It’s a Rich Vein of Young Blood
BY JAY GREENBERG
The foundation of the Tiger turnaround was laid in 2011, when 10 freshmen were playing significant roles by the end of that 1-9 season. The following year, when Princeton went 5-5 and had that all-time comeback against Harvard, the number of big freshmen contributors shrunk to four and it hasn’t come up since.
Outliers have been Anthony Gaffney and Dorian Williams, both of whom started from Game One. But if you have more than the odd prodigy in a key spot, it is an acknowledgment of a rundown program and a long haul approach towards turning it into a winner.
Yet on Saturday night at Lafayette, here was 2-0 Princeton–coming off a second championship in four years and five seasons removed from its last losing record– playing five freshmen in the two deep just two games deep into the season.
CJ Wall has started both wins at cornerback and already has two interceptions. Trevor Forbes is the No. 1 nickel back. Running back Collin Eaddy is already being trusted in third-down short-yardage situations. Delan Stallworth is backing up at corner.
Can you call someone who is 6-2, 255 precocious? Sure. Samuel Wright, perhaps the next great star at D-line University-unless sophomore Matt Hampson gets there first, already is a 20-play member of the rotation.
“You bring in talented players and always are going to play the best ones, “said Surace. “We are not going to be shy about that.
“But you also have to be cognizant that there is a learning curve. We use freshmen in the things they do best so that they can be successful and these guys are doing that very well. They are not perfect. Freshmen and even sophomores tend to make mistakes. The more we can give them things that are comfortable with, the faster they can play.
“Collin ran hard. The DBs are making plays. CJ has been very active around the ball, probably should have had two picks Saturday night. He also forced a fumble on the sideline that we almost recovered.”
Ready to Roar at Last Dept:
All of the above said, if Columbia, Saturday’s 2-0 Ivy opening opponent, is getting the corner turned at last from decades of misery, the Lions are not doing it with kids.
“Their defensive line is seniors backed up by seniors; their defensive backfield is all upper classmen; there are three seniors on the offensive line and the quarterback is a veteran too,” said Surace. “That’s the first thing I look at because this is a junior-senior league. All these players returning, that’s a recipe for wining.”
Al Bagnoli, who built a dynasty at Penn, is in season three, the one when Surace’s program made a jump from 1-9 (though a much more competitive 1-9 than the previous year) to 5-5. So Bagnoli still is coaching the recruits of predecessor Pete Mangurian, but obviously drilling them well.
“They have really developed their guys,” said Surace. “Last year we got a flurry of points on a few breaks, it wasn’t just like we rolled over those guys (in a 48-13 win). They showed how tough they were as the year went on. In Al’s last 15 games, it’s either been a Columbia win or a one-play game.”
After losing to Princeton, the 2016 Lions were clobbered only by Penn, and won league games over Dartmouth and Brown, the latter in a rout. We don’t need to know how good 1-2 Georgetown, beaten 35-14 in New York on Saturday, will turn out to be. The Tigers will find out for themselves on October 7. But it is already obvious that these are not the Lions of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers. Columbia last won the Ivy League in 1961 and has had only two winning seasons (1971 and 1996) since.
Game Balls. . .
. . . for the 38-17 victory at Lafayette went to 1) Charlie Volker (20 carries for 11 yards and a 19-yard touchdown run) and 2) linebacker Mark Fossati, the leading tackler for the second straight week (eight solos, three assists).
“Our (middle) linebackers (Fossati and Thomas Johnson (seven tackles, including a superb rundown on a third-down red zone rollout in the second quarter) are playing really well,” said Surace. “They are running to the ball, have been physical in the middle, and are playing coverage well for the most part.”
Special teamer Tiger Bech was honored for his 55-yard second quarter kickoff return just after Lafayette had tied the game, sparking a Princeton touchdown drive. It had to be a terrific effort to beat out a booming tackle by Chase Williams on a second half kickoff return.
The pass rush, which picked up in the second half against San Diego, took another step forward for most of 60 minutes Saturday. Kurt Holuba had a sack before his third quarter ejection for targeting the head of quarterback Sean O’Malley, a judgment Surace hopes will be overturned on appeal. Mike Wagner had two sacks in the second half.
The Lafayette stat crew, which did not credit a single quarterback hurry to either side, clearly sets a high and strict standard. We were certain we saw O’Malley unload hurriedly in the end zone on a third down with Khalil Bryant coming up the middle, enabling the Tigers a short field that they turned into a two-touchdown lead at the half.
“With Khalil, Joe Percival, Wags, Matt Hampson, and Kurt our pressure was really good, even if in the fourth quarter I thought we could have done a better job at times,” said Surace. “For the most part, we got the quarterback to throw the ball quickly.
“Matt Hampson didn’t have a lot of stats (two solo tackles) but Caraun Reid was the best player in the conference his senior year without stats, too. He was constantly getting pressure, handling double teams, and forcing the ball to the linebackers. D-linemen stats can be misleading.
“Not saying Hampson is Reid; he’s a sophomore fighting his way through things, but Matt is doing a heckuva a job. We didn’t protect the edge very well on their first quarter touchdown drive but after that we were good against the run. When you look at the overall team stats, we are doing a good job on inside runs and Matt is a big part of that.”
Keeping it Tight Dept.
A tight end position left emaciated by injury and absence, looked thinner than ever when all-Ivy candidate Graham Adomitis left early from the San Diego game. But he healed in time to make three catches at Lafayette. And while sophomore Sam Johnson matures into a trusted backup role, the coaches are finding ways to back up Adomitis.
Fullback Cody Smith, a man for all trades, is now spelling Adomitis, which in turn has been a godsend for senior Hayden Murphy, now getting reps at fullback.
Asked about the downfield blocking by his receivers Saturday night – Parkinson nailed the last Leopard who had a shot at Charlie Volker on his touchdown run– Surace immediately brought up the senior Murphy’s role in the Tigers’ 4.3 yards per carry.
“Hayden has been behind some talented backs here,” said the coach. “I’m really pleased we have found a role for him. He deserves it.”