It’s Early, But So Are These Freshmen To Shine
BY JAY GREENBERG
When Bob Surace took over a program coming off three consecutive losing seasons, there was no quick turnaround, just a couple classes of recruits who could run, which made it a race to get them contributing while the coach’s first two teams were going 2-18.
Fair to suggest that Chuck Dibilio, who almost won the Ivy rushing title in his freshman year, was an outlier, as was safety Dorian Williams, who was in the nickel package from Game One. There have been other prodigies: Kurt Holuba, Spenser Huston and Reily Radosevich, to name a few.
But Quinn Epperly started the final game of his freshman year–2011–at quarterback, the most slow-cooked position on the field. This would be almost inconceivable today, even if this was a season where Princeton doesn’t have a quarterback, John Lovett, with a good chance to be a two-time Ivy Offensive Player of the Year.
Junior Kevin Davidson has done his time, is the No. 2 guy while Brevin White, the most anticipated Princeton recruit since at least Keith Elias (1991-93), is running plays on the scout team. He is impersonating opposition quarterbacks who probably will not end up being as remembered as White will be. But he will not be rushed.
“Like many freshmen, he struggled in camp with some things,” said Surace. “But the game is slowing down for him.
“You see the talent and he is picking up the offense.”
Princeton is 3-0 going into Saturday’s 1 pm. home game against Lehigh and has outscored its opponents, 146-26. So the only hurry to get any members of what 247 Sports says was the best recruiting class in the FCS on the field starts in the third quarters of routs, when there is a virtual stampede over the sidelines of hard working guys gleeful to get playing time. As each snap theoretically makes every player better for his next one, this is the best thing to happen to this many freshmen since they stopped making the whole class wear beanies.
But it hasn’t taken three drubbings to get the most advanced of these kids into significant roles. Already, the Class of 2022 is demonstrating its advertised precociousness. Asked if the number of freshmen contributing after just three games is above normal, already making the guys at 247 Sports look prescient, Surace said, “On a team that has as many seniors as we do I would say it’s unusual, yes.”
Freshman offensive tackle Henry Byrd cracked the two deep for the opener at Butler. Nose guard Alex Kilander, who also was in the rotation that evening, is getting about 15 snaps a game and has five tackles, including half a sack. With junior Ryan Quigley missing the first two games, Tre Gray has already carried the ball 18 times to a 4.4-yard per game average.
Safety Christian Brown has seven tackles, both on defense and on special teams, and, along with junior Will Johnson saved a touchdown when Columbia ran back the opening kickoff 91 yards. Linebacker Matt Jester has a tackle for a loss and two sacks. Wideout Dylan Classi has a catch and is one of four Tigers–including Daniel Beard, Dawson De Iuliis, Brown and Jester whose athleticism and football brains already have earned them roles on special teams.
Make that five. George Triplett won the punting job with some kicks in practice that still are visible at night, every 90 minutes. He has yet to be as good in games, perhaps due to nerves, perhaps opportunity. The Tigers have needed him only four times in three games.
“Some positions are easier to learn than others,” said Surace. “No disrespect towards Matt Jester, but it’s easier to rush the passer than to learn the entire offense as a quarterback or as a receiver. Same for a running back like Trey Gray.
“We played freshmen corners last year, Cover Two in high school is the same as Cover Two here, so a corner like Christian can acclimate quicker. The guys who already are playing are guys who have worked their tails off but also at positions where they can use their talents as they learn the offense or the defense.”
Radosevich started as a freshman two years ago on sheer, raw, ability. Byrd has cracked the two deep with technique and intuition beyond his years.
“He already is big and strong and will get stronger,” said Surace. “But what stood out right away was his poise. He tracks blitzes, things like that, rare for a freshman lineman.
“Classi is a local guy (Bergen Catholic) who could watch our spring practices. When he came in, things weren’t completely foreign to him. That got him a little ahead of the freshmen receivers, but I’m very happy with what I am seeing in JV games and in practices from the others.”
White‘s position and late flirtation with Alabama draws the most curiosity in the class, of course, and Grey has already flashed the probability that he will turn out to be special. Indications are that Beard’s athleticism, which inside linebacker and special teams coach Stephen Thomas says is above that of most inside guys, will make him a key presence as early as next year, when Mark Fossati and Thomas Johnson will be gone. But there is a lot of iceberg beneath these tips, especially on a defensive line that is deep in potential star power.
“(Uche) Ndukwe played a role last week and has been playing stronger,” said Surace. Michael Azevedo played a role against Monmouth. Tola Banjoko, Emmett McNamara, they are all coming on. “
Prodigies aside, D-line coach and Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit says the basic contrast between the freshman and senior is 25-30 pounds. “The difference between a young guy and a veteran usually is overall strength,” he said. “At 265-70 pounds, Alex was the strongest of the new guys, to be able to play inside.
“He played in the Trinity League in California, arguably the toughest one in the country. Right now it has the two top ranked teams in the country. So he had good competition and Alex has worked hard.”
Even harder work begins in the weight room after Thanksgiving. Most of the leaps in strength and size – and corresponding jumps onto the two deep or close–come between freshmen year and the following spring.
“But the guys not yet travelling get extra days in the weight room in season,” says Surace. “So our longer, leaner guys than Alex on the D-line are gaining strength, coming on fast enough that it’s day-to-day with these guys who might play.”
From the beginning Surace has insisted that the best guys will start, regardless of age. The more responsibility you give a freshman or sophomore, the smoother the transition when top players graduate.
The coaches are willing to risk mistakes. They are not exclusive to inexperienced players, just more likely. Triplett, who is already the holder on place kicks, dropped the first snap at Columbia. Thomas pumped the kid back up on the sideline and the next five PATs and a field goal by Nico Ramos went off without hint of a bobble.
“George is a young man with a head on his shoulders,” said Thomas.
In a group of freshmen head and shoulders above, as advertised.
Princeton is going for a sweep of its non-league games for a second consecutive season, against a Lehigh program that has been a nemesis, winning five of the last six head-to-head meetings and 13 of the last 17 . . . The last was in 2016, when 621 Mountain Hawk total yards and three Chad Kanoff interceptions in no way foretold Princeton’s Ivy title… The last Princeton win was 52-26 in 2015… Tigers, one of only four remaining unbeaten FCS teams are 23rdin the AFCA Coaches poll, up two spots from the previous week and the highest spot since week 10 in 2013, when Princeton was 19th… Princeton and Cornell are the only FCS teams without a turnover and Princeton is the least penalized FCS team (two per game)… Game will be televised on NBC Sports California and ESPN+ and, as usual, broadcast on WPRB (103.3).