They Are Made to Feel Special, Too
BY JAY GREENBERG
When Tavish Rice hits the ball right, the other ten guys on the kickoff team are out there only for conditioning purposes. Even in practice, they don’t run as many gassers as was the case Friday night in Boston, when seven of his nine kickoffs were non-returnable, a few boomed even over the end line.
“It was kind of like watching a home run,” said Bob Surace. “The receiver looked like an outfielder looking up, giving up.”
Outta here was Justice Shelton-Mosley, Harvard’s scary returner. In Surace’s worst Halloween nightmare, Princeton scores those eight touchdowns in 11 possessions but Mosley runs back the eight ensuing kickoffs all the way.
Coaches bolt up from not-so-deep sleep, sweating cold sweats, living in fear of the cheap score. It is hard work to win a game, much easier to lose one. This is why from Day One of training camp, every member of the Princeton Tigers is told that a place on the special teams is a starting position, just like the ones earned on offense and defense.
The guys on the return and block teams are not just killing time out there, waiting for somebody a little better, or a little more senior, to get hurt. In fact, many special teamers already play significantly from scrimmage. The starters on offense and defense would be starters on return teams, too, if fatigue did not make that impractical.
These positions do not exist to make nice, loyal, guys feel a part of things. Special team roles are too critical to be passed out like stars on foreheads of pre-schoolers. Instead, they go to the fastest and hungriest. In an average game, a team runs 80-90 plays and defends close to the same amount. Counting the punts, kickoffs and PATs, special teams can take up about 30.
So these are not disgruntled third-teamers running down the field hoping to take out their resentment on somebody. It’s a big deal to these players to be part of any of the units, even if, as Rice booms another one, they are Maytag Repairmen.
“We treat is just like another side of the ball,” said Adam Hoffman, the untitled senior captain of the special teams. “Younger guys, and even older guys like me, know it is an opportunity to show the coaches what you can do.”
In meetings, the players get shown what a difference a block, an open field tackle, a fumble recovery, even a forced fair catch can mean.
“Daily, it is stressed that we are expected to be at the top of the league, even the nation, in special teams categories,” said sophomore Will Johnson, who plays on all the kick teams. “And we watch films of good special teams play.”
The bad ones will play in your mind a long time without the need for projection.
A blocked field goal at the end of regulation spoiled a clutch two-minute drill at Penn in 2015, resulting in an overtime loss that ultimately cost the Tigers a winning season. The turnaround 2012 campaign would have ended 6-4 rather than 5-5 if not for a series of bad field goal snaps that cost Princeton the Georgetown game.
In the Surace era, there has been glory in returns too. Anthony Gaffney’s return on the opening kickoff the week following that Georgetown loss was a turnaround moment for the program. Dre Nelson duplicated Gaffney’s fete at Colgate in 2014 on the game’s first play.
With two-and-half-years of Tiger Bech’s eligibility remaining, odds are his moment is coming. On the increasingly rare occasions the Tigers, who have had to punt only four times in their last 36 possessions, actually are receiving kickoffs rather than defending them. Bech leads the Ivy League with a 24.4 average.
That stat is not his, but belongs to the entire kickoff return team. “Do what we are supposed to do and Tiger in the back will do something.” said special teams star and starting defensive back-in-waiting Chase Williams.
Williams has had some big doings himself against Bech wannabes on the other side–jarring open field tackles to pin Lafayette and Georgetown with not just bad field position, but a bad feeling their opponent was not even taking any time off between touchdowns. “Plays like that change how the opponent looks at you,” said Steve Thomas, the special teams coordinator. “It’s intimidating.”
Mosley, with two returned kicks for touchdowns already this season, was, if not intimidating, certainly eye catching. The goal is to keep the returner inside the 20, but Mosley got Rice’s second kickoff of the game out to the 40, and might have gone further, had not Johnson, the last man, gotten a piece and Hoffman come in to help.
The coverage play of the game, however, was made by Andrew Griffin on Rice’s last kickoff, when he blew up the wedge for a TC Schneider tackle. “Andrew was like 15 yards ahead of everyone else in the unit,” said Thomas. Moseley only got the ball out eight yards to the 14.
“Plays like that get everybody coming off the sideline ready to go,” said Hoffman.
Players like him take charge. “Adam has been the pulse of the group,” said Surace.
Actually, it is multiple groups, which evolve, “I would say there are five or six changes every week,” said Surace. Injuries and promotions on the offensive and defensive units shake the special teams tree and sometimes they are shaken for performance reasons.
“The kickoff returns have been relatively consistent,” said Surace. “We have to block better on punt returns; we have a returner (Bech) who is dynamic and we are not giving him a chance.”
The Tigers have managed barely over eight yards per punt return. More concerning, though, is their 29-yard average net on their own punts, far from the 40 they seek. Sophomore Steven Meija is injured and freshman Antonio Ferrer has been inconsistent in practice, leaving the job to quarterback Chad Kanoff,
The sample is only 12 punts in six games, but that is 12 more than you want your Bushnell Cup candidate to be making, save for the odd quick kick.
Of course if Kanoff doesn’t want Tiger field position in the hands of the punter, Kanoff, the quarterback, just has to keep throwing touchdown passes while Ferrer rebuilds his mechanics. “Antonio is working on his drop consistency,” said Surace. “And it’s been a positive.”
“Not that you want the offense to fail. But I was hoping at the end of the Brown and Harvard (blowouts) he would get a chance.”
Instead, Princeton kept scoring, in part because it is four-for-four on fourth down conversions the last two weeks, no way to make Rice All-Ivy, even with those kickoff stats. In six games, the sophomore has had only eight field goal opportunities, missing just one, from 42 yards.
At least he can boot PATs to his hearts content, interspersed with kicks to his own rear for his three misses (a fourth was blocked) in 27 attempts.
“Dumb mistakes, I should never miss a PAT,” he said. “It’s not being focused enough when I go out there.
“Something I am working on all the time is making sure I am as locked in whether we are blowing out a team or the score is close. Thankfully the misses haven’t hurt the team to this point.”
Can’t blame the holder or snapper. There hasn’t been a single misadventure in six games. “They have been so solid, I don’t even notice it,” said Rice.
The way it should be, Surace says. “When they are anonymous, that’s good.” laughed the coach. “Actually I don’t even know who you are talking about.
So kudos to sophomore wide receiver Zach Whatihisname, the holder, and freshman snapper Ryan Nevermind for their fine work and all the glory that comes with it, which is very little. They will get their due in this space at some point. In the meantime, may you never have to read about them in a game story.
Maybe Rice can scapegoat fatigue. The guy barely makes it back to the sideline before Princeton scores again.
“Happy to do it,” the kicker says. “I would like it if I was so tired I could barely walk.”
Saturday is the 100th meeting between Princeton and Cornell, with the Tigers leading the series 61-36-2. A Princeton win would be its fifth straight, the longest streak over the Big Red since 1901-06. . . . Kickoff is at 7, with the Tigers televised for the second straight week by the NBC Sports Network (Paul Burmeister and Ross Tucker ’01) . . . Princeton comes in having scored 50 plus points in three straight games for the first time since 1890, when Edgar Allan Poe (cousin of the poet-author) was the quarterback. Hey, we don’t make this stuff up, unless Sports Information Director Craig Sachson does. If so, we will trust his notes nevermore.
Kanoff leads the FCS in completion percentage (76.3). His 88.6 at Harvard last week was just off the FCS single game record of 88.9 for a minimum of 30 completions. The Tigers are second in the FCS with a 54.2 third down conversion rate. . . It’s been a long road back from a 2-20 start, but Surace became a .500 coach at Princeton with the win at Harvard. “Is that a compliment?” he asked. Only when the 36-18 since has helped produce two Ivy titles.