When assessing the state of a Princeton University football program that is coming off back-to-back 1-9 seasons, Tiger head coach Bob Surace cites the words of a legendary figure around town.
“Last Saturday after our scrimmage my daughter said ‘daddy I have a quote for you,’” recalled third-year head coach Surace,
“She said ‘learn from yesterday, live for today, and hope for tomorrow.’ That’s a quote from Albert Einstein. It is kind of where we are at. We are learning from the mistakes we made last year, things in the red zone, turnovers; things that we have to learn from if we are going to get this fixed. We live for the moment. We gave out T-shirts right away this year that say ‘believe.’ There is hope for tomorrow.”
The Tigers could take a major step in making believers out of their supporters this Saturday if they can win their season opener at 14th-ranked and defending Patriot League champion Lehigh (2-0).
Surace knows the Tigers face a major challenge in the Mountain Hawks, who have won two straight against Princeton and 10 of the last 13 meetings in the series.
“They are a well-coached team,” said Surace, whose squad fell 34-22 to Lehigh in last year’s season opener.
“They get us in their third game and by the time we get them, whatever errors they may have had in the first two weeks have been corrected. They are a physical team. Their receiver Ryan Spadola is as good a football player as I have seen in my two years here. He’s exciting and he makes plays.”
With Princeton losing last year’s Rookie of the Year Chuck Dibilio as he takes a leave of absence after suffering a stroke earlier this year, the Tigers will be depending on senior running back Akil Sharp to make a lot of big plays.
Tiger offensive coordinator believes that the the 5’9, 210-pound Sharp is ready to fill the void left by Dibilio, who rushed for 1,068 yards last fall.
“Akil has shown that he is a trustworthy back and that he can do a lot of things,” said Perry of Sharp, who rushed for 244 yards in 2011.
“His development as a senior has been very good to see. It is nice having a senior who is the guy stepping into a situation like that. He has done a nice job of seizing things and being at the forefront.”
Others in the mix at running back include sophomore Will Powers and Jonathan Esposito together with a pair of promising freshmen, DiAndre Atwater and Dre Nelson.
Perry acknowledged that nobody has seized the starting job at quarterback with sophomores Quinn Epperly (23-for-52 passing for 259 yards, 215 yards rushing in 2011) and Connor Michelson (3-for-5 passing for seven yards) locked in a battle with freshman Kedric Bostic in the mix.
“Right now there is no separation, they have all done a good job,” said Perry, a record-setting quarterback for Brown during his college days.
“I know that is a premier position and people want to know what is going on. We needed depth there in a big way and we have gotten depth. Coach Surace and myself feel very strongly that we are in a much better position having guys who can play and not being hamstrung into a position where you feel if something happens to one guy, you are in a tough spot. I think we will reap the rewards of both the competition at that position in particular but across the board at all positions.”
The competition has been particularly stiff at wide receiver where several players are battling for snaps including senior Shane Wilkinson (38 receptions for 384 yards in 2011), sophomore Matt Costello (29 receptions for 341 yards), senior Tom Moak (9 receptions for 86 yards), sophomore Seth DeValve (1 reception for 10 yards), junior Roman Wilson (2 receptions for nine yards), and sophomore Connor Kelley (3 receptions for 23 yards).
“In modern college football you have to be able to throw the ball period,” said Perry.
“We were able to throw the ball much better in the spring and at this camp because we have a group of wide receivers who are all playing much better. We have been able to generate far more explosive plays in the pass game, those guys collectively have all stepped up.”
Princeton is hoping that senior tight end Mark Hayes (11 receptions for 107 yards) can step up and be a bigger part of the offense.
“Mark is as good a blocking tight end as you will have in college,” maintained Perry.
“He can catch the ball very well. I know last year there were some moments where we wanted to get more productivity out of him in the pass game.”
The Tigers are looking to senior Kevin Mill to help the offensive line be a productive unit.
“Kevin Mill is a guy at the tackle position who is a senior,” said Perry. “He is a guy with terrific ability and last year he came off an ACL and played well. Now he is two years removed from that and playing very well. He is providing leadership across the board. Those guys have a lot of experience and experience together. We are expecting big things out of that unit.”
The line will feature junior Joe Goss at center with junior Taylor Pearson and Max Coale listed as the starters at guard and sophomore Spenser Huston pencilled in at the other tackle spot. Others in the mix include a trio of sophomores Tom Yetter, Jack Woodall, and Ryan Peloquin together with senior Hanur Kim and freshman Britt Colcolough.
Princeton should get some big things out of its defensive line which features senior co-captain Mike Catapano, a two-time All-Ivy selection with 108 career tackles and classmate Caraun Reid, a first-team All-Ivy pick last fall when he had 68 tackles and eight sacks. The line also includes two other key veterans in senior Matt Landry and junior Greg Sotereanos.
“It is hard to block Catapano, Reid, and Sotereanos, that is a really deep group,” said Surace.
“You have to game plan to play those guys and it is hard when you have two like Catapano and Reid, you can’t slide the line both ways.”
The Tiger linebacking crew should make things hard for Princeton’s foes, headed by senior co-captain Andrew Starks, a two-time All-Ivy honoree, sophomore Garrett Leicht, and battle-tested senior Tim Kingsbury.
“Andrew plays the game the right way, he plays it hard,” added Surace. “Garrett Leicht has had his hands on the football more times in camp than our linebackers combined in the last two years.”
Surace is hoping that senior strong safety Mandela Shaeffer will get his hands on the ball more as he leads a secondary that includes sophomore star Khamal Brown and junior Trocon Davis at cornerback along with junior Philip Bhaya at free safety.
“It is fulfilling to see Mandela Shaeffer just making plays,” said Surace. “He is not just saying its cover three and I am in my spot, but he is unleashing and making plays.”
The preseason has seen some good playmaking all around, according to Surace.
“The guys are excited; we are having a really good training camp,” said Surace.
“I like the way we are practicing. I like the way we approach things. This team looks like it is going to be a very mature team.”
In Surace’s view, his maturation as a head coach has the team on the same page as it heads into the Lehigh clash.
“You know your team, you know people better,” said Surace. “You build relationships. All those guys who are seniors, I didn’t know their parents, I didn’t know their high schools so you need to build relationships, you need to build trust. Before they were doing it because we told them to. Now I think we have built a family where they now understand what we are trying to do.”