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  • September 5, 2018

BY JAY GREENBERG

If these guys weren’t supposed to have their teammates’ backs, they wouldn’t be called linebackers.

Of course, with Tiger pass rusher after pass rusher and run stopper after run stopper returning for the 2018 season, there is the possibility that Thomas (Tom) Johnson, who had 95 tackles a year ago, won’t have to make a single one this year. But just on the odd chance that some running back slithers through, Johnson will be standing vigilant. And, in the meantime, the linebackers will support each other.

When Mark Fossati, who had a chance of joining Johnson on the 2017 first All-Ivy team, was lost for the season in Week Three, Fossati took only long enough to say “ouch” before becoming the primary means of mental support for the next guys up–John Orr and Jack Simcox.

“You mean Coach Fossati?” smiled Simcox. The captain became no mere undergraduate assistant trying to remain busy to keep himself from crying. Even on crutches, Fossati was a commanding presence.

“He was like Vince Lombardi,” said Bob Surace. “Really.

“Short, stocky, Italian guy from North Jersey, marching around, giving orders, that’s who Mark reminded me of Lombardi–minus the blazer and tie.

“When Stephen Thomas (the Inside Linebacker Coach who is also Special Teams Coordinator) was with the coverage teams, Mark would make sure the linebackers kept busy. His ability to communicate is off the charts. I don’t know if he has any intentions of going into coaching but I have no doubt he would be exceptional at it. I would hire him.”

Fossati says he will give it some thought. After he stops thinking about the exceptional opportunity in front of the 2018 Tigers. There is no hiding from the truth that they are loaded with talent and experience almost everywhere, including the inside linebacking positions, now that Fossati is good to go and Orr and Simcox are all the better for the experience gained over the final seven weeks of the season.

“After it happened, there wasn’t a drop off from an All-Ivy player to average,” said Surace.” I would say it was a drop off to just below an All-Ivy level. They played well, very physical.

“If it hurt us anywhere it was in not being able to use John and Jack on every one of the big four special teams, because they were playing more on defense.”

Back to the pumpkin go Orr and Simcox, a couple of willing Cinderfellas, figuring a team has to be two and three deep in Prince Charmings if a third ring for Princeton football in six seasons is going to fit.

“The goal is to go 10-0 and win an Ivy League championship,” said Orr. “We want the best 11 guys on the field to do that.”

They can lead in attitude and special team tackles, good training for the leadership roles they will take later, after Fossati and Johnson graduate in June. In the meantime, the greater the depth, the fresher the Tigers will be in fourth quarters, where, worn down to the nub by defensive injuries, they suffered all of their five defeats a year ago.

“Jack is a really classic old school player; physical in the box, a terrific tackler on inside runs and he has really improved in the passing game,” said Surace.

“Sideline to sideline, John is one of the best athletes we have. He could play all four linebacker positions, in the box or in space. We’re keeping him inside just because we are in so much nickel.”

Also, because the outside is well taken care of. Rush linebacker Mike Wagner, who had nine tackles for loss in four plus games before being lost for the season at Brown, has returned. Jeremiah Tyler, who was not in school last year, has become the Sam and might just be the best athlete of all the playmakers on this defense.

We promise that the outside will not be on the outside of our coverage as the season moves along. But today is dedicated to giving you the inside scoop on a talented and deep inside, starting with the returning first team All-Ivy player.

“Tom has always been a high energy guy,” said Surace.

“Freshman year he was a leader on special teams who had a role at times on defense. Sophomore year he was mostly a starter on the outside during the spring (2017), then in the fall made a big jump, really flying around the field. After Mark got hurt, Tom has was the tone setter for our defense.

“He and Mark are very similar. They are Rohan Hylton (first team All-Ivy ’17) types; compact, strong, diagnose plays really well, and are the best of pursuit guys.”

Tom has a sophomore younger brother, James, on the team, pursuing the same sideline-to-sideline, high motor, reputation of his brother. “Oh, he’s much better than Tom,” deadpans Fossati.

There is also Sam Johnson, the backup tight end, and Will Johnson, the second team cornerback. Princeton has more Johnsons than Johnson and Johnson, the most famous so far being Tom, who had 7.5 tackles for loss. There was no better individual effort at any position during the Tiger season than his 16 stops against Yale.

Of course, 95 tackles on the season is also a reflection of how many he had to make. If Johnson’s numbers are down in 2018, it will be because Princeton is a better team, not because he is any less a linebacker.

“Tom is tough as nails, an incredible player,” said Simcox. “He is going to sell out to do everything he can for you.

“He is one of my best friends and I trust him a whole lot on and off the field.”

After all, they are linebackers. “When you have a guy like Tom next to you, you have all the confidence in the world in him,” said Orr. “And just as important is that he has the same confidence in you.”

“Tom is a competitor down to his core. And he is really smart about everything that is going on. I was excited to get the chance I had last year, but wouldn’t say I was nervous. It’s a lot easier when you have a guy like Tom next to you.”

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