The Back Seven Is in the Forefront as Spring Drills Begin
BY JAY GREENBERG
For four linebacker positions, the Tigers have two starters coming back and just one at four defensive backfield spots. So, of course, spring drills began Friday morning with the most intriguing and critical battles at those positions.
“All places are up for competition, that’s always the case, but we lost a lot of our back seven on defense,” said Coach Bob Surace. “We had Rohan Hylton, R.J. Paige, Luke Catarius and Nick Fekula contributing all four years at linebacker and three of those guys started.
“(Top reserve) Mark Fossati is the only guy back.”
Cornerback Chance Melancon, who started from game three in 2016, is the lone first-string incumbent in a defensive backfield that will miss James Gales, Dorian Williams and Sam Huffman, even if T.J. Floyd, who steps into the huge shoes of the first-team All-Ivy Williams at weak side safety, played all season in the nickel and appears to be a star on the rise.
Otherwise, the Tigers need some rising freshmen and sophomores to grow up fast, meaning into not only for positions on the two-deep but on special teams. These underclassmen will be on the field three times a week through the concluding spring scrimmage on April 8, but as drills began Friday morning, the coaches already had clues from a winter of strength training who is ready to compete.
“It’s not so much [the scores] in the weight room that mean the most but the competition being embraced there,” said Surace. “The guys who figure out that part tend to be more prepared for the spring and training camp.
“I’m not allowed in the weight room during the summer, but I can see the change in the body types. Over the years those guys tend to have more confidence and play better.
“It is always an important off-season for (rising) freshmen. They didn’t play special teams in high school because they were the stars and last year their heads were spinning. The winter has been the time to develop work habits in the weight room and spring practice will be a great time for them to develop fundamentals.
“It’s not just underclassmen who take advantage of it. John Lovett was (Ivy League offensive) Player of the Year (in 2016) and he is now up to 230-plus pounds .
“This will be the first spring John will be getting the majority of the reps at quarterback. This will be good for him because in the fall, he will be back to doing all the things he does for us.”
The heir apparent for 2018, the very promising Kevin Davidson, will be getting more reps as well. Here is a breakdown of the competition, position by position:
Running Back: Joe Rhattigan’s hobbled senior season gave playing time to A.J. Glass. But Glass is graduating too, leaving spots open behind incumbent Charlie Volker. Ryan Quigley, who broke a 50-yard touchdown run late in the rout at Cornell and senior Hayden Murphy are contrasting runners–sophomore Quigley for all his all-around ability including receiving, and Murphy, as a strong, straight-ahead type.
Receivers: Jesper Horsted, a Princeton baseball player who will be excused from most of the spring drills, is a breakout returning All-Ivy candidate. But the graduating Isaiah Barnes, James Frusciante and Trevor Osborne all have to be replaced. One spot should go to the 6-5 Alex Parkinson, who caught seven balls last season, and junior Stephen Carlson, who caught two, will compete for a place, too. But a breakout spring and camp by junior Jordan Argue would be a godsend.
“A big jump by him would help us,” said Surace. “He is big, explosive, fast, with good hands.
“It all hasn’t translated to the field yet, but it didn’t really for Trevor Osborne until his senior year.”
Reinaldo Maristany, who has been setback by injuries, is ready to go this spring and could be a Roman Wilson type of weapon out of the slot. Same for Tiger Bech, another swift mighty mite, who was returning punts as a freshman in 2016 until being set back by a medical issue. Finding a second game breaker to complement Horsted would be huge.
Tight Ends: Graham Adomitis’s two catches behind senior Scott Carpenter in 2016 were both for touchdowns. Adomitis, who was a quarterback until his senior year of high school, has the athletic ability to perhaps expand the tight end’s role in the offense. The battle for the spot behind him is between rising freshmen Sam Johnson and Riley Held, Johnson being the more athletic type, Held, the bigger and more physical.
Offensive Line: Center Mason Darrow is graduating but replacement Richard Bush is one of eight returning linemen who started at least one game last season for a unit that dominated. This is amazing, and reassuring, depth. Christopher Ryan, Alex Deters and Andre Guest are preparing for two-deep roles in the fall.
Defensive Line: The return of end Kurt Holuba, the runner-up for league defensive Player of the Year, makes the required defensive do-over much more manageable. Still, Henry Schlossberg leaves a big hole in the middle and Brannon Jones had developed into more than just adequate on Holuba’s opposite side.
“(Junior) Joey DeMarco is big, strong, long, in the Schlossberg mold and he has already played more than Henry did at this stage,” said Surace. “We are going to practice him both at nose and on the end, and see how he does with versatility.
“Jake Strain and Jay Rolader also can play multiple positions. Simeon Lane started the Dartmouth game his freshman year and then had battled an injury last year. He is one of the strongest guys on the team; we have high hopes for him. Khalil Bryant has been good at pressuring quarterbacks; we’re working to round out his game.”
Linebacker: Fossati, who almost equally shared snaps with Catarius at the WIL, becomes the leader of the corps. But replacing Hylton at the other inside spot will be one of the spring and summer’s major projects.
Thomas Johnson, who earned playing time in all ten games behind Paige at the SAM (outside) will get a long look this spring on the inside. “To move Johnson, you have to have confidence in Quincy Wolff (at the SAM),” said Surace.
Junior Mike Wagner had three tackles for losses in 2016 backing up at the rush linebacking position. “Mike’s been a tremendous pass rusher ever since we moved him out there, but he also got much better against the run last year,” said Surace. “Through the workouts, he looks leaner and more flexible.”
John Orr, Jack Simcox and Deion King are competing for places on the two-deep at the other middle linebacker spot. “And both Sean Chambers and Nico Bayless did very well in the weight room,” said Surace.
Defensive back: Floyd and Melancon are instant comforts to new secondary coach Marvin Clecidor, but his work is cut out for him on the other side, where corner TC Schneider and safety Benjamin Ellis are the early frontrunners for the starting spots. Phillip Frost, Adam Hoffman, Eli Stern and Tyler Campbell have opportunities to make the two deep.
“Schneider has had a terrific off season; he is stronger, gotten faster,” said Surace. “I am looking forward to seeing him this spring. I think he is ready.”
The first two weeks of practice will take place on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium while instillation of the new turf on the practice fields is completed. Though subject to change, the Tigers generally will work late Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. The concluding scrimmage on April 8th will be followed by the presentation of the 2016 Ivy League championship rings.