Defensive Backs Shine in Spring Ball
By REBECCAH BARGER
The Princeton secondary hasn’t seen a shakeup in nearly four years. The Class of 2016 has made sure of that. The star secondary composed of Anthony Gaffney, John Hill, and Khamal Brown ended their career this past fall 23-17 with an Ivy League Championship ring from their sophomore year. With their absence, the only constant is senior Dorian Williams, Poe-Kazmaier winner and recently named Tri-Captain, who is set to start his third year for the Tigers.
But the loss of the starters doesn’t mean that Princeton will fill three positions in its secondary with inexperience. It’s quite the opposite. The defensive backs seem to have found a chemistry that works. For the past month in spring ball, the position group focused on perfecting their man-to-man coverage with a renewed emphasis on making a play for the ball.
They’re hard work has shown throughout the spring practices, and they’re developing into a tough force on the field. It’s impossible to miss the eruption of cheers from the defensive after a big play, ready to welcome off a secondary that has done everything from batting down passes to interceptions and strips this off-season. The competition for starting positions has made them hungry.
With spring ball at a close, it seems the gaps from graduation will be filled by three seniors: James Gales, Samuel Huffman, and Markus Phox. Both as upcoming starters and, the three, in addition to Williams, have stepped into leadership roles both for their position group and the team. Their growing chemistry on and off the field has been a key in the success of the secondary this spring.
“The chemistry is a little different because [Brown, Hill, and Gaffney] were always the older guys and those were always the starters, so you looked up to them,” Huffman said. “Now, the season ended, and guys like me and the other rising juniors are those guys now. It’s weird not being the younger guy. We’re expected to direct and help people. We try to make it fun. Some of this is hard, but we’re still playing football. We build off of that and love each other. It’s playing football with your friends, which is what you want to do.”
After completing spring ball, the senior defensive backs predict their role as starters and leaders to be a major factor in the upcoming fall.
“I think my class in general has a lot of talent. I think that’s going to be the heart of our team,” Phox said. “The Ivy League is really a senior dominated league and having a strong senior class will be one of our strengths. I think we need to ride off the emotion the seniors are going to bring, it being their last season. I’m really excited about getting the opportunity to start, even though I’m not perfect by any means. I really want to make the best of it because it’s going to be my senior year and the first year I’m starting.”
The defensive backs have also honed their abilities playing aggressively. With the Co-Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Back Coach Jim Salgado echoing the motto of “run-and-smash”, the players have pushed to play fast and cover aggressively in their man-to-man scheme.
“Growing up, I loved Darrelle Revis. He used to knock people down. Quarterbacks wouldn’t even look his way,” Gales said. “That’s the mindset I took in high school – that no one is throwing to my side at all. When I came here, it was a bit weird because quarterbacks were throwing toward me, so I had to adjust. Now, I’ve fallen back into that same role. I want to be a shutdown corner, where the quarterback will have to look to the other side. Personally, I try to take what I did well each practice and build on it. Then, take what I did poorly each practice and try to improve on that.”
To achieve this style of play, Salgado has also highlighted the importance of technique while watching film. If technique can become second nature for the defensive backs, they will be able to play faster by staying present while pressing their man.
“[Coach Salgado] always says ‘I’m not taking anything for granted,’” Williams said. “I think his focus is to create chemistry in the backfield and playing the position very technique sound. It’s hard to make chemistry on the field, but being off the field and hanging out with the same guys, you definitely build that chemistry. I think in our technique, we’re sounder this year, and in terms of communication, we’re definitely talking a lot more.”
Williams will take on a leading role with the team due to his experience as a starter and in his newly announced position as Tri-Captain along with Senior quarterback Chad Kanoff and Senior running back Joe Rhattigan. His recent win of the John P. Poe and Richard W. Kazmaier Award, given to him after this past fall season at Princeton Football’s Annual Banquet, represents his contribution to the team as a player of good moral character and his dedication to Princeton football. He is only the third junior to receive it since the award’s inception in 1916. Williams views the honor as motivation for his last year and his teammates have taken a similar view.
“Being my third year, I didn’t think juniors were allowed to get that award. When they announced it, it was very surprising,” Williams said. “It signifies a positive future, just knowing you got that your junior year, and we’re always building off of that for the next year. Now that I think people see juniors can get it, maybe sophomores are trying to get it. So, it’s become a motivational thing for the entire team.”
Now, the players must turn to off-season workouts to better themselves for the upcoming fall season with the completion of Princeton’s spring ball. Despite the long summer until the 2016 fall kickoff, it’s certain the Tigers’ defensive backs will make their presence known in the backfield.
“Each person in the defensive backfield has a lot of areas to improve on. Once we can all push ourselves to get better at those things, we’ll get better as a team,” Huffman said. “It’s putting what we practice onto the main field. That’s what we’re trying to do right now – cutting down the fat and getting as good as we can, so when it comes to the fall, we can just play.”