HAPPY DAYS: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace is all smiles at the program’s recent media day. Last fall, Surace had a lot of smiles about as the Tigers went 8-2 overall and 6-1 Ivy, tying Harvard for the league crown. Princeton will be looking to build on that success as it kicks off its 2014 campaign by playing at the University of San Diego (1-1) on September 20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
In 2013, the Princeton University football team answered the question of whether it was ready to compete for an Ivy League title in resounding fashion.
Overpowering its foes by scoring 43.7 points a game, the Tigers went 8-2 overall and 6-1 Ivy, tying Harvard for the league crown.
As Princeton looks ahead to its 2014 campaign, the issue now is whether the program can handle prosperity.
Speaking recently at the team’s annual media day, Princeton head coach Bob Surace said that his staff is invoking a bit of Japanese philosophy to inspire his players as they prepare for their season opener at the University of San Diego (1-1) on September 20.
“We use the word, “kaizen,” which means continuous improvement,” said Surace, a 1990 Princeton alum and All-Ivy center who is bringing a 15-25 record into his fifth year at the helm of his alma mater.
“Instead of competing and worrying about all the things down the road, you compete against Princeton to see how good we can be. So Quinn Epperly (star senior quarterback) is competing to be a better Quinn Epperly. I love that.”
Surace and his staff have gone out of their way to stifle any feeling of complacency among their players.
“Our guys went right back to work,” asserted Surace, whose team was picked to finish first in the Ivy preseason media poll.
“Last season ended and we had our final meeting and our banquet and before that meeting we told them they will get a few days to celebrate and do the bonfire and some of those good things that came with last year. On that next Monday, we are back in the weight room and we are 0-0. They have done a great job with that approach and working to get better.”
In Surace’s view, the team’s season-ending 28-24 loss at Dartmouth last November has helped reinforce that mentality.
“We put ourselves in a hole a number of times last year and that’s tough to do repeatedly,” said Surace.
“There was Brown, Lafayette, Penn and then you get to Dartmouth and at some point it is going to catch up to you. It caught up to us, they are a terrific team and we’ll worry about them when we get there. I think that it just shows all year long we were great at executing certain things — not having penalties in the red zone and we had them that game, catching the ball, we had some drops, being aligned in the right gaps and they had a few long runs where we were misaligned. Those types of things are huge things.”
Princeton is looking for even better execution from senior quarterback and co-captain Epperly even though he is coming off a huge campaign which saw the 6’3, 215-pound lefty throw 25 touchdown passes and rush for 18 more on his way to being the 2013 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year.
“Quinn’s a guy who has played a lot of snaps and no matter how much he has played and how much experience he has, he wants to get better,” said Princeton offensive coordinator James Perry of Epperly, who passed for 2,137 yards and rushed for 570 last fall.
“That was true in the winter and that was true in the spring and in camp it has been true so far. He has been an extremely hard worker and his intention this fall will be to play better than last year and I know he played very well. I think he can play better but he left some room for improvement there and I expect him to with the work he has put in. He clearly had a tremendous year from an accuracy standpoint and he did a lot of things very well last year throwing the ball but we expect him to be able to read defenses like a guy who has played a ton of football.”
Epperly will have a corps of good receivers to target in a quartet of seniors, Matt Costello (48 catches for 534 yards in 2013), Seth DeValve (49 catches for 527 yards), Connor Kelley (44 catches for 444 yards) and Robby Templeton.
“We have got four seniors at wideout who have all played a ton of football,” said Perry. “It’s as hard a working group as you will find. That’s a position we have leadership and some things that, especially the way we play, are very beneficial.”
The Tigers also feature depth at running back with the return of juniors DiAndre Atwater (457 yards rushing in 2013) and Dre Nelson (287 yards rushing) along with senior Will Powers (215 yards rushing).
“Atwater has done well, we have a lot of returners, it is not just coach speak,” said Perry.
“That is a position we are extremely deep in. Will Powers has been playing for 4 years; he is a guy who has played a ton of football and is doing very well. Dre Nelson is another guy who has played a ton of football and probably had the best offseason you could possibly have. You can’t be in better shape than he is right now, he has done everything we have asked for.”
With five senior starters on the offensive line in Spenser Huston, Jack Woodall, Joe Tull, Taylor Pearson, and Mike Ramos, Princeton should be in good shape in the trenches when it has the ball.
“At the line position, we are fully committed to playing guys,” said Perry. “If you are really going to play fast the way we want to, you are going to have to play them. Those guys really embrace it because not many lines in the country are going to play eight or nine people with the regularity that we do. If you are the 10th guy you know you are one guy away from getting on the field against San Diego. We have a lot of guys who have played and know the drill so they know if they can get into the mix, they are going to play.”
On the defensive line, however, the Tigers don’t feature a lot of guys who have played, losing all three starters, most notably All-American Caraun Reid, now playing in the NFL for the Detroit Lions.
As a result, defensive co-coordinator Steve Verbit will be mixing and matching things with that unit.
“We have a lot of guys who are doing some good things, both young and old alike,” said Verbit, noting that his DL rotation currently includes senior Victor Prato, juniors Dan Dreher, Evan Kappatos, and Ian McGreary, sophomores Ty Desire and Brannon Jones, along with freshmen Kurt Holuba and Logan Dziak.
“All eight of those guys are working extremely hard and taking it one day at a time and we are seeing improvement in each of them. I am sure at one point during the course of the season, and it may be as early as San Diego, all eight of those guys may be in the mix.”
At linebacker, Princeton will be depending on two battle-tested seniors, co-captain Mike Zeuli (72 tackles in 2013) and Garrit Leicht (61 tackles), to hold the fort on the inside.
“Mike has played a ton of football so has Garrit; they are having a solid camp and we are leaning on those guys,” said defensive co-coordinator Jim Salgado, who will be using junior Marcus Stroud and sophomore R.J Paige at outside linebacker.
“They have got to make sure they get everybody lined up, make the proper call, and the proper checks. They have been doing a good job of it in training camp so far.”
The secondary figures to be a very good unit for the Tigers with junior and two-time All-Ivy performer Anthony Gaffney (22 tackles and two interceptions in 2013) starting at corner along with classmate John Hill (36 tackles and three interceptions) and the pair of juniors, Matt Arends (61 tackles and one interception) and sophomore Dorian Williams (43 tackles and one interception), at safety.
“It is nice to have guys that have played a lot of football for us at the back end; we have got guys who have played at the corner position and the safety position,” said Salgado.
“It definitely gives us comfort back there if we need to get somebody down in the box, maybe to stop the run or to send pressure, because you feel comfortable with guys who have done it and can cover.”
The return of junior Khamal Brown, who missed last season after having brain surgery in 2012 when he suffered an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, a tangle of blood vessels connecting to arteries, that had ruptured and sent blood pooling into his brain, provides inspiration and depth in the defensive backfield.
“He looks good, he’s made some plays now in practice in camp,” said Salgado.
“Obviously being out for a year, he has to get used to playing again. All in all, he is ready to go. He is as physical a defensive back that we have as a corner or if you put him in at safety. There is no worry about him going in there and making contact. I am real excited to have him back. I love that kid, he was with me up in the box all last year and that helped him. When you are sitting up there and watching a game and really absorbing what we are trying to get done, it has given him a great understanding of what our defense is all about.”
This week, the Tigers are all about beating San Diego. “I know that these guys are totally focused on starting the season well, in four years now we haven’t won that opener,” said Perry.
“When we go out and play that opener, we have got to go out on that first drive and perform well. Come September 20, they will be ready for that first drive.”
Surace, for his part, vows that his team will be ready to throw everything at its foes this fall.
“I like the way we have been progressing throughout the practices, we have got a long ways to go before San Diego.” said Surace.
“We are going to play the best players and the best plays. Whatever we think is the best personnel for a given play, that is who will be in on all three sides of the ball.”