Not Only Did ’18 Class Members Pull Together, There Was No Pulling Them Away
BY BOB SURACE
As I thank 25 seniors and senior support persons, it is not difficult to quantify what Chad Kanoff, Mitch Sweigart and Quincy Wolff accomplished during their careers. In Chad’s case there are stupendous stats, and for all the seniors who were still on the field through the last game, performances were, as always, fairly simple to scrutinize.
Behind the scenes in this class, however, are an unusual number of guys–six–who cared so deeply about the program that, even if they weren’t physically able to play on Saturdays, still loved the sport, the team, and program so much that they continued to come out every day to make contributions on the scout team or in support areas.
When we celebrate the Harvard and San Diego wins, these players were every bit as essential as the guys with statistics. These survivors kept the team running, starting with the respect they earned from teammates by going onto the practice field even though they wouldn’t be playing in games ever again.
While I hardly subscribe to the idea that sports are the only place to build character, it is true that enduring through physical injuries is something that mostly is in the domain of athletes. I go to alumni events and have relationships with successful grads who, like Kanoff, were the best player here. But there are more who maybe didn’t have everything go their way on the field, came out stronger for it, and today they are making huge differences in peoples’ lives.
Just like in sports, careers and relationships aren’t always going to bounce your way. Life isn’t always fair; you are going to have to overcome, and, even for our guys who I’m confident will be able to play in the NFL, football eventually is going to end. I don’t know if there is another person on campus, or playing any other sport, who is more prepared for life than a football player at the No. 1 undergraduate school in the country.
As the academics are demanding here, it would not have been a sour grapes decision for any of these guys not getting playing time to leave football. The hours spent on the practice field, in the weight room and meetings could have been put to important use with the books or other campus activities. But these guys cared so deeply about their friendships that they still wanted to do what they could to help make the program a success. In the end, my thanks are equal both to those who stood out and to those who didn’t drop out.
Rebeccah has had every role: Taken attendance, done video, blown the horn to signal segment changes at practice, given recruiting tours, entered recruiting data into the computer, helped out in recruiting official visits, and written for this website. She has been a liaison to the Princeton Varsity Club and drummed up the biggest crowds possible at games by working with eating clubs and residential colleges. And I probably am missing three or four other duties.
I said this about Rebeccah at our banquet: Taking attendance at 6 a.m. breakfasts during training camp, she unfailingly smiled and chatted up a lot of tired, sore and miserable football players, even during those terrible and uncertain days when her family’s home in Houston was extensively damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Rebeccah wanted to be there for her parents; her mind had to be a thousand miles away. But the demeanor never changed. She has been incredible.
A walk-on who got into Princeton on his own, Nico spent two years as a scout team player and made it onto special teams his junior season. This year he was behind some good players at the Sam (inside) linebacker position, so we moved him to Rush (outside) linebacker. He took to it so well that when we had some injuries and got to the Penn game, we decided, ‘Let’s see what Nico can do.’ And he did a lot. He had two tackles for a loss and, though injured early in the Yale game, was able to return against Dartmouth.
Nico is a tough, tough, guy; one of a number of players who became the silver lining to all the injuries we had on defense. Players who had worked very hard for what had probably seemed like remote chances to perform on Saturdays got to play in the end. For Nico to contribute like he did was really nice to see. I am just so proud of him.
Khalil came to camp as a freshman at 225 pounds, a weight that can get you killed on the defensive line. With the weight room work put in and attention he paid to nutrition Khalil got up to 260 and became an outstanding nickel pass rusher. With he and Joe Percival, plus rush linebacker Mike Wagner leading the nation in sacks, our numbers on third-down were strong and, I believe, on their way to becoming dominant. But when we had injuries to Wags, Kurt Holuba, Matt Hampson and Jake Strain, Khalil’s role had to change to playing more downs. We weren’t able to use him at his strength. He sacrificed much to do what he did for us.
Dick played for one of the best high school programs in the country at Plant High School in Tampa. One of the coaches there, John Few, is a Princeton alum who raved to us about this young center’s knowledge of the game. Indeed, Dick was advanced enough to get on the field as a freshman after we suffered some injuries and then played a little more as a sophomore.
By junior year, we were rotating him behind a really good senior center in Mason Darrow. Dick played well in that role but when he was elevated to the No. 1 job this season, his confidence soared. His calls, communication, and skills shot way up. I’m grateful we had 12 players recognized on this year’s All-Ivy teams, but I had one big disappointment. I think Dick played as well, if not better, than every center in the league.
As deep as we proved to be in receivers, John was in the mix to get some catches this year but unfortunately suffered an injury just before camp started. He was diligent in his rehab; one of those guys whose attitude you kill for, but unfortunately John was unable to play this season. Nevertheless, he took young receivers under his wing, helped out where he could, and was there at every practice, handling a huge personal setback with class and grace. John is one of those guys who don’t look back. Whatever internal frustration he suffered never showed in front of his teammates and he is well liked because of that.
Spencer came a long way as a receiver but, with two All Ivy guys on the outside, his playing time diminished. He always has been a good long snapper so, when Ryan McNeil went down against Cornell, Spencer stepped in on punts for the rest of the season and, pretty much anonymously, did a great job, just the way a coach likes it at that position. The first snap that goes over the punter’s head, everyone is talking about Spencer Cotton but that never happened, which speaks to his poise and to who he is. We always tell guys, ‘You are just one play away.’ But who expects the long snapper to get hurt? To Spencer’s credit, he had practiced hard for a remote possibility and proved flawless.
He had the unenviable task of being behind the extremely durable Cody Smith at fullback the past three seasons. Mitch never complained and prepared himself to play every week in case he was needed. He got into some games when Cody came out and earned a role on special teams late in the year but I really appreciate that he embraced his role on the scout team. If they kept a Princeton record for yards in JV games, I’ll bet Mitch would have it. We went undefeated this year and he must have had three or four touchdowns. He was a leader of the JV team, setting a great example for younger players.
Logan was one of the most highly recruited defensive linemen in the league; so promising that we thought he had a chance to get on the field as a freshman. Unfortunately, he was injured twice and the doctors didn’t feel he should play any longer. Nevertheless, he still asked ‘Can I help out?’ and became another guy from this class who did it in a big way, making sure drills were set up, helping out at practice and on recruiting weekends as well. One of the strongest guys on the team, even as a freshman, Logan continued to often lift with the guys. He was someone who just enjoyed football and his teammates and it is a testament to his character that he found roles to make practice and recruiting better even through his own acute disappointment.
Here is another guy who was in a tough spot. There were two juniors who were ahead of him at left guard but Steven was making great strides and in the running to be a backup until he had an illness last winter, lost 40-50 pounds, and missed spring ball. Fortunately, he recovered his health, but never was able get over the competition on the depth chart. He still practiced with the scout team every day and gave a great effort the entire year. Steven was very respected by his teammates, always pushing them to get better by the intensity he showed in practice.
He played with a pretty serious injury all year and, being behind two All Ivy tackles, wasn’t going to get on the field much. David easily could have taken the year off, as his injury was painful. But he never missed a practice, coming out every day and working hard, showing a tremendous attitude on the scout team. I really appreciated how he could move from left tackle to center, playing both positions with equal success and enthusiasm.
He took a lot of pride in special teams and embraced the role of being their leader. Adam was on all four kicking and receiving units and was consistent on each one. When T.J. Floyd and Chase Williams missed time towards the end of the season, Adam got to play a lot in the defensive backfield and we did not miss a beat. He finished the season with 26 tackles in all, plus a pass breakup. In our exit meeting he remembered me recruiting him when he weighed 155 pounds. Adam finished at 200 and became a physical presence running down the field on kickoffs especially.
During the first mini-camp after we drafted Carson Palmer for the Bengals, a veteran NFL coach of 30 years turned to me and said: “We have a Hall of Fame quarterback.” It was kind of like that when Chad first got here–he threw the ball so beautifully–but there are a lot of guys who throw it well. It was his preparation, work ethic, leadership, and how he played at the end of the season with an injury that produced the best passing season of any quarterback in Ivy League history. For whatever few plays went bad, Chad always took the blame. As a result of all these things, his teammates would do anything for him, realizing how much he did for them.
We lost four All Ivy players from the 2016 team–John Lovett, Isaiah Barnes, Scott Carpenter and Joe Rhattigan. Over the summer, the time of the year that coaches can’t be around the players, Chad took the replacements to a new level. Part of the reason Stephen Carlson, Charlie Volker and Graham Adomitis blossomed was Chad’s leadership.
This is another sad story that ultimately proved uplifting. Deion, a linebacker, suffered a couple of injuries yet still insisted on practicing. A couple of times he was told by the trainers, ‘You need some rest; why don’t you take this practice off?’ and he said, ‘We’ve got nobody else. I’m practicing.” Here was a senior, running at 70 per cent at best of what he could do when healthy, who came out every day regardless. One of the reasons our offense was successful was guys like Deion, who gave an honest days work every day on the scout team. As high as are the expectations for anyone who graduates from this school, Deion is going to exceed them. This is a first class guy in every way.
Zach was a really talented defensive lineman who, mostly out of need, was moved to the offensive line his freshman year. He did so well that as a sophomore was on cusp of playing before he got hurt. It developed into a chronic thing that forced him out of his junior year, too, and missing consecutive seasons cost Zach valuable development time. Finally, for his senior year he was having a very good camp but was re-injured, then again following more rehab. It just broke your heart.
Late in the year, we were so short of defensive lineman that we moved him there and finally, for his 40th game, the last chance he ever was going to get, Zach was healthy enough to get on the field. You have to control your emotion as a coach but that made me tear up. At Dartmouth, we were getting worn down in a fourth quarter again when we put Zach in and he took a penalty for tackling out of bounds. It was a big play; otherwise Dartmouth would have been in a third-and-five, and I was all over him when he came off the field. Later, I apologized to him. It was an unfair situation: He was doing us a favor. When was the last time he had practiced tackling? After all he had been through, Zach was the last guy who deserved to be yelled at.
Jacob came to us as a quarterback; we moved him to wide receiver as a sophomore and running back as a junior, which proved to be an injury-riddled year for him. But he had a great off-season and, during camp, we looked to him as being in the rotation behind Charlie Volker and Ryan Quigley. Freshman Collin Eaddy developed so quickly though, that it left Jacob behind three high-level backs. But he served a valuable role on special teams and made a solid contribution to the program.
Keep out your handkerchief, there seems no end to talented Tigers who lost their opportunity to play due to injury. There is always attrition, but it was unfortunately higher than normal with this group. Reinaldo, a 5-10, 165 pound receiver whom we hoped would be our Tiger Bech before Tiger Bech, was plagued for three years and then, following an injury last spring, was unable to continue. We had a chat over the summer about how he could help and, after talking it over–probably with teammates and (receivers) Coach (Dennis) Goldman–Reinaldo came back to me saying, ‘I want to be part of it.’ We had him run the scout team skill position players and I believe Reinaldo made an impact we will see going forward. Jake Bermelin, Austin Carbone, Cash Goodhart, Adam Buchanan and Luke Montgomery all are going to be good receivers, partly because Reinaldo was there for them.
Thomas spent his four years here behind highly talented linebackers like Rohan Hylton and Luke Catarius. By junior year he was in a valuable special teams role but missed time last spring with an injury and got behind talented underclassmen like John Orr and Jack Simcox. Thomas provided a physical presence as an “in the box” linebacker and always prepared well and practiced hard. Whatever special teams role he had, Thomas performed it very well.
Chance had a rough go his freshman and sophomore years. I never would have guessed he would wind up as a two-year starter at cornerback who week after week made plays. When we moved him up to the No. 1 defensive unit after two games of his junior year, he solidified a struggling secondary and, by the end of the season, that defense had became dominant for an Ivy champion.
The highlight game for Chance was Harvard this season; two pass breakups, an end zone interception off a tremendous read and break to the ball, finished by the strength to take it away from the receiver. And, of course, he also forced a fumble in that contest. Chance was the best we have had in my eight seasons here for stripping the ball.
Starting out as tailback behind some really good runners, Hayden started to come on his junior season in a valuable special teams role. This year we moved him to Swiss Army Knife; he could be a backup running back and backup fullback. Most of the year we proved healthy at those positions so where Hayden really advanced was on special teams. He was on five different units, both blocking and receiving, and was consistently rock solid, more than that blocking a punt at Brown. It always is gratifying to see hard workers like this find important roles their senior seasons.
Nick came here on the promise to be given a shot as a quarterback, but we always felt he was the level of athlete that could help somewhere on the field. Based on need, that belatedly turned out to be tight end. Nick came so far, so fast, that through last spring it looked like he would be Adomitis’s backup. But then, after spring drills ended, Nick was injured away from the field of play. We appealed to the NCCA about the possibility of a sixth year for medical reasons, but there wasn’t much hope of that, or, seemingly, of Nick making it back for a fifth season, but I never have seen anybody rehab as diligently. He was determined that his closure was going to be on the field.
Nick was in a lot of pain when he came back for the Brown game. I would guess he was about 70 per cent, but from the day he was cleared didn’t miss a practice. I don’t know if there is anybody I ever coached who had a bigger heart than Nick. He played some at tight end, plus had a nice carry for us near the goalline in the Dartmouth game. Every time I see him at alumni events and reunions, the number of people who told him, “No” will pop into my mind. His determination was off the charts.
When we recruited Mike, we weren’t really sure what position he would be. Is he an inside backer? Fullback, Defensive end? Rush backer? Perlo was a good high school player whom we thought would help us somewhere and while that ultimately turned out to be true, we never really found a home for him. When we moved Mike from linebacker to defensive end for his senior year, he was outweighed by 50-60 pounds by offensive linemen but, as injuries wore us down, he got his chance and made a big play at Penn, shooting a gap and helping to cause a fumble that was key to a comeback from a 24-7 deficit.
Mike would do anything to get on the field. During practice, somebody would go down or a helmet would come off, and one of the coaches would yell ‘We need a nose tackle’ or “We need a rush linebacker” and Mike would run in. If (defensive coordinator) Steve Verbit would have yelled, ‘We need a safety, or we need a punter, Mike would have run in too. His whole time here he knew he was behind guys but kept working his tail off regardless. Perlo was just a super kid who was always prepared for anything. He came into this year wanting badly to be on the bus to the road games and, good for him, he made it.
It was mid-to-late January of Erik’s senior year of high school that Ross Tucker, one of Princeton’s all-time O-linemen and a resident of Central Pennsylvania, sent an email out to Ivy Schools saying, ‘’Take a look at Erik Ramirez of Central York High School. His coach left after his junior year, leaving nobody to help him through recruiting, and this guy looks to me like he can play.” We got a tape and said, “Shoot, this guy is pretty good.” Erik was brought in that very weekend for an official visit and we fell in love; talk about a whirlwind romance. He got the last spot in this class.
With his passion we figured that in the worst-case scenario, Erik would be the greatest scout team player ever. There aren’t too many O-linemen shorter than me but Erik had so much love for the game we thought he would be okay. He wound up a lot more than just okay, turning into as good a right guard as there was in the league the last two years. That emotion wasn’t to his benefit early in career. Our offense runs at a million miles an hour and he would be the guy banging his head against his helmet after a mistake, beating himself up. But he figured out pass protection, worked on his leverage, learned how to lock out on guys, and became not only a dominating run blocker but didn’t even give up a pass pressure that I can remember, let alone a sack.
Joe was a walk-on quarterback who unfortunately happened to come to us in the same era as John Lovett and Chad Kanoff. Joe still prepared every game like he was the starter. He ran the scout team at different points of his career, signaled in the plays, and really took every role possible, including keen observer. Joe saw coverages; from a mental standpoint he had everything you could want at that position. He was like having another coach on the sideline, valuable to Chad and John, and a great resource for (offensive coordinators) James Perry and Sean Gleeson. Joe probably is going to make too much money at something else to consider going into coaching as a career. But he would be excellent at it.
I can’t recall an assignment error or even a technique error. Mitch is so good he doesn’t have to work hard at practice but still came out every day like he had to earn a spot. He doesn’t say much but is a really smart guy, who, on the field communicates extremely well; one of those players whom everybody in the program respects. As an old O-lineman, I like to read about them, and everything I have learned about (Cleveland’s) Joe Thomas (the consensus best in the NFL) as a person, you can say about Mitch. He doesn’t take anything for granted.
Football is important to him and so has become playing in the NFL. I told him he had to get his weight up–both for us and the pro scouts–and he came to camp this year at 285, up 20 pounds from last year and 40 from when we recruited him. His mobility did not suffer at all. If he gets the opportunity, Mitch has a chance to be special at the next level, too.
Quincy was at first a running back and kick returner who was a good enough athlete to play special teams as a freshman. Then he became a defensive back who we finally moved to outside linebacker. Quincy got a little more time each year on defense, culminating in what I thought was a tremendous senior year. Not only did he tackle well in space and was proficient at getting into pass windows, but when we had the other pieces in place, he was great at holding the edge and funneling things back to the D-line and inside linebackers. Not a lot of plays were called towards Quincy, but he still had pass breakups and even a big interception. This was a good football player.
I’ll see these guys again at our annual Kevin Armstrong Memorial dinner in New York honoring the seniors and hopefully for years to come at reunions and alumni functions. But that last time they were in my office–for exit meetings on the Tuesday after the end of the season–it was emotional. I recruited all these guys. I was in their homes. That one last hug with Erik Ramirez, Richard Bush, Mitchell Sweigart and the others really made me sad. They meant so much to Princeton football and even my own personal family.