To Open Some Holes, Tigers Have Three Big Ones to Fill
BY JAY GREENBERG
The 2017 Princeton defense, which had only one starter in the back seven returning from a stifling championship unit, was well on its way to filling every hole when two key linebackers and a seemingly-impossible 10 defensive linemen were lost for the season.
As a 5-1 start faded to a 5-5 finish, a plague killed expectations of a repeat Ivy title. The silver lining was that this will make the 2018 Tigers stronger. Barring another season of carnage, the defense should be extraordinarily deep with healed upperclassmen and underclassmen benefiting from hard-earned experience. Middle linebacker John Orr, who superbly handled the additional workload thrust upon him in mid-season, would be returning for his junior year as an All-Ivy candidate, but instead likely will begin the season as a backup.
Even in more fortunate seasons, you don’t develop championship-level depth by playing starters until they ran out of gas in fourth quarters. The Tigers substitute liberally but, of course, it would be counterproductive to not lean on good players who are able to handle huge workloads.
This season’s big–and only–rebuild is an offensive line that has lost Mitchell Sweigart and Erik Ramirez, who were All Ivy selections; and center Dick Bush, who should have been.
“We may have had deeper O-lines in my [eight seasons] here,” said Coach Bob Surace ‘90. “But this was the best.
“Sweigart was an All-American. Ramirez was All-Ivy. Reily Radosevich was All Ivy. Bush deserved it and George Attea was close. You just aren’t going to get all five on your team named.”
They all also stayed remarkably healthy during the course of allowing an almost incomprehensible eight sacks in 10 games-the fewest per passing attempt in the NCAA-and opening 1447 yards worth of holes for the running backs.
As soon as we find out who was sticking the pins in the D-line doll, and why he loved the O-line so much more, you will read it first here at princetontigersfootball.com. For now, we have to explain that the 2018 offense was so healthy that the backups paid a price in development time.
According to the script the coaches draw up before each game, the underclassmen received their series. But there wasn’t a position where a shuffle was the best way to go. So even with Radosevich and Attea returning, the 12 spring practices that begin Tuesday become critical, both for the next men up and the Tigers’ plans for putting all their gifted returning skill position players in positions to again be marvelous.
“Andre Guest played behind Ramirez, who was as good a guard as we have coached here and we have coached a lot of good ones,” said Surace. “When Erik got injured at camp last year, Andre performed admirably, building our confidence in him should Erik get nicked again but it didn’t happen.
“So Andre got 20 snaps a game, not 30. He has done well in the time he has had but, like a platoon outfielder who becomes needed to play every day, can he go from a 20-play player to a 60-play player? Some guys can’t. I’m confident Andre can.”
Guest was one of the juniors-to-be who Surace singled out among the highest achievers in off-season weight training, Radosevich being another, the first indication that he will join Attea, another high weight-room achiever, in filling any leadership void caused by the graduations.
“I compared the scores (a number accrued by totaling the highest weights achieved in three lifts–bench, squat, and clean) of all our O-linemen to those of 2016 and 2017, two of our best offenses,” said Surace. “The upperclassmen were in very good spots and the [sophomores-to-be] made good progress.
“Amazingly, the averages of our entire O-line were within five pounds for all three years.”
In Surace’s experience, the guys at all positions who make the biggest jump in the winter take the biggest steps forward in the spring and fall. So all the high-level grunting done by probable junior starters-to-be–tackle Brent Holder and center Alex Deters–is reassuring.
“Brent has always been a really good athlete and now his whole body has changed,” said Surace. “He is making a big leap.”
To be fair, it’s going to take an over-the-moon-sized jump for Holder to immediately replace the irreplaceable Sweigart at left tackle. But Holder has a new body for the task. “He has always been a good athlete,” said Surace. “Now, he looks different.”
No man is an island on an O-line, more like a finger on a glove. The efficiency of this line will not be measured in just sacks and Charlie Volker touchdowns but also in penalties. Except for one game, when Cornell used a cadence in its defensive signals that may or may not have been intended to confuse, last year’s line was remarkably penalty-free, probably related to an experience level that this year’s unit will not have as the season begins.
Based on the 2013 and 2016 Ivy championship years when the Tigers’ health held up, all aspects of a Surace Princeton team become better by Week Eight than in Week One. And considering the talented holdovers flooding every other position, let’s just say for now that the O-line has the most room to grow.
Some of that development already has taken place. Deters, who got caught holding one play before he helped spring Charlie Volker’s’ school record 96-yard touchdown run at Brown, begins the spring as the No. 1 center, and junior-to-be Guest as the first unit right guard. But senior-to-be guard Jack Corso had an excellent off-season and will play a lot either at guard or center or both, as will senior-to-be Stefan Ivanisevic.
“Like Niko, Jack has shown all these glimpses but has had nicks keep him from getting more playing time,” said Surace.
“Part of the purpose of spring practice is to move people around, trying to find the best fits. Are Andre and Stefan better at center or as guards? George (Attea) has played both guard and tackle.
“Niko Ivanisevic (Stefan’s not-so-little brother at 270 pounds) is as smart a player as we have had in terms of understanding body position and technique. He and Deters give you a comfort level in terms of their mental makeup.”
As spring practice begins, depth is more reassuring at the interior positions than at the tackles, where sophomores to-be David Hoffman and Ryan Huth work towards becoming quality back-ups to Holder and Radosevich.
“Hoffman is coming on,” said Surace. “Huth is like Holder, just a year behind.
“Ryan played baseball (in high school), so he didn’t have a lifting background when he came in. He is a really good athlete and will become a better football player as he gets more in tune with what he has to do in the weight room.”
When he is not downfield, the tight end becomes a proud member of the guys up front. Senior Graham Adomitis, his pass-catching promise so far untapped by a 2017 nagging injury and the Tigers’ wealth of options at wide-out, also drew a shout out from Surace for his lift test scores.
Radosevich was All-Ivy honorable mention as a freshman, so there is the occasional prodigy, even at one of the hardest positions to learn. We can’t name any members of the incoming class yet, but to fill three huge sets of shoes on a memorable offensive line there will be no shortage of quick feet. Getting bigger and stronger is a job for the winter, and smarter is the primary task of the spring.
Practices are 4-7 pm Tuesday and Thursday of this week, 9 am Saturday. During the week of March 12, drills are 4-7 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday before the players go on spring break for a week. Drills conclude with a modified spring scrimmage on April 7.
Others cited by Surace for jumps in their lift test scores: Stephen Carlson, Ben Ellis, Tom Johnson, Jack Simcox. Kevin Davidson, Zach Keller, Rick Raga, and Jay Rolader.
And from the under-200 pound category? “(Sophomore-to-be WR) Luke Montgomery went up 60 pounds in the weight room testing, that really stood out,” said Surace “Will Johnson, Tiger Bech and Delan Stallworth were mighty mites, too. Actually Delan is tall but he’s still 175 pounds.”