This Linebacking Corps May Be Callow, But Not Shallow
BY JAY GREENBERG
Spring is arriving late this year. If you want to see greenery, come to Princeton football practice, where the program’s least tested linebacking corps in memory is competing for roles during the 2017 season.
The talent level ultimately should warm the fans’ hearts. But as senior Quincy Wolff concedes: “For confidence, there is nothing like game experience.” And there is not a lot of it here.
Largely because R.J. Paige was limited by injury for much of last season, Wolff ended up starting seven games at the SAM (outside) position. After him, the next most experienced guy is Mark Fossati, who received at least 20 snaps per game behind middle ‘backer Luke Catarius’.
This winter Fossati has gotten a little bigger and has a moustache that makes him look older. He also thinks mature thoughts like: “My freshman year (2014), the guys were coming off a championship year and I think they were a little complacent. But I can see that this spring it is entirely different.
“Our (2016) championship was a great accomplishment, but it is behind us now. We are working as hard as we can to get another one.”
Good to hear but the linebackers, especially, have to work fast. Technically the secondary, too, has lost three starters–all but corner Chance Melancon–but freshman T.J. Floyd was such a stalwart as the nickel back that replacing All-Ivy free safety Dorian Williams is down the list of anxieties for the coaching staff.
On the defensive line, the losses of Henry Schlossberg, an All-Ivy noseguard, and Brannon Jones, are significant. But defensive Bushnell Cup runner-up Kurt Holuba is back, obviously an excellent start and so, really, is the talent of the underclassmen competing for linebacking roles. Good thing they can run, because there is a lot of ground to be made up before the opener against the University of San Diego, an FCS playoff first-round victor in 2016,
The graduated Catarius and Rohan Hylton, the latter so gifted that as a freshman he pushed Garrit Leicht, an experienced senior All-Ivy candidate, into a backup role, formed one of the best middle tandems in program history.
“Both Rohan and Luke were very natural with their movements,” said Coach Bob Surace. We are going to be younger. Mark is the only [middle linebacker] who has seen action in close games.”
Wolff’s play in 2016 has eased concern at the SAM position to the point that last year’s backup, Thomas Johnson, has been moved to the middle for spring drills and, probably, for the season.
“The assistants wanted to do it and I didn’t at first,” said Surace. “But (Nico) Bayless and (Sean) Chambers had good off-seasons and we knew what we had in Quincy.
“As the year went on, he went from being very assignment-oriented, very disciplined, to more instinctive. I thought he did a really good job. He is probably the best runner we have had out there. We have had some bigger guys play that [SAM] position but the way teams are spreading you out is forcing us to be more athletic.”
On the other edge, linebackers Mike Wagner and Jeremiah Tyler flashed talent as backups in 2016, easing concerns of replacing Birk Olson. But the task of linebacker coaches Stephen Thomas (inside) and Mike Mendenhall (outside) is not just to develop a starter but a rotation of eight guys.
“The vets (Wolff, Johnson, Fossati) are playing well, and the guys behind them are showing flashes of what they can do but need more consistency before getting bigger roles,” said Surace as spring drills continued last week. “I do like the improvement of the group as a whole.
“I think we will be pretty fast on the inside, too. Tommy is very athletic, as is John Orr, who made a big jump in the weight room. Jack Simcox is very reminiscent of Luke. Ed Rudinski has missed a whole year with a health issue and is working his way back into shape but he plays with a ton of energy and looks really good as the big physical kind-of-guy that you want inside.
“Rick Raga is bigger body guy who has made a big jump. Deion King should be ready to go for camp.”
If the Tigers are to start well, Fossati has to be good from Game One., an entirely reasonable expectation. A prep All American and New Jersey Player of the Year at Montvale’s St. Joseph’s Prep, he was a recruiting coup who played on special teams as a freshman and likely would have been starter by last season but for the caliber of the upperclassmen ahead of him.
“Mark made such a big jump last year that he was really neck and neck with Luke,” said Surace “And with a terrific off-season, he has put some good weight on to get to be the size of Luke.”
“Mark is a very intense player with great instincts. His strength and quickness have stood out.”
Fossati also will have to stand up at times when things need to be said. Nothing is more important to leadership than making plays, but as a senior, he will have to bend a few ears.
“I have to be loud; that’s the most important thing,” Fossati said.. “The last couple years I have been learning and trying to lead but been quiet about it. Now I have to vocalize it, put some emphasis on what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.”
There is every reason to believe that, like last year’s secondary, this group will be a lot better at the end of the season than at its beginning. Then again, the defensive backs largely were a senior group. The Tigers need some young linebackers to grow up fast.