. It is just about the guys being back and us being here, which is really cool.”
With Princeton having last played on November 23, 2019 when they defeated Penn 28-7 to finish that season 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy League, the Tigers will have an additional contingent of veterans as they play at Lehigh on September 18 to kick off the 2021 campaign.
“You have that extra group including the true seniors, the ones who would have been seniors anyway; they are doing an amazing job of helping the young players who have never been on campus,” said Surace, noting that he has 17 players who didn’t enroll in school last year so they could play this year for the Tigers.
“There were guys that I have recruited, coaches have been on Zooms with them and the first time I met them was on August 19th. That part is building a relationship, I don’t see a lot of people getting married off of a speed date. That part takes more time. We are going through that. It is really helpful to have a locker room with so many upperclassmen. They are just cognizant of that part of it.”
Senior running back Collin Eaddy, who rushed for 799 yards in 2019 and has a career average years per carry of 5.8, the best in program history, has provided a soothing locker room presence.
“Collin was like an old soul when he got here, he is that way,” said Surace.
“Now that he is into his fifth year, there is this impact he has when he is giving a message or talking to the guys. Everybody does it differently. You guys saw John Lovett ’19 — he might grab a guy by the shirt and talk to him in a louder voice where Collin might put his arm around him and just bring him off privately.”
Senior linebacker Jeremiah Tyler brings a jolt of energy on and off the field for the Tigers.
“He looks great,” said Surace of Tyler, a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League performer in 2019 and one of two finalists for the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.
“You see him, he just has that big smile, he comes out with energy, he leads by example. When he sends a message, it is outstanding. He plays hard. We use the hashtag on social media, orange juice. He is the epitome of juice and energy. He is always bouncing around with this love and passion of being at Princeton and being on the field.”
Eaddy and Tyler were recently named to serve as team captains this fall along with fellow seniors Trevor Forbes, Nikola Ivanisevic, James Johnson, and Cole Smith.
“At each position, we have a leadership council and from there, we pick the captains from those guys,” said Surace,
“I don’t want to have a vote because I don’t know who I would choose. This group is the largest group of leaders, but I can’t go out with nine captains.”
One of the key questions to be answered in the preseason is who will emerge as the quarterback to lead the Tiger offense.
“We have had this a few times since I have been here where we have graduated a veteran player, a really good player, and we have had to compete,” said Surace, noting that senior Cole Smith; senior Brevin White; sophomore transfer Blake Stenstrom, who previously played at Colorado; and junior Joe Hutchison are vying for the QB spot.
“I think that room is so solid. The way that we coach all of them, there is this natural transition. The hard part right now is that they are all playing really well. Those four guys are playing and operating the offense really well. They are throwing it really well.”
Princeton features some hard hitters in the trenches, led by senior Henry Byrd at offensive tackle and senior Sam Wright on the defensive line.
“Our guys up front, our O-line versus D-line have had battles in practice,” said a smiling Surace, an All-Ivy center during his playing days at Princeton in the late 1980s.
“It is Henry Byrd blocking Sam Wright or Sam pass rushing on Byrd. Those match-ups are just great.”
The Tigers feature some great players all over the field as they are returning starters on each side of the ball, including All-Ivy performers in senior receiver Jacob Birmelin, senior defensive back Delan Stallworth, senior tight end Carson Bobo, junior punter Will Powers, and senior linebacker James Johnson in addition to Eaddy, Tyler, and Byrd.
With Princeton having won three of the last seven Ivy titles, it was chosen as the preseason league favorite in a vote of Ivy media members.
While Surace likes seeing the program get that kind of respect, he knows there is a lot of work to do on and off the field in order for Princeton to again be an Ivy title contender.
“We have been away from each other, so how are we going to respond to being together,” said Surace who guided Princeton to a 10-0 season in 2018 giving it a two-year record of 18-2, the most victories the Tigers have had over a two-year stretch since the 1950-51 seasons.
“That one, they have been awesome with. Then it is how are they going to be with our operation when we call an offensive formation and play, a defensive front, blitz, cover or whatever. I watched practice yesterday and we had more stuff on both sides of the ball. I told the coaches, let’s dial it back a little. We have stuff in that we normally have in at the middle of the season. We have been meeting with the players for so many Zooms that the players have taken it from the laptop and transferred it onto the field.”
The Tigers will be thrown into the fire this Saturday when they travel to Lehigh (0-2) to kick off the 2021 campaign.
“The last two days have been sweltering hot and I have never played at Lehigh ever where it wasn’t like this,” said Surace.
“At 12:00 at Lehigh, you are in a full sweat. It is good preparation for that. That has always been a dogfight when we play them. Even when we were bad and they were good, it was a great game for at least three quarters. In the years where we were really good and played them and maybe they were a little down, the game has been incredibly competitive. It is awesome having a team that has historically been a top Patriot League team week one because we can’t have a bad practice.”
Surace is cautiously optimistic that Princeton can emerge as a top team.
“We will see,” said Surace. “I love how we are working, I love how we are doing things. If we keep doing things the right way, yeah, I think we have a great group.”