PU Football Getting Up to Speed in Preseason As it Prepares to Kick Off Season at Stetson
POINTING AHEAD: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace directs things in a game last fall. Surace guided Princeton to 9-1 overall record and 6-1 Ivy League last fall to tie Dartmouth for the league title and earn its fourth Ivy crown in the last eight seasons. The Tigers kick off their 2022 campaign by playing at Stetson (2-0) on September 17. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
The analytics from practice tells Bob Surace that his Princeton University football team is getting up to speed as it prepares for the 2022 campaign.
“We are doing a lot of measurements, we wear these straps that show our speed and distances,” said Princeton head coach Surace, whose team kicks off the season by heading south to play at Stetson (2-0) on September 17. “When I look at numbers and data, it is whoa, we have this many guys running over 20 miles per hour. We have had some really good teams, but we have not been that athletic that way which is good.”
Along with that speed, the Tigers are bringing intensity to their preseason camp.
“Our running to the ball, our pursuit, our effort, they are doing a great job with that and that is a good sign,” said Surace, whose team went 9-1 overall and 6-1 Ivy League last fall to tie Dartmouth for the league title and earn its fourth Ivy crown in the last eight seasons.
“We are putting more plays in as we are doing more scheme. The fact that their effort level is there and they are doing a good job sticking together with things is really nice. I think we are coming around really well. We had a true spring ball this year, we missed it last year. Both of our skill groups are really running well. We are deep on the lines, the competitiveness on the lines has been really good.”
While there is plenty to be optimistic about, Surace acknowledges that there are areas of concern.
“We are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, we are showing a lot on offense formational and with motion; so far the communication has been really good,” said Surace. “I will have a much better feel for that group as we put everything in. It is how are they handling that part of it but they are digesting it, they are communicating. That part has been really good. The offense always takes a little longer to come together. We are throwing a lot at them and they are handling it.”
At quarterback, junior Blake Stenstrom (44 yards passing, 74 yards rushing, 2 TDs in 2021), senior Joe Hutchison, sophomore Blaine McAllister, and sophomore Niko Vangarelli (30 yards rushing, 3 TDs) are vying for the starting spot to handle the offense.
“Blake got on the field last year and did very well; he had a really good spring and he has carried that over,” said Surace. “Joe was the classic freshman year, lost as a quarterback just like our freshmen are right now. His sophomore year got lost to COVID. His junior year, he made this big jump and now he is throwing the ball and making decisions really well. Blaine has made the freshman/sophomore jump. Those three guys have really stood out. Niko has done a great job with some situational things. He had three touchdowns last year and some big first downs.”
A pair of senior wide receivers, Andrei Iosivas (41 receptions for 703 yards and 5 TDs) and senior Dylan Classi (35 receptions for 621 yards and 3 TDs), along with senior tight end Carson Bobo (17 receptions for 147 yards and 2 TDs) figure to take a big role in the Princeton air attack.
“With guys like Andrei, Classi, and Bobo, we are going to want to throw it,” said Surace. “Those guys were all some level of all conference last year.”
Other options at receiver include junior JoJo Hawkins, sophomore A.J. Barber, sophomore Tamatoa Falatea, and senior Mike Axelrood.
“We lose Birm (Jacob Birmelin), but JoJo and A.J. have stood out. Tamatoa is back from a Mormon mission. He played as a freshman. He is rusty but he is starting to shake the rust off there. Mike is in great shape, he is pushing to get on the field.”
Iosivas possesses the athleticism and skill to emerge as the next great receiver for the Tigers.
“He came in last year as a much higher level route runner, not just an athlete anymore,” said Surace of the 6’3, 200-pound Iosivas, an All-American in the indoor heptathlon for the Tiger track team.
“We have a number of guys that scouts are looking to see; we probably won’t have many practices where there is not a scout looking at him, he just got put on the Senior Bowl watchlist.”
At running back, an injury to star tailback Collin Eaddy in the Dartmouth game last season allowed a number of younger players to get some experience which should pay off this fall. Sophomore John Volker (126 yards rushing, 2 IDs), sophomore Ja’Derris Carr (119 yards rushing, 1 TD), and senior Davis Kline (34 yards rushing) all showed flashes in 2021.
“John really came into his own and Ja’Derris really did a good job,” said Surace. “It allowed them to expand their games. Davis filled a role.”
The group of senior Henry Byrd, senior Connor Scaglione, junior Jalen Travis, senior Blake Feigenspan, and senior Zack Zambrano will be anchoring the offensive line for the Tigers.
“If they end up being that starters, we have some young guys who will end up being in the rotation who have looked pretty good,” noted Surace.
On the defensive line, senior Cole Aubrey and senior Uche Ndukwe will be leading the charge.
“Our D-line is really deep right now,” said Surace. “Cole was a high sack guy last year. Uche was a high sack guy before he got hurt. We have some young guys making a jump so that has been fun to see.”
At linebacker, Princeton is facing a huge void with the graduation of standout Jeremiah Tyler, last year’s Bushnell Cup winner as the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year who earned All-American honors. Senior Anthony Corbin, senior Joseph Bonczek, junior Liam Johnson, junior Ozzie Nicholas, and senior Will Perez will be heading that unit.
“Our competition at inside linebacker with Anthony and Joseph is good, they both played a lot,” said Surace. “Liam and Ozzie played special teams, they are pushing really hard right now. Will had a really good spring. There is only one JT, no one is going to fill his shoes, so we will use multiple guys. This guy played the run like JT, this guy is good in coverage, or this guy blitzes. We are going to have to bullpen by committee that one.”
While the secondary is a work in progress, Surace is confident in that group.
“Those guys are athletic,” said Surace. “The one thing that we didn’t have last year with all of that experience was you didn’t see the big play. Maybe a guy gave up a pass because he was physically beat. They weren’t mental errors and we have to get to that point because you can’t give up easy yards.”
Surace and his coaches are enjoyed getting the players up to speed in the preseason, relishing the teachable moments before getting into the weekly grind of the regular season.
“When we get ready for Stetson, we are game-planning and focused on Stetson and you lose a little bit of being a teacher,” said Surace. “Right now it is being a teacher, it is really what our coaches love to do. Right now, it is the fundamentals, seeing guys that are young that were freshmen and are now sophomores. That part is really exciting.”
The Tigers are hoping for an exciting and productive trip to Florida this weekend as they face an undefeated Stetson (2-0) squad to get the 2022 season underway.
“You want to have different road games but playing in areas of the country where we have alumni and we recruit is important,” said Surace, whose team thrashed Stetson 63-0 last year in the second game of the season. “This year it is Stetson and I think next year is San Diego and the following year is Mercer so we have three in a row.”