A Change of Seasons Indeed as Spring Drills Begin
BY JAY GREENBERG
The Tigers won [redacted] games in 2018, placed [can’t remember] players on first and second All-Ivy teams, were ranked [somewhere] in the final FCS poll. Here at princetontigersfootball.com, we keep you up on all developments, including yesterday’s news. When we recall it, that is.
Memories are selective, amnesia sometimes useful. The seniors did some serious–and seriously deserved–reveling on February 21 at the annual Dr. Kevin L. Armstrong ’87 Memorial Senior Dinner in New York. Rising juniors sophomores and freshmen had business as usual that day in the weight room.
“We have a Sunday meeting every year on the day after our last game,” said Coach Bob Surace. “We put up a slide reminding everyone we’re now 0-0.
“Obviously, we had a banquet and bonfire. But the Monday after Thanksgiving, you don’t start where you left off, but anew. All the stuff that talks about the past is for recruiting, alumni, those things.”
What can the Tigers do for an encore after arguably their greatest season of the Ivy League era? For 12 returning starters, there certainly is doing it again. For starting wannabees at 10 other positions, plus depth competition at all 22 offensive and defensive spots, Saturday’s start of 12 spring practices is a leg up on their own extended legacies. It’s certainly been good to be the champs. Imagine how much better it will be to become two-time champs.
“They have attacked the weight room like it’s game day and that’s been really fun to see,” said Surace.
“The workout sessions are hard, designed to be challenging. At times they lose their wind and have to fight through. Our guys have done a terrific job.”
Internal competition is fuel. Entitlement is poison. That said, this is not 2012, when the Tigers were coming off a second consecutive 1-9. This roster remains loaded with proven winners. The defensive line goes two deep in returnees from the 2018 rotation. The offensive line needs to replace just one senior starter, guard George Attea.
The defensive backfield brings back every first teamer but strong safety Ben Ellis. The trio of Collin Eaddy, Ryan Quigley and Trey Grey is quite the survival kit as Charlie Volker walks through FitzRandolph Gate. The lead punter, placekicker and kickoff man will all be back and so will be the Tigers in contention for a fourth Ivy title in seven years provide that a plethora of highly-motivated candidates and touted recruits develop towards to expectations over the next five weeks and beyond.
“When you see them changing their bodies, it makes you feel good,” said Surace. But until we go through a bunch of practices, it’s hard to say how much these players have improved.
“You read every year about baseball players reporting in ‘the best shape of their lives,’ but in the end can they hit a curveball? You have to be able to perform.”
Here are the positions where the Tigers need the most makeover. The reported class of each player below is what year of eligibility he will be in this fall.
Kevin Davidson got the start in the one 2018 game John Lovett missed and went 26-for-39 with four touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 48-10 rout of cellar-dwelling Brown. This will be the first time in the Surace era a quarterback has apprenticed three years before challenging for a starting role, but Davidson is hardly just a next guy up, more like the guy following two Ivy Offensive Players of the Year–Chad Kanoff and Lovett.
“It’s not really about who is the starter on the first day or the third day of spring,” said Surace. “It’s about developing roles.
“Kevin played tremendously in the Brown game; handled situations we put him in extremely well all year. For my eyes, he has had a really good winter. Kevin’s stronger, looks great. I love how he’s working but then I love how all those guys are working.
“Zach Keller is the most intelligent of all the quarterbacks that I have had here, even counting Chad, who is in the NFL. It comes so natural to Zach to watch something on the sideline and envision it happening during games. He’s getting really strong and is first in line for doing a lot of the goalline and short yardage stuff that John did.
“Cole Smith is up to 205, he looks great physically terrific, too. He’ll fight with Zach for (usage in) short-yardage situations.
“One of the reasons I love to have a freshman quarterback on the scout team is they get so many reps. It was almost a routine Thursday last season that I would say to (defensive coordinator) Steve Verbit, ‘I hope we stop this quarterback (on Saturday) better than we did Brevin White this week.’ It was routine for him to have 300 or 400-yard days against our first and second team defenses.
“I knew he was a good athlete, but they didn’t do much running of the speed option in high school enabling us to really get to see his athleticism on film. Brevin’s agility and quickness is off the charts and we’re starting to see his body change, which is really good. He will go into the spring with a lot of confidence from the way he finished the year.”
The only returning starter of four is All-Ivy Jeremiah Tyler at the SAM. But the two middle spots are low-anxiety fills. John Orr was a near All-Ivy caliber replacement for Mark Fossati when the latter was lost for the year during week three of 2017. And if you have to lose a Tom Johnson, the next best thing would be another Johnson. Older brother did not get all the sideline-to-sideline linebacking traits in the family.
“Jimmy Johnson wants to be better than his brother,” said Surace. “He is an incredible worker and leader; tough and physical.
“A lot of games last year the score dictated him playing about half the snaps in the second half. We are expecting him to lead our defense.”
The starting rush linebacker spot is left wide open by the graduation of Mike Wagner, with Tavaris Noel, and Ike Hall getting a head start on the competition.
“There’s also a couple [linebackers] going to miss spring because of injuries,” said Surace. “So the guys who are competing had better have great springs because I know what’s coming back.
“Linebacker was a top priority for us in this incoming freshman class. The group is very talented. I wouldn’t hesitate to put a freshman ahead of all the backup guys on day one.”
With depth thinned by those injuries this spring, Tyler McDonald, David Harvey and Kevin Bruce and Manus McCracken have excellent opportunities to impress in the middle.
“Can one or more of these guys show they can be a backup at the level of Orr, Johnson and (graduating) Jack Simcox?” asked Surace. “I have no doubt Jimmy and John can play at the level of the guys we lost. We have to get the guys behind them, whatever three they will be, to step up.”
Trevor Forbes, the Nickel in 2018, will spend the spring primarily as the first unit strong safety, alongside returning starter TJ Floyd, the free safety. But last year’s backup behind Ellis, Eli Stern, is graduating, too, so backup positions are wide open.
Chase Williams, who moved into a responsible role as backup a year ago, will miss the spring to play lacrosse. Other candidates abound though. Phil Frost is being moved from corner and is joining the competition with Christian Sullivan, Ian Lawrie and Dawson De Iuliis.
“Phil is a fast player who I think can bring some good ball skills,” said Surace. “Christian is one of the more physical guys we have had. I’m very pleased with the off-seasons of all these guys.”
Two more mighty mites– Jacob Birmelin and Austin Carbone–join Tiger Bech as potential game breakers. But obviously a lot of inches and catches are graduating with Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson.
“It wasn’t just Jesper and Steve that we lost,” said Surace. “Before Alex Parkinson got hurt in the first game, he was having a great camp. And Jordan Argue was another talented receiver whose opportunities suffered behind two receivers who can play in the NFL.
“But Andrew Griffin has been phenomenal, already one of the best leaders. Have really enjoyed watching him step up. Dylan Classi had a terrific catch and touchdown run in a game last year and Andrei Iosivas and Michael Polk are incredibly talented. That’s not all. Luke Montgomery and (Junior) Cash Goodhart have a lot of ability too and Zack Kelly and Preston Parsons is back from injury.
“Watching our passing offense on the scout team last year, I was like ‘Wow! If we work at the level needed we are going to be good at all the skill positions.”
“Sam Johnson was an underrated part of our offense last year; playing in all the double tight end sets,” said Surace. “He had key blocks in those goal line situations against Dartmouth.
“Then there is the group behind him with a ton of ability– Carson Bobo, Harrison Caponiti, and Caden Dumas–all flashing elite-level talent. It’s a matter of them becoming all around players at one of the hardest positions to learn. At the end of the season they were coming on from a mental standpoint.”
“Niko Ivanisevic was our first sub off the bench last season,” said Surace. “Henry Byrd had a tremendous freshman year and stepped up in the Penn game after we lost Reily Radosevich to injury.
“David Hoffman was our seventh or eight lineman last year; able to play guard or tackle. Because of the scores we played 12-13 each week instead of the usual 10. And the last two weeks of the season Zach Zambrano was outstanding.
“Jack Carter, Luke Aschenbrand and Ford Roberts had good off seasons Ryan Huth missed last summer, came to camp after not being able to work out for two months but by the end of the season was operating at a high level.”
“Cody Smith will be very hard to replace at an underrated position in importance,” said Surace. “Rick Raga was a linebacker and D-lineman until last year and did a good job picking up the offense. He was the strongest guy on the team in our January lifts and you can see his increased confidence
“We have tight end candidates who could get on the field as fullbacks and we may use more double-tight end sets (without a fullback). We’ll see.”