New Pins in a Well-Mapped Plan

  • April 30, 2019

(First of three parts)

BY JAY GREENBERG

Quarterback Joseph Hutchinson is Princeton’s first recruit from Mississippi in memory, another stone turned over for a program that recruits nationally and successfully, as evidenced by three Ivy League titles in the past six years.

“I hope in places where they wouldn’t have considered Princeton in the past, they are seeing that from academic support, football development, and financial aid standpoints, we are workable,” said Coach Bob Surace.    

“We should try to get the best from wherever they are from.  Hopefully we are making more strides in more areas.”

A year ago, the recruiting rating service 247 Sports judged Princeton’s recruiting class tops in the entire FCS. This time, the Tigers are third, negligibly behind Harvard and Yale, and the Bulldogs have had a major recruit de-commit since the ratings came out.  Whatever, Princeton’s No. 130 in the nation (including FBS schools) next to Harvard’s 126, Yale’s 128 or Penn’s 159 is not going to mean much by the time these kids are on the field.  The coaches take over in August, when, four stars, three stars or two stars, none of these players any longer will own a star.

But it’s clear Surace and his assistants again have reeled in some good ones.  Hero Sports, which this year ranks Harvard first, Yale sixth (again, before the de-commit) and Princeton seventh among FCS schools says, “The Tigers followed up their stellar 2018 recruiting class and undefeated season with another incredible effort.  This class is balanced and coveted. Twelve (of 29) held FBS offers.”

The accuracy of the rankings is reliant on the honesty of the recruits in distinguishing between a bona fide offer and an expression of interest. Regardless, one doesn’t have to get caught up in the minutia to appreciate the growth in the quality of Ivy recruits over the last decade. 

“I’d like to say the rankings people finally caught up to us,” smiles Surace.  

“Kids see a track record of putting out NFL players (21 Ivies on rosters to start the 2018 season) and have increasingly been raised and supported in such a way that they are willing to take on the academic challenges and consider the Ivy League an option.

“When I was being recruited (in 1985), it was hard to research. A coach could tell you anything and the better salesman might influence you more.  Now kids look at salesmen as liars.  They want to trust somebody. And if you are doing things well and doing them right and they look up something you said and it proves true, that builds trust. 

“We are really honest about how hard we work here, the commitment playing football at Princeton requires.”

The good word spread apparently from Georgia, where the Tigers have long had a strong recruiting presence in the Atlanta area, to Louisiana (Tiger Bech ’20 and Zack Kelly ’20) and now to Mississippi, where henceforth Princeton will be on the radar, assuming a good experience here by Hutchinson. Two more Tigers from Honolulu–wide receiver Tamatoa Falatea and offensive lineman Blake Feigenspan–follow breakthrough Hawaiian 2018 recruit Andrei Iosivas. And Caden Johnson will be the first player in memory from Utah.

“Every kid is different, but the next one from that school, or from a school nearby, who can qualify academically will think about us, hopefully,” said Surace.

While quarterbacks draw the most attention during the recruiting process, getting a highly touted one like Hutchinson doesn’t manifest any new Southern strategy by Surace. There are a large number of familiar high schools represented in this 2023 Princeton football class of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, two tight ends, five offensive linemen, one punter, three defensive linemen, three inside linebackers, four outside linebackers, four safeties and two cornerbacks.

In fact, Princeton already has had its bread buttered at the majority of the schools represented on this list.

“If you are looking for a common theme, these guys are coming from high schools that are incredibly successful in football, one after another,” said Surace.

“Look at this group of schools:  Milton Hershey (PA, running back Chiago Anyanwu); Gonzaga College (MD, running back Lucas Warfield); St. Sebastian’s (MA, wide receiver Alex Cherry); Servite (CA, offensive lineman Richard Krebs); Capital Christian (CA, offensive lineman Jonathan Boyd); Punahou (HI, Falatea and Feigenspan; Choate Rosemary Hall (CT, punter Will Powers); Mission Viejo (CA, defensive lineman Reece Hite).

“There’s Bishop McDevitt (PA, defensive lineman Carter Christopher). St. Augustine Prep (NJ, linebacker Joseph Bonczek); Bergen Catholic (NJ, linebacker Anthony Corbin); West Essex (NJ, linebacker William Perez); St. John Bosco (CA, defensive lineman Cole Aubrey); St. Joseph’s (PA, cornerback Zachary Bouggess); West Deptford (NJ, safety Ken Lim); and Garner Magnet (NC, safety Davieon Carrington).

“(Cornerback) Michael Ruttlen’s high school in Tennessee (Mt. Juliet) went to the state final. This is like a Who’s Who of really good programs.”

The coaches there have learned to understand Princeton’s academic requirements and built a mutual confidence in Surace and his staff.

“When I walked into St. Joe’s Prep (Philadelphia) about James Johnson, who followed his brother (Tom) to us, Coach (Gabe) Infante (now an assistant at Temple University) said, ‘Next year keep an eye on Dawson Di Illus (’22). So I made a note and sent Dawson an email. He came to camp and we offered him. We have another one this year from St. Joe’s in Zach Bouggess.

“There are certain people you trust. We’re not just going to take these kids because they are from winning programs but when you have great kids who did, that’s a good combination. 

“George Young (the late New York Giants Super Bowl champion architect) always said his preference was to draft guys from big, successful, schools, yet he took Phil Simms in the first round from Morehead State. 

“You can’t ignore the measurables. Can’t take a 5-9 guard; he just isn’t tall enough to be successful at this level. But at the end of the day they have to fit us, don’t all have to be three-star rated recruits, whatever that means anyway. Often the guys we get are early commits and don’t build up the three-star ratings that load up the Power Five schools.

“Sometimes you get a little lucky. Like George Triplett a year ago, this time (DL) James Stagg was committed to the Naval Academy when a medical condition disqualified him. He called us back. That’s not completely luck; obviously we had made a good impression initially.

“I used up my blind luck, I think, in 2010 when I started the job late and looked at my board and needed seven offensive linemen just to practice. I took a chance with Joe Goss, a 220-pound center nobody was recruiting. He loved football, wanted to be here, so what the heck.

“I don’t play the lottery because odds are I’m never going to hit it again like I did with Joe, who started four years and was 1st-Team All-Ivy as a senior. (Safety) Phil Bhaya, I never saw in person, took him for a need and he ended up starting for 2 1/2 years and was a leader on a championship team (2013).

“It’s impossible to get all of our top choices at a certain position every year. But no longer are we down to taking a kid we are skeptical can play here just to be able to practice. On the other end, let’s not pigeonhole ourselves into only taking guys who run 4.4 forties because often they aren’t good football athletes.

“Guys who want to be here and love football, those are deciding factors.”

Twelve of these recruits were rated in the top 500 nationally, the highest of those being linebacker Cole Aubrey, which won’t necessarily make him the first to see the field. Often a number of freshmen who make the two deep early are a reflection of the amount of injuries, but not so a year ago when offensive lineman Henry Byrd and Triplett played in the opener off their mature performances in camp. Cornerback Christian Brown also soon got work in nickel situations well before the third quarter, when Surace often in 2018 had the opportunity to clear the bench.  

Thus, the coach isn’t loath to share his optimism that, depending upon the difficulty of the position, some of these incoming freshmen, too, can make an impact sooner, not just later.

“We can’t redshirt so I don’t want any of them coming into it thinking they have no chance to play this year,” said the coach.  “I told our staff, ‘Let’s see if there is one (prodigy) in every position group.’

“Quarterback is a little harder.  We have a deeper quarterback room and it takes time to learn that position.  But whether we have five guys coming in at a position or two guys, let see if we can get at least one ready, like Henry Byrd a year ago.”

Posting Friday: The offensive recruits.

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