BY BOB SURACE
It is rare to not suffer a single case of attrition in a group of recruits over four years but that is the case with the Class of 2017. It contains an exceptional amount of leadership, making extraordinary these players’ contributions to our program’s culture and the 2016 club’s chemistry.
These guys are going to miss being together, so I expect the majority to come back often for games and golf outings–all the fun stuff you get to do as an alum. It is extra special when you can participate in those things after winning a championship.
A number of these Tigers contributed to an Ivy League championship as freshmen. There is nothing better than that until you win as a senior. I want to wish them more than a Happy Holidays; the continued success I am certain they will enjoy in life.
There was no coaching manual telling me what to do on that awful day of a pre-season scrimmage before Isaiah’s freshman year, when he was on the ground screaming in agony. I remember taking the team into the end zone and having them face me so the players wouldn’t have to see what the medical people were doing to try to stabilize him from a gruesome leg injury.
We recruited Isaiah as an athlete rather than the quarterback he was in high school, so he faced the double whammy of trying to come back from a devastating physical setback while learning how to be a receiver. He was not a natural as a pass catcher; there were a lot of drops. But Isaiah lit up the practice field everyday with his smile and became perhaps the best deep threat in the league, plus extremely dependable on his other routes. He had a tremendous senior year.
The Daniel Chester French statue of “The Princeton Student” wearing cleats and holding books in the lobby of Jadwin Gymnasium could have been of Scott Carpenter. As a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy as one of the top scholar-athletes in college football, Scott epitomized what we do here.
A leader on campus and on the field, he was as good a blocker as Princeton has had in my playing and coaching years, plus caught all the balls he was supposed to catch. Because we had a lot of weapons, a tight end was not going to accrue huge stats, but nevertheless Scott was voted Second Team All Ivy by opposing coaches who knew best just how good he was.
For two years Luke was one of those guys with talent who didn’t understand the required amount of sacrifice to excel. He never was in the best of shape, necessitating a number of heart-to-heart talks that created as great a bond as I ever felt with a player. (Inside linebacker coach) Steve Thomas would say the same thing.
By his junior year, Luke was playing well on special teams and was in a backup linebacking role until Rohan Hylton was lost for the season in the Brown game. A lot of guys play well in limited snaps and then get exposed the more they play. Then are ones like Luke; the more they play, the better they become. It was tremendously gratifying seeing the growth in him the last two years as a person and leader. We have a great history at linebackers here. Nobody has ever played as well as Dave Patterson and few as well as Mike Zeuli but as a tandem, Luke and Rohan were right there with those guys.
Kahdeem was a sprint football player who, during his sophomore year, suffered an injury, wasn’t able to run, and never was going to be able to make the 172-pound limit again. Sprint Coach Sean Morey and (Head Athletic Trainer) Charlie Thompson, who were spending a lot of time with Kahdeem during his recovery, asked me to add him to the roster, which was one of the better moves we made. He proved a once-in-a-lifetime person; hard working, serious and really became part of our team. Kahdeem is going to do great things in life.
I’m not sure anybody else in the history of the program has seen game action at all five offensive lineman positions, let alone start at them. He was first string at both tackle positions, moved inside when some of our guards went down, and then this year went to center, where, despite all the communication one has to handle there, Mason made an almost flawless transition. Most centers look like me, shorter guys. With Mason’s size and ability to knock guys off the ball, he was critical in our running game.
There probably is not a locker room in college football without a gay player. It took a lot of courage for Mason to be the first to come out yet, because of the respect he had, his orientation never became a talking point. Mason had the ability to do something that bold without it becoming a distraction. He not only was a terrific player but also made a huge difference in the lives of a lot of men and women.
After earning a spot as a starter, Alex became hurt and then went through a risky surgical procedure in an attempt at a fifth year. It didn’t work, he never was able to get cleared, which was heartbreaking because Alex put in so much effort to get cleared and was such a good player. A tremendously positive person, he still came out to practice every day and supported his teammates through what had to be one of the toughest times of his life. He could not possibly have handled it more maturely.
Recruited as a safety, Nick had surgery after his sophomore year and missed an entire season rehabbing. But he made an admirable comeback to play a big role on special teams and have a role as an inside linebacker behind Rohan Hylton. Nick was a classic “glue guy” who did a solid job whenever called upon. His physical style of play and that hard work he did to get back on the field set an example that naturally made him a leader.
When healthy, Alex played some back-up corner and had different special teams roles over this last three years. He also was the unquestioned gung-ho leader of our scout team; one of the players who helped bond this entire team as a family. Alex came to practice with an enthusiasm that was the best on our team, and his passion became contagious. From the outside, this might not be considered important. But the coaches recognized his role as significant.
After he was injured in the 2015 spring, Alex, a future movie producer, honed his craft on our trip to Japan, producing a documentary we will all share in remembering a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We can’t be around enough guys with his high-energy attitude. I can’t wait to see who takes over that leadership role next fall.
Last year, James played with a knee brace and struggled athletically. After a strong off-season and summer of weight training, he became injured again just before the Lafayette game, but his return in the third week coincided with the improvement in the pass efficiency of both Chad Kanoff and John Lovett.
One of our biggest offensive improvements from 2015 came because of the health of James. Of his 24 receptions in nine games this season, few were not for first downs or touchdowns (four) and most were at key moments. After we lost Tiger Bech, James became our punt returner and suffered not a single muff. A hard-earned, 19-yard return that broke multiples tackles set us up for the last-minute touchdown that sent the Harvard game into overtime.
In James’s second and third years he was neck-and-neck to beat out John Hill and Anthony Gaffney, two of the better corners in the league. But something always happened where James might miss a couple days with an injury and lose his spot. He did okay in a backup role but never seemed entirely comfortable.
There was a playmaker inside him, though, and it was just a matter of time before he became an elite corner. After a rough start, I don’t remember a ball being caught on him for more than four yards in the last eight games. On the few opportunities when teams threw the ball downfield on him, James made picks, so they stopped trying. Steve Verbit says James turned into one of the better corners we have had in Steve’s (32) years here, which summarizes an incredible season.
A.J. had injury problems until spending the summer here with (Strength Coach) Jason Gallucci. It made a world of difference. Our lead backs, Joe Rhattigan and Charlie Volker, were two of the best in the league but when A.J. gained more opportunity while Joe struggled with an injury, Glass was huge in helping us win the Georgetown, Yale and Dartmouth games, The (46-yard) touchdown run at New Haven was a moment all of us will long remember.
Because of the sacrifices A.J. made over the summer, it was rewarding to see him play as well as he did on offense and contribute so much on special teams during a good senior year.
He was in a tough position behind a talented group of SAM linebackers, including backups Quincy Wolff and Tom Johnson. Teddy’s best off-season put him in position for playing time, but he got hurt at camp and never was able to climb the depth chart. On the scout team, Teddy became a role model for younger guys who were getting more reps than he was, not the role he wanted, but it was embraced regardless. You win with teammates who have a positive attitude, even when they don’t achieve personal success.
A walk-on who played receiver his freshman year, Connor had a toughness that caused us to want him on defense. We thought he could help on the kick coverage teams, which he did immensely, and also ended up as a second-string cornerback who made a big interception in the Columbia game. Connor was the top tackler on our punt team, helping cause multiple turnovers and was a terrific blocker on our return unit. He was one of the best special teams players in the league.
When our banquet master of ceremonies, Tom Criqui, said to me, “I don’t know much about Pat Hall, tell me something.” I joked, “That’s a good thing; you don’t want to know who the long snapper is.” During his freshman year, Pat was so worried about accuracy he wasn’t snapping as hard as he could but picked up his velocity and, for the last three years, I don’t recall an issue with a snap on one punt, point after, or field goal. Reliability like that is a great comfort to a coach. Pat was also a tremendous leader, especially of our new specialists, and worked hard to become a good tackler in coverage.
We moved Hunter from the defensive line to the offense after his freshman year. It took him time to learn technique but this year he did a really good job backing up Erik Ramirez. A strong, physical, player, Hunter had a defensive-type mentality, which you especially need in the running game. He became a better pass protector as time went on and also set an excellent example in the weight room.
He came here as an undersized safety with tremendous ball skills. A one-handed interception he once made in a scrimmage was incredible, like one of Odell Beckham Jr’s. As a junior Sam got into a role on passing downs and kept getting bigger and stronger. In starting this season, he played much like Khamal Brown (‘15) – steady and exactly where he needed to be. Sam made plays when they came at him and, perhaps most important, was a communicator. He really helped organize us back there.
John was in the third group of a deep defensive line and then had a bad injury this year keeping him from competing for time as a backup. Nevertheless, he willed himself into practicing every Tuesday and Wednesday and more than once won our award for Scout Team Player of the Week. Though not at full speed, John would give us this great look so we could prepare and did it knowing he was not going to play in the games. He was typical of the selfless attitude throughout our roster, a huge factor in our championship.
As a freshman, Rohan immediately earned a situational role. As a sophomore, he and Mike Zeuli were an incredible tandem and, in Rohan’s junior year, he was playing as well as you could possibly play when knocked out for the season. After a lot of rehab, this still proved to be his best season.
As with Rohan and Zeuli, the pairing of Hylton and Catarius played the positions of middle linebacker about as well as you can. Rohan’s ability to close on guys with the ball was exceptional and his pass defense improved to the point he was our best coverage linebacker. Add his explosive tackles and he truly was an elite player.
When he first got here, Brannon was a rush outside linebacker. Last season we moved him inside on the defensive line and, athletically, he was a good player but, because it was new to him, he thought too much.
This year, Brannon had it all. A weight room star, he and Henry Schlossberg were our two strongest guys, even though, in Brannon’s case, he weighed just 245 pounds. Quick and agile, he played fast this season and that athleticism combined with strength made him a top-notch player.
Jack could drive block a brick wall, and emerged last year as one of the best guys we have had on our offensive lines. Unfortunately, he got hurt in the spring, came back to play at Columbia and Georgetown, but was reinjured and wasn’t able to play the rest of the season. He nevertheless gladly mentored the young linemen, hugely important in helping a unit that was two-deep mostly in underclassmen.
Hashim, who came to Princeton as a basketball player, was receiving limited playing time through his sophomore year so, despite not having played football since Pop Warner, he asked about joining our program. Because of my utmost respect for Mitch Henderson, I was certain Hashim would have good work habits, and neither was I surprised to find him physically talented, but mentally behind in learning a no-huddle offense. The progress he showed during the spring in 2016 had us thinking he was going to contribute at tight end. Then he suffering a season-ending injury, a shame because he was a good fit with our guys and would have pushed Graham Adomitis for playing time.
Four years ago, Durelle probably was among our top two or three most talented recruits. But he suffered three major injuries, the last in the 2015 Penn game, and no longer was able to play. Nevertheless, he stayed with the program as a student assistant and did a great job assisting Defensive Coordinator Jim Salgado at practice every day.
Twice this year Durelle gave an inspirational message to the team in the locker room. His incredible passion made him the worst (or the best, depending upon the view) guy in the world for me to follow with a speech. Only a “Go get ‘em fellows,” was needed after he had the team bouncing off the ceiling. Durelle has the kind of personality that has given him the responsibility of the team DJ, plus everybody respected him.
Unfortunately for him, Scott played behind some of the best inside linebackers in the league and didn’t fit the special teams units, which made it challenging to get him steady playing time. But Scott was a tough, physical, old school, inside linebacker who contributed as backup at many points of his career. He was best inside the tackle box and one of the “loudest” hitters we had. On scout teams, Scott enabled our first-team offense to see almost exactly what it would be up against on Saturday.
Birk was honorable mention All-Ivy, which shows the respect he received from the other coaches as an anchor of a defense that held opponents to 2.4 yards per rush. At his best holding the edge, he also proved up to the challenge in coverage, making a great breakup against Lafayette on a wheel route. Birk was up there with Jones and Schlossberg as the strongest players on the team and a true competitor who played through nagging injuries the final weeks of the season.
Trevor caught 28 passes this season but I think he enjoyed more the 30 blocks he would make each game. Most receivers are cool and calm but Trevor wanted to hit; prior to kickoff he was always with the guys on defense jumping up and down firing each other up.
The touchdown he caught at Cornell was one of the most perfect routes we ran all year, an example of how when teams would line up man-to-man Trevor became a sneaky deep threat. When defenses would shade their coverage to Isaiah Barnes, we were able to find ways to get Trevor the ball downfield. He also became an honorable mention All-Ivy kick returner, consistently maximizing yards.
R.J. played on special teams as a freshman, started at SAM backer in his sophomore year, moved outside as a junior, and then got hurt. Not only did he miss much of spring ball but also it was the type of injury that might have changed the type of player he was, yet R.J. remained so solid on the edge. When we played teams that liked to spread, he also was incredibly effective inside the hashes. R.J. just gets it, was one of our most mature leaders.
You talk about bad luck: As a wide receiver, he would make terrific plays in scrimmages and junior varsity games and then suffer a season-ending injury. With a cast on his hand during his junior season, Evan was moved to defensive back, a tough transition, and then he injured his shoulder diving to make an interception in a JV game. His senior year was the equivalent of being a freshman but it was gratifying to see him stay healthy the entire season and get playing time in the Brown game. Evan was another guy whose participation on the scout team made our offense better. In spite of his injuries, he always maintained a positive attitude.
As he was making an impact on special teams, Markus steadily improved as a cornerback, so we started him there for the first two games this season before making a change. Off the bench he excelled, like a basketball sixth man who brings energy after he has had a chance to first study things. The other big benefit of that switch was that we were able to use Markus again on special teams, where he resumed being a very good player.
As a two-time All-Ivy performer–and one of the most physical runners going back decades of Princeton football–Joe continually turned three-yard gains into six. With a one-two punch of Rhattigan and John Lovett, we hit close to 100 percent on short yardage plays. I do not recall Joe ever losing yards in an important situation.
His two-tap touchdown receptions at Columbia were both unbelievable plays demonstrative of his receiving ability. He was a good blocker, too. Even while struggling with an injury this season he returned to make impact numbers of carries against Harvard and Penn. After Joe missed the Yale game completely, I was so happy he could dress for Dartmouth and get the ball a few times in his final game.
Just as Hall was hugely reliable as a snapper, Tyler was equally consistent as a punter. Every year he got better, the last couple seasons not only hitting the ball at a 40-yard clip but also getting it high into the air so that we were not giving up any net. He is one of the rare Princeton players to make some version of All-Ivy three times and was a great holder, too, becoming the kicker’s best friend, especially this year when we were going with freshman Tavish Rice. Tyler also was a tremendous athlete who backed up at safety this year.
By the end of his four years, he had become one of Princeton’s best nose tackles ever, not only up there with high-level run stuffers like Greg Sotereanos, but also an unusually good pass rusher for players at that position. This once-lanky kid who initially had needed education in the weight room became an example setter there for our young defensive linemen as Henry gained size and strength. Twice second-team All Ivy, he also excelled with excellent leverage and short area quickness.
From the first time we saw him at our summer camp before his senior high school season we knew Dorian would be tremendous. It was just a matter of where or how early. He was a running back in high school but, before his freshman year, we had all these spots where we thought we would be good and only one, nickel back, where we weren’t sure. So that’s where we put Dorian from his first practice, wearing No. 110.
A starter at safety as a sophomore, he was one of the best players in the conference as a junior, and was even better as a senior. Everybody on the team looked up to him because of his energy and I especially admired his efficiency. When you play safety and the nickel positions, you are in space a lot and I don’t recall him missing a tackle that hurt us in four years. Dorian was able to come off the edge to get the quarterback and when the opportunities for explosive hits came up, he made them, including that memorable shot causing the Yale quarterback to fumble.
At one point in our Lehigh game, when we were making terrible decisions and playing poorly over an extended time, I said, ‘This might be the worst defense I ever have coached,’ tying to snap the guys back. I was playing the bad cop so I needed Dorian, our most experienced guy and the one who had been around me the most, to be the good cop in the locker room. He showed outstanding leadership, allowing us to finish the season with the best defense we have had in my seven years here. Dorian was the glue that made that possible.
Because of our strength program and his physical maturation, Lawrence, a lanky wide receiver when he came to us, grew into the body of a tight end, where we moved him prior to his senior year. I wish I had done it sooner. The blocking part is more difficult and it was hard to get Lawrence playing time. But before we faced Harvard and their great tight end Anthony Firkser, Lawrence was able to do a good simulation and a player who had been killing practically everybody else caught only three passes that game. Lawrence saw varsity action a few different times during the year and his team-first attitude earned the respect of teammates.