The Program is Doubly Indebted to These Seniors
BY BOB SURACE
Not only did our seniors lead the first undefeated Princeton team in 54 years but they are also only the second class to win two championships since the class of 1967.
The number of talented players we had returning this year had everybody coming to camp especially excited about an extraordinary opportunity. But I never had to worry about the expectations–either on the inside or from the outside–getting in the way of what we could accomplish. I knew all along the type and depth of leadership we had to enforce our message, which was one practice, one snap, one game at a time.
Our underclassmen already have resumed their work in the weight room with a message that we start 0-0 in 2019. But going forward I doubt we will need any attitude adjustments because of the example these seniors set. It wasn’t just their skills but their joy everyday at practice that made the 2018 Tigers the most fun to coach of any team I’ve ever had.
I love doing this appreciation every year because its an opportunity to thank the guys who had physical setbacks or ran into brick walls of greater talents at their positions and still kept coming out every day. They set important examples for the players ahead of them on the depth chart.
With two outside receivers being NFL prospects, there weren’t a lot of footballs to go around. But Jordan carved a tremendous role for himself on the way to being honored as one of our special teams players of the year. He is fun, full of spirit, one of the best workers we have had; just a tremendous young man. Jordan improved so much as a receiver over four years that had the circumstances been different, he would have been a mainstay on offense. But he still made a huge contribution.
After missing most of his freshman year with an injury, George started 30 straight games, his growth each year culminating in a first-team All-Ivy selection as a senior. Always an excellent run blocker, he greatly improved his pass protection, and the biggest compliment I can give him is his reliability. We had three new underclass starters on the O-line this year, theoretically our biggest question mark coming into the season, but George took ownership and the unit was strong, responsible to each other, and consistent from the first game.
Strong, silent, tough guy. Late in his junior year, when we were running out of defensive linemen, we moved Brad over from the offensive line. It was hardly an opportune time to learn a new position but to ease our emergency he took on the task without saying two words, doing whatever he could to help the team. With more depth on the D-line this year, we moved him back to the offense. This unselfish contributor got time with the second unit and, when we kept scoring with largely underclassmen in third and fourth quarters this year, it was with this senior playing well.
All season I rushed to credit fullback Cody Smith and tight end Graham Adomitis so that their superb blocking was not underappreciated. But in a different way, Stephen may have been the quietest star ever at Princeton, both with the catches and touchdowns he made and the dominant way he blocked.
Those in the know in the NFL see him as having a future that, at one point, I never would have predicted. Stephen looked so lethargic during his freshman year, I guessed that he would never catch a pass in college. He got more rest and began to play faster, improving so much as a sophomore that before his junior season I was telling everybody that, based on his play at practice, he was going to be an All-Ivy player. He lived up to it, becoming the best contested-catch receiver I have been around.
It was a shame for all of us that what should have been his winning catch with seven seconds remaining at Penn was erroneously overturned (in 2017). But it was especially disappointing for Stephen because it would have been a spectacular finish to a legendary two-minute drive. He also lost two other sideline catches statistically that were so amazing the naked eyes of the officials didn’t see them correctly, ruling them out of bounds. Stephen is as good a wide receiver as I ever have been around at any level. And I’m saying this about a guy who partnered with Jesper Horsted.
At different points of his four years he played both big and smaller roles on our offensive line. But his senior season was incredibly challenging. Jack missed two weeks of camp because his father’s health was deteriorating, came back for our opening game and then rejoined us about two weeks after he passed. Jack was popular because of how hard he works. Some of our guys went down to (Leesburg, Va.) for the memorial service. He didn’t always get 40 plays but he performed really well in the ones he did. It was good to have him back and, through a time of the most personal loss, being able to enjoy our success.
Ben played really hard and well his junior year. But we were just a little off in communication in the defensive backfield and he really took that to heart. Ben stepped up to keep our error at the absolute minimum. It was important to him to be a high level player here and I thought he had a terrific year, culminating in a highly deserved All-Ivy selection. There have not been many Princeton safeties more physical than Ben, and he had great instincts in diagnosing plays in addition to being a sure tackler.
He was the classic great high school player who got overlooked by so many places in the scholarship world because he wasn’t big enough, or fast enough, or whatever they decided he wasn’t. That worked out well for us. What I had seen on video was a guy buzzing around the field doing everything, including kicking off and placekicking. “This guy, I said, “is a football player.”
Mark came in here with a special teams role, expanded to a backup on defense as a sophomore, and then last year was playing as a high level starter when he suffered a broken leg against Columbia. To see him come back and make first team All-Ivy this year is a credit to his determination and work ethic. After losing Kurt Holuba, we had a promising, but inexperienced, D line. Regardless, we had dominating defensive performances starting with Week One because we had dominating linebacking play.
When Jack was unable to continue his career, he said ‘Coach I’m going to be out there with you guys and do whatever I still can do for the program.’ So he led tours for recruits, spotted the ball for Steve Verbit in D-line drills; whatever was necessary. No task was too small. The players loved him.
Kurt was the best defensive player I ever have coached and my admiration for him as a person is just as elite. While recently writing a graduate school letter of recommendation for him, I was crying. He put so much into this year and his NFL aspirations that to see him to get injured again on the most innocuous play–he walked off thinking it was minor–well, life is not fair.
His attitude, though, was amazing. Everybody would rather have had him on the field, but he made a larger impact off it as a mentor than anyone would have imagined. In meetings with our freshmen after the season, to a man they said Kurt made the biggest difference in their football seasons and their lives.
How many wide receivers have had better careers in this league? I have told every scout that Jesper is the best NFL prospect I have coached in my nine years doing it at Princeton. He is everything they are looking for in an outside receiver–size, hands, route running, intelligence, plus body control. And when the scouts put the stopwatch on, I think they will be shocked at how fast he runs. We have seen over and over that Jesper doesn’t get caught in the open field.
So committed was this kid to exploring how good he could be as a football player that he turned down a mid six-figure bonus from a baseball team that would have drafted him. And, as said by Kevin Guthrie–whose reception record Jesper broke–he leaves as the best receiver Princeton ever had.
He was very fortunate that earlier in his career the position coach was Dennis Goldman, who has put more than a dozen wide receivers into the NFL And Mark Rosenbaum, who came into the toughest position of replacing Dennis, has been phenomenal.
Like Jack Corso, Stefan filled a role for us as early as his freshman year and started some games as a sophomore. He always was an outstanding run blocker and, versatility being a coach’s dream, the great thing about Stefan was that he could play tackle or guard, He had some injuries that killed his junior year and set him back on the depth chart. But he still proved a valuable role player on the two deep on an undefeated team.
As every day he told the huddle, ‘Lets have fun’, Tom was our defensive heartbeat. He and Mark were 1 and 1a in making that unit what it was with their energy, confidence, and the brainpower to check us into anything suddenly necessary after the offenses broke huddle.
Coincidentally, Tom grew up one town away (Moorestown, NJ) from Mike Zeuli (’15, Marlton) and, because his passion instantly reminded me so much of Zeuli, I gave Tom No. 34. Nobody was recruiting Johnson and he turned out to be best I ever have seen in terms of focus.
After playing on special teams as a freshman, Tom played a significant role at outside linebacker during our previous championship season but we moved him inside last year. When all these men around him were going down with injuries, he stepped up every week to keep us in games. I think everybody in that locker room would say he was the mental leader of the team. His pep talks before the games are now legendary.
He fought on bad knees to carve a big role for us in short yardage and goalline situations. Simeon sacrificed a lot to earn his time on the field. When we didn’t have as many guys last year, we played him all three downs. This season we tried to give him as much rest as possible during spring and camp. Simeon played in critical situations, which we won more often than we didn’t.
If there is a Mount Rushmore of Princeton football, I don’t know how a two-time Ivy Offensive Player of the Year is not on it, right with Dick Kazmaier, Cosmo Iacavazzi and Keith Elias. I’ve never have seen a player more respected by opposing players and coaches. The game would end and (Penn’s) Ray Priore, (Harvard’s) Tim Murphy and (Columbia’s) Al Bagnoli would grab John to say he was either the best, or one of the best, players they ever coached against.
I‘m so happy for John because it was so hard for him to miss last year. But just like Kurt, John handled being away from the field as well as a leader could, always giving back and wanting to be with the others. This year, when (fourth string quarterback) Cole Smith scored his touchdown, John ran down to the end zone to hug him, technically a penalty, but such was John’s joy. Nobody hated to see this end more than he; I don’t think he took his jersey off for two or three days after the last game, other than for our banquet. He lives for this.
John played the final five games with what I was told was a sprained left wrist that turned out to be broken—they called it a sprain to so I didn’t have to lie to anybody–and not only didn’t miss a beat but kept improving his accuracy. Jason Garrett has the all time top Princeton passing percentage. John wanted to know from (football SID) Craig Sachson, ‘Was my percentage higher?’ He wanted to do everything at the highest level and the most important thing was winning.
We have had other all-in type of guys at many positions whom we thought would be hard to cut if they could just get to an NFL camp. But John runs a 4.5 and is not only faster but also bigger than those others. Scouts kept coming back to watch him live. They are drawn to this guy. And teams are getting more creative on the goalline.
Even when he wasn’t able to continue his career Max stayed with the offensive line, following Andy (Aurich, the position coach) around, helping him to set up drills. Max was physically able to still work out with the guys so he lifted with them every day, even though he wasn’t going to be able to play. Who does that? The games are the fun part, the weight room the work. Max was a great teammate.
He tried so hard to overcome injuries his first three years, only to be set back repeatedly. But at the end of last year, when we had nobody else, Steven stepped in and had a little roll. During camp this year George (freshman Triplett) was unbelievable and won the job but then had some struggles. In came Mejia against Dartmouth to boot the hell out of the ball in the tightest of games. Those were big punts; in fact, I would say they sparked us. In good times and bad for him, Steven still was the leader of the (kicking) group.
He came in as a freshman at 155-160 pounds, which is really slight, even for a corner. Jim Salgado (then the defensive coordinator and secondary coach) said Ben would get bigger and, at worst, would play a special teams role. Every year he put on a little more weight–this season getting above 180–and off and on had a special teams place with us. One of his roles was the scout team defense. Ben was a leader there, making sure young guys understood that players in the two-deep had to be challenged every day at practice or we weren’t going to be as good as we became.
He enjoyed his best training camp, playing near the level of Jesper and Steve, and had a nice first game but then suffered an injury that took him out for five weeks. Without an injury to Jesper or Steve, Alex’s role when he came back was going to be diminished but he still made contributions on special teams, recovering an onside kick at Harvard. In the end, more catches didn’t materialize for him only because there were two guys ahead of him who have shots at the NFL. Under different circumstances a 6-5 receiver with terrific hands would have been a high impact player, but he is a fantastic kid who never complained.
You run into guys like this very rarely. And you don’t see stories such as this very often at Princeton. After playing a big role as a freshman, Joe had to become father and caretaker for his brother and mother after she suffered severe complications following an operation and lost most of her sight. At age 19, Joe had to fight huge insurance battles and save their house from foreclosure.
When he rejoined us after a year, there were injuries, one of them heartbreakingly occurring in 2017 a week after he had stepped up big time in the game when Holuba got hurt. Joe’s role became pass rushing and when we had him for this entire season, we improved our third down stops by about 15 per cent over last year, much of that from pressure he put on quarterbacks.
You wanted the storybook ending for him and for his Mom too, to be able to come to the games and enjoy his senior season. When, with Valerie in the stands, Joe made our last defensive play of the year with a sack against Penn, it might have been the most poignant moment of the season.
When Dan couldn’t continue playing, he also asked what else there might be for him to do. I asked, ‘Can you film practices?’ So, wearing his Cleveland Browns stuff underneath and his Princeton stuff over top, up he went 40 feet on a lift in the wind and freezing cold. Loves sports, loves his teammates. Dan is another person you enjoy being around.
Short of enough D-linemen to practice by the end of last year, we looked around for the biggest, toughest, guys to move there and chose Chris, as we did Brad Bourque. At that stage all Chris could do was go straight ahead and hit people; he had no pass rush moves at all. But eventually he was beating our starting All-Ivy offensive linemen. It’s been fun to watch him develop. Chris really came a long way, getting into games this year and making tackles.
As one of the fastest guys on the team, T.C became one of our most valuable core players on four special teams units. He contributed key blocks on the return team and made tackles on coverage. With Tavish Rice kicking touchback after touchback there were not many opportunities to shine but our excellent punt coverage was overlooked on the long list of things that made this year’s team as good as it was. T.C. is a good kid and a hard worker.
Jack happened to be behind two All-Ivy linebackers who didn’t come off the field much. But in the two series a game that Jack would get, he would make stops. I’ll bet he had the highest ratio on our team in plays-to-tackles and some of his hits were among the hardest we struck. When Fossati was lost for the season in the third game of 2017, Jack and John Orr stepped in without much of a drop-off. That’s a high compliment because Mark this year was an All-Ivy player. Jack was a terrific run stopper.
With Anthony facing a crowd at wide receiver, we approached him freshman year about moving to SAM. That’s a really unusual change of positions but we figured Anthony would grow and he did, both physically and in his technique, to the point where in his junior year, we moved him to rush linebacker. This year he became so good against the run that we alternated him with Mike Wagner, who made All-Ivy. Anthony was another Tiger who came from a distance down the depth chart to make a big contribution.
All of his 50-plus plays a game were in a smash role. On either side of the line, inside the tight box or out, Cody was incredible. He didn’t make mistakes. He was our hammer.
We’re one of the few teams in our league that truly uses a fullback. So it is not an All-Ivy position. That’s a shame because Cody was a dominant player. When he scored his touchdown, the offensive linemen celebrated like he was one of them, heart and soul.
He was our special teams captain and leader who earned a role in our defense. In fact Eli was going in at safety the next series when he suffered the compound fracture in his leg at Yale. It’s horrible to see anyone end their career with a bad injury, especially so for a guy with the passion of Eli. He was a high school quarterback brought in to be a receiver, but we moved him to safety and he embraced everything in front of him to become a solid player and emotional leader.
It was hard to see him lying on the field on his side, apparently really hurt. The damage was so bad, we had to leave him behind at the hospital in New Haven but Eli was back in time to see us wrap up 10-0. I didn’t realize he had slipped in to one of the back tables to our banquet to receive his special team player of the year award. When it was announced, it was an emotional moment. The doctors say he will make a complete recovery. And we are all so grateful for that.
Originally a safety, Brett was moved closer to the football, where he has served as a valuable backup at both SAM and inside backer. And he was another of our special team stalwarts. Very often he had the worst role on kickoffs, at the position at which he was going to get double teamed, but we put him there because we knew Brett had the toughness to take it. Loved his spirit and work ethic.
We were cheering so loud when Dominique crossed the goalline on two runs that people might have thought we were enjoying running up the score. But it was because Dominique has had the worst job in football–scout team running back–for four years and deserved some glory. Scout team wide receivers get to catch passes or block. But scout team running backs get destroyed every play.
Dominique was 150 pounds when he got here and every day he went crazy flying around the field, an offensive Rudy. And he was a good player, only behind more athletically–gifted guys that we recruited. I know they took both of his touchdowns away (on Princeton penalties) but the smile on his face was a lot more important to us than six more points.
When, at our banquet, Tom Criqui was reciting all of Charlie’s stats and the people he had passed–like Kazmaier, Iacavazzi, and Judd Garrett–in all these categories, it suddenly struck me that Volker was another of our players who probably became taken for granted. In raving about John and Jesper every week, it was easy to forget that Charlie was a dominant player too.
Every week he would get something like 90 yards on about 12 carries, in many cases not even playing a lot in third and fourth quarters. He missed one game completely and a big chunk of a another and still had 14 rushing touchdowns, averaging close to seven yards a rush, a lot for a tailback.
Charlie was a New Jersey 100-meter champion at Rumson-Fair Haven, but did not run the football like a track guy. He ran between the tackles, an incredible weight-room-developed guy whose yards after contact were unreal. Charlie wound up as one of the top five or six running backs ever to play at Princeton. So it was great that he was able to come back after missing the Yale game and finish off a year like this one with our final touchdown.
We recruited Mike, a high school quarterback, as an athlete and there was a time where we didn’t quite know what to do with him. We put a three digit uniform number on him and stuck him at linebacker, where he was working hard and looking like he might be pretty good. Then at a practice in the middle of his freshman season something happened and we needed somebody at defensive end. I’m looking around for a body, locked eyes with Wagner and thought, ‘He’s big, strong and fast, why not put him at rush?’ He beat Mitch Sweigart, maybe the best tackle we’ve ever had at the school, on one of the first plays so I told (defensive co-coordinator) Steve Verbit, ‘We gotta get him in the games.’ Mike ended up with a sack and parts of two others freshman year.
In 2017 Mike was leading the nation in sacks through five games before he got hit at Brown with a side block to the knee that they since have made illegal, in part because of what happened to Mike. We were a little careful not to overwork him senior year because of another injury and used Siragusa, who was really coming on as a run stopper. But Mike, too, had improved so much against the run that he certainly was a three-down guy. You don’t make All-Ivy as Mike did unless you play both run and pass really well.
One day I get an email from a student saying, ‘I played high school football and would love to still be around the sport, is there anything I can do?’ I wrote back, ‘Sure, join us, we’ll figure it out.’ Mike is a Rhodes Scholar candidate, maybe the smartest guy at Princeton, which is pretty smart indeed. And there he was filming practice every day, which may not be rocket science, but he loved it. Wiz has such a magnetic personality, was so embraced by the players, that he would sit with the quarterbacks for game day meals.