Five Questions For The Reigning Ivy Champs As Princeton Opens Spring Ball
The reigning Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers will open their spring football practice season Friday morning on Powers Field, the first of 12 practices that will lead to the ring ceremony that will take place following the final practice on Saturday, April 8.
Princeton, which will also be recognized with the other Ivy League champions Friday during the ESPNU-televised men’s basketball showdown with Harvard, claimed its 11th Ivy League title last fall with a dominating performance in league play. The Tigers posted the Ivy League’s top-rated total offense, scoring offense, and rushing offense, as well as its top-rated total defense, scoring defense, and rushing defense.
Princeton won its final four games of the season by a margin of 153-31 to clinch the title, and it was the only team to have a finalist for both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors; junior John Lovett became Princeton’s 10th Bushnell Cup winner as the Offensive Player of the Year after leading the nation in rushing touchdowns, while classmate Kurt Holuba was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year. Head coach Bob Surace was named the Ivy League Coach of the Year, and he was finalist for National Coach of the Year honors for the third time in five years.
All that was great, and it will be remembered fondly. But in the crisp, early hours Friday, they won’t mean a thing.
Friday is about the future.
Just over six months shy of welcoming the University of San Diego for the 2017 season opener, here are five questions facing the Princeton football team for the spring session.
1) Who makes a jump at wideout?
If you look at Princeton’s top eight receivers last season — every player who caught at least 10 passes — none of them will be wide receivers who will be available for the full spring practice season. That seems unprecedented, but it’s true. Five were seniors (Isaiah Barnes, Trevor Osborne, James Frusciante, Joe Rhattigan, Scott Carpenter), two play different positions (John Lovett, Charlie Volker), and one will spend most of the spring chasing another Ivy title with the baseball team (Jesper Horsted).
As strong as Horsted came on last season, you can probably feel confident in him being a focal point of the passing game next year, but there are a multitude of snaps this spring that will go to players looking to fill another spot. The sophomore trio of Alex Parkinson, Stephen Carlson, and Jordan Argue are three names to watch; Parkinson led that group with seven catches last season. Freshman Tiger Bech was making an impact before missing the second half of the season, but he looks ready to jump right back into the mix as a potentially dangerous slot receiver. There are plenty of other challengers who just need one big spring to give themselves a chance to break into a potentially explosive 2017 offense.
2) Who leads the middle of the defense?
Bob Surace was happy with the depth of his linebacking corps last season, but when you have two All-Ivy seniors leading the league’s best unit in three major categories, you don’t take them off the field all that often. That was the case with Luke Catarius and Rohan Hylton, who combined for 133 tackles last season on the top rushing defense in the Ivy League. Junior Mark Fossati figures to be a leading candidate for one of those spots. He had 27 tackles last year and saw the most rotation time of any non-senior, but that still leaves other options. Sophomore Thomas Johnson found time at the strongside position, but he could get a look. Another name to watch is Eddie Rudinski, who played as a rush linebacker in 2015 but missed all of last season with an injury. Inside linebacker could be his most natural position, if he can shake the rust off quickly enough.
Like wideout, though, this is a spot where somebody could make a big jump in the spring and establish themselves heading into the fall.
3) How does the defensive backfield shake out?
Didn’t we ask this question last year? After four years of Anthony Gaffney and three of John Hill at starting cornerback, Princeton figured to be incredibly inexperienced at that position for the 2016 season. Seniors James Gales and Markus Phox saw limited time in the previous three years; both were starters in the opener, and Gales went on to post a first-team All-Ivy League season. Junior Chance Melancon earned a starting role by the middle of the season, so he brings experience into the season, but that leaves one side of the field with almost no varsity experience. TC Schneider, Phillip Frost and a host of other young corners will try to beak in the mix.
As for safety, Princeton graduates four-year starter Dorian Williams and 2016 starter Samuel Huffman, so the back line of the unit will look new. No Princeton freshman had a bigger impact on defense last season than TJ Floyd, and he should be an impact starter wherever he lands. Benjamin Ellis is another name to watch at the safety position, as he is coming off a strong winter.
4) How quickly does everybody coordinate with their coordinators?
It’s been at least 25 years since Princeton has changed both the offensive and defensive play-callers heading into a season, but that is the case this year. And to add to the degree of difficulty, the Tigers will have a new special teams coordinator as well. The good thing is that all three coaches (Sean Gleeson, offense; Steve Verbit, defense; Steve Thomas, special teams) have been on the staff multiple years — in Verbit’s case, multiple decades — but this will be the first time that these coaches have called plays with these players. Obviously the biggest test will come during autumn Saturdays, but this will be the first chance for the units to gain comfort with their new play-caller.
The most interesting case will come on the offensive side of the ball, where Gleeson plans to keep the high-tempo pace alive and well. A strong returning cast of both linemen and quarterbacks should give them a headstart in lining up, but there will still be a transition from James Perry — now the head coach at Bryant — to Gleeson.
5) Can they keep the chip on their shoulder?
Almost every senior talked about the chip on their shoulders from missed opportunities in 2014 and 2015, especially since they were able to experience the magic of the 2013 Ivy League championship season. Injuries and close defeats played a role in some of those misses, but that class also doesn’t think it came into the 2014 season with the same mentality it did in 2013 — and it showed in the season opener at San Diego, which players almost unanimously called their poorest effort of the last four years. The seniors on the 2017 team were freshmen on that squad, and they saw how stunned Princeton looked coming off the field that day. This will be their first spring as Ivy League champions, but they’ll certainly keep the memory of their first collegiate game alive this spring.