Secondary by Name, but Primary to How 2017 Will Go
BY JAY GREENBERG
Defensive backs need speed, swivel hips, instincts and, most important of all in Chance Melancon’s mind, “a chip on your shoulder.” But all those won’t keep you on the field without a short memory.
“I would say we have that,” said Melancon, the senior Princeton cornerback. “Last week’s scoreboard reflected it.
“We were kicking ourselves on Sunday (after the Columbia loss). By Tuesday, we were hustling to the ball.”
The Tigers blew out Patriot League also-ran Georgetown by uh,. . well, there is no longer any point in remembering by how much now that six straight Ivy League opponents begin Saturday afternoon at Brown, a place where there are unfortunately long recollections of interminable days. Princeton has won just one of its six visits to Providence since 2003.
“We have had our troubles there,” said Surace.
He also enjoyed one of signature wins of his era in 2013, when the Tigers spotted the Bears a 17-0 lead and roared back for a 39-17 victory on the way to an Ivy title. But as a cautionary tale, the 17-0 deficit takes precedence over that roaring success, now that this year again, the 3-1 Tigers are going in as a favorite to the 2-2 Bears. Princeton was at 4-0 two seasons ago, only to lose in a multiply disappointing way, 38-31.
“It was a mess,” recalls Steve Verbit, the defensive coordinator.
The Tigers surrendered a touchdown runback on the opening kickoff, lost a receiver on a 53-yard touchdown play, had a PAT blocked, gave up four sacks, and converted only three-of-ten third-down opportunities. Despite all that, Princeton had the talent to struggle back for a 31-31 tie before Chad Kanoff threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, one at the Brown five and one at the Princeton 42, the latter converted into a smashmouth and humbling winning drive.
Playing without Seth DeValve and losing Rohan Hylton on that day, the Tigers were never the same on the way to a 5-5 finish. The loss in overtime at Penn after an apparent game-winning two-minute drill ended on a blocked field goal was a crusher, but the undermanned Tigers had played hard and generally well. At Brown, Princeton had performed inefficiently almost from beginning to end.
So even with a 2017 Ivy loss already in the books, two years later it is pretty much the same plot going to Providence to face a Brown program that has not had a winning record in the league since 2011 or shared a title since 2008, but still is dangerous.
“You leave there, you have always had to play the most physical game, no matter what the score,” said Surace.
In addition to physical bruises, the Bears can inflict mental scars, too, from big plays. Coach Phil Estes, who threw the ball an incredible 71 times in a 27-16 loss at Princeton Stadium in 2014, likes to air it out, and catch you once or twice with a big surprise. He will try again on Saturday with two more excellent wideouts–Jakob Prall and Jaelon Brandburg–why this is a good week to discuss the progress of a young Princeton secondary.
It remains what everybody thought it would be: A wild card to the Tigers’ run for a second consecutive title, just as the defensive backs became to the wildly-successful first one.
You don’t want memories about 2016 to be short; it remains an inspiration. Then, like now, there was only one returning starter in a backfield that looked hopeless against Lafayette and Lehigh, only to turn into a lockdown unit by the end of the season. “It was amazing,” said Verbit, who, having coached at Princeton for three decades, is a hard guy to amaze.
The 2016 unit had three seniors and a junior–Melancon–all of whom put in a lot of work on scout teams waiting for their opportunities. This season’s secondary is far more precocious, with three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in critical spots.
Melancon is not just the only senior, but the only guy qualified to make comparisons to 2016.
“We have a lot of talent, we can do better than last year,” he said. “I would say we are ahead of schedule. ”
That’s quite the schedule then. Freshman corner C.J. Wall, who already has three interceptions, seems on time to eventually join the proud pantheon of Princeton corners.
“C.J. still has a way to go to be in the category with some of the great corners we have had here but is certainly off to a good start,” said Surace. “He is a very disciplined and determined young man to be playing as a freshman. That is really hard.”
There is a lot to learn. First-year secondary coach Marvin Clecidor says that in camp Wall was quicker on the intake than fellow freshman Delan Stallworth, but the latter is catching up fast and is challenging for more playing time as the primary backup on either side.
Freshman Trevor Forbes, who has been the nickel back since game one, had a big third-down breakup at the goalline to keep Georgetown from going up 14-0.
“Forbes is the most physically-gifted freshman we have,” said Clecidor. “He can run, tackle, cover people, and he has good ball skills.”
Forbes has inherited the role last year manned by T.J. Floyd, who has inherited the starting strong safety spot of All-Ivy performer Dorian Williams. “Dorian was one of the best ever in the 31 years I have been involved with Princeton football,” said Surace. “So T.J. is doing fine; he is a real solid tackler who has made good plays on the ball.”
The quarterback of the defensive huddle is free safety Ben Ellis, who like Sam Huffman a year ago and Phil Bhaya on the 2013 title team, has an understated impact except in the huddle, where he unerringly and emphatically states where everybody needs to be.
It is not just a matter of keeping your eyes right, but your head too. “I was also a quarterback in high school,” said Ellis. “At that position, everybody in the huddle is looking to you. If you throw an interception, you have to put it behind you right away.
“So I think I have always been able to put a bad play behind me quickly, but some of it is learned, too. It’s always stressed by coach Clecidor.”
Ellis, who as a sophomore might have beaten out Huffman for the starting spot only to suffer a late-camp injury, almost became another guy playing ahead of his time. In a sense, so is this entire secondary, the last line of defense on a unit without captain Mark Fossati and a number of defensive linemen for both injury and other reasons. It’s going to require continued leadership.
“T.J. is still a young guy developing,” said Clecidor. “I’m trying to pry a little more out of him in getting him talking a little more.
“Ben makes sure our defense gets lined up and on top of that he is a very instinctive player. He brings an assertive mindset.”
Communication, says Clecidor, is 90 per cent of secondary play. His message is that these kids will be better this week than they were last week, when they were far superior to the week before. Between a start in which three third downs were converted on an opening-game Georgetown touchdown drive, and a sloppy third quarter after the bench began to empty, the Princeton defense got eight straight stops.
“Absolutely, we had way too many mistakes the previous week,” said Clecidor “This past week our guys pretty much played a solid game. “
“Guys learned from their mistakes and improved upon them. We are on an upwards swing.”
By next year, they might even prove unforgettable.
Chad Kanoff is second in the FCS in completion percentage (73.2) and completions per game (28). Jesper Horsted is also second nationally with 8.8 catches per contest and linebacker Mike Wagner leads the nation with 1.63 sacks a game. . . The Tigers signed a game ball on Sunday for Phil Aurich, the brother of Offensive Line and Associated Head Coach Andy Aurich, who was among the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. Aurich underwent extensive surgery but is expected to recover.
Princeton, which beat Brown 31-7 last year at Princeton Stadium, leads the all time series 55-28 and has captured four of the last five meetings. Game will be streamed on the Ivy League Network and be heard on WPRB (103.3) or on the Tune In App (search Princeton IMG Network). Kickoff is at 1.