They Do Use Their Hands… To Pass The Torch
BY JAY GREENBERG
It is a great irony that the football positions probably least talked about put the most demands upon communication. Toughness, of course, is an offensive lineman’s prerequisite, but silent types should not apply. When Charlie Volker walks the walk, untouched across the goalline from the five-yard line, be assured that five guys in front of him have talked the talk.
“The efficiency with which the communication comes out dictates how fast you can play,” says Andy Aurich, Princeton’s Offensive Line Coach. “Dick Bush at center was very good at getting it out.”
In 2017, there was no beating around this Bush. Nor for Erik Ramirez and George Attea—the guards on either of Bush’s sides—and not for tackles, Mitch Sweigart and Reily Radosevich. A paltry eight sacks allowed in 10 games and an average 131 rushing yards per game to balance 351 yards passing put an Oh! in Princeton’s O-line, one of the school’s greatest ever.
“Mitch Sweigart was the best tackle the program has had since Chris Theiss (‘93),” says Coach Bob Surace.
Sweigart was first team All-Ivy, Ramirez and sophomore tackle Reily Radosevich were second team and Bush went unjustly unrecognized, there being only so many spots for so many guys from the same school.
Three of those four players went out FitzRandolph Gate in June, leaving behind Radosevich, Attea and… well, let’s open a hole here for discussion about the replacements. If there is a drop-off in 2018, then John Lovett will get dropped a lot more than eight times and the, arguably, most accomplished group of returning runners, passers and receivers of Princeton’s Ivy era go to waste. A remarkable 17 of 22 starters on both sides of the ball are back—make it 18 with Lovett having been the goalline quarterback and the best offensive player in the league in 2016. But three of the five graduations were from the offensive line.
Thus, one week into camp is not too soon to address the unit and whether three replacements, and the guys replacing them as backups, are addressing each other enough to create another offensive explosion. Let’s first center on the center. Because of the communication inherent in starting every offensive play by the de facto captain of the O-line, the new starter, junior Alex Deters, has to know a lot more than what ‘hike!” means.
“I’m not seeing any drop-off from what Dick did,” says Aurich. “Alex is on top of it, getting his calls out, been good so far.”
“So far” means just one week of practice, still almost three to go until the opener at Butler. But tryouts for the open starting spots are pretty much over; so strong were the off-seasons of Brent Holder, taking over for Sweigart at left tackle; Andre Guest, the replacement for Ramirez at right guard; and Deters for Bush.
There was a lot to learn from watching the three seniors. “It was great for a guy like Deters to see how Dick performed,” said Aurich. “And Mitch Sweigart couldn’t have set a better example at left tackle for Brent and Erik did the same for Andre.
“When they watched those guys on film, they knew that’s what I was looking for. The line last year set a new standard for pass protection and it helps when you have a quarterback like Chad (Kanoff) who knows how to get rid of the ball quickly. Once you get to the point of eight sacks in a season, you are looking for that (number) or close to it every year.”
Such a high standard requires considerable and constant push from below. The backups have to have the backs of the starters and of each other. Aurich and Surace do not seem worried about seniors Jack Corso and Stefan Ivanisevic, plus sophomores Niko Ivanisevic, Ryan Huth and David Hoffman. The younger Ivanisevic in particular has All-Ivy potential, as do six freshmen from a recruiting class judged best in the country at all positions by 247 Sports.
The second stringers are important not just in case somebody goes down but because they get 20 scripted snaps a game that are not dictated by score and field position. The backups enter for prescribed series whether the ball is at the 40 or inside the 10. That way they are not playing just at the end of blowouts against third stringers.
“This makes your depth a lot more legitimate,” says Aurich. “If you have an injury, it’s not like you are putting in a guy who has never played before. It makes me not worry about how they will react when there are people in the stands.”
Deters was on the field when Volker burst up the middle for a Princeton record 96-yard touchdown run at Brown. We remember this because the kid had been called for holding the previous play. Poise would not seem to be an issue with Deters or any of the new junior starters, all of whom have had two years to prepare.
So did Attea when he moved up to first string two years ago as a Sophomore. There are prodigies—Radosevich was All-Ivy runner-up as a freshman, able to do more than just hold his own thanks to his own natural ability more than his technique. But when junior after junior are ready to step into important roles, your program is running smoothly.
“[Holder] has had a great off season,” said Aurich. “He got significantly stronger, put on some weight and, in the spring, started playing at a higher level.
‘He is a really athletic kid and he can probably continue to put on weight because he still looks skinny. There are big shoes to fill but Brent has been up to the challenge so far. The sky is the limit for him.”
No jokes then, about a tackle named Holder. Likewise, nobody laughed when Guest flawlessly voiced the Star Spangled Banner at a couple of Tiger basketball games. “I sang for somebody who told somebody who told somebody,” is his explanation for how that came about.
Guy can sing, we learned. But his first priority is that the offense hums.
“Physicality and aggressiveness never has been an issue with Andre, more just learning what kind of technique he needs to use,” said Aurich. “He’s learning he doesn’t have to try to maul the guy playing across from him.
“I mean, it’s okay if he does, as long as he uses the technique we want him to use. He works so hard that we just have to reel it in and put it in the right direction. Andre played a lot last year, knew what he was doing, just hadn’t come as far along as he is now. He is going to be a high level player in the league.”
There is much to live up to. Keeping Lovett’s jersey as clean Kanoff’s or big years by Volker, Ryan Quigley and Collin Eaddy are not the only measurables for their protectors. Except for one game, when Cornell ran some funky, arguably illegal, defensive signals, last year’s line was also remarkably penalty free.
Discipline comes from study. Habits are formed watching examples being set. So they had better be good ones.
“I would say George has taken the biggest leadership role and done a really good job in bringing the freshmen along and setting the tone with the group,” said Aurich. “He’s my guy I get in touch with if I need anything done on the offensive line.
“Reily has done a good job of helping the young tackles, coaching them up between plays.”
If Radosevich knew as a freshman what he does now…
“Then I wouldn’t have been stumbling all over myself,” he laughs. With the help of his older friends, he got the job done. These guys are like fingers on a hand, working in concert, responsibility passed down from year to year, the way winning traditions are built.
“From Ram I learned to go hard on every play because you don’t know when the next one is going to be,” said Attea. “He dealt with an injury going into senior year and had to work his butt off to be ready for the first game. That showed me his dedication, something I want to carry over.”
Sweigart was so good he had a chance to pursue the NFL, but turned it down because of an ongoing health issue. There was no better guy to watch. The lessons are paid forward, 5, 10, 25 yards at a time.
“Mitch taught me to pay attention to all the small things pertaining to football and how to carry myself around campus,” said Radosevich. “Everything, he did the right way.”