Accolades for This Class Come Quickly
(Third of three parts)
BY JAY GREENBERG
The clunky typecast of the Ivies taking smart guys who can’t run fast enough to play in the FBS is being raced to the trashcan. Twelve of the 29 members of the football class of 2023 had FBS offers, and the middle linebacker positions are a good example of the metamorphosis.
“When I first got here, speed on the outside, bulk and grit on the inside, was an almost 100 percent correct stereotype,” said Coach Bob Surace. “Alex Polofsky and Tim Kingsbury; those were inside backers.
“But it’s changed. So many teams now have a base offense of three wideouts and one tight end that few even recruit a true fullback anymore. The ground game is more balanced than ever with outside runs, putting a heavier emphasis on more athletic linebackers and the league’s overall improvement at all positions is exemplified by the speed at the middle positions. Now you recruit inside ‘backers able to run like a Mark Fossati (’19) or a Tom Johnson (’19).”
We’re going inside out here, introducing first the linebackers, the middle line of defense, amongst the 15 defensive members of Princeton football’s Class of 2023. This is not to be taken as declaration of the six ‘backers as necessarily the class stars. Defensive lineman James Stagg is listed by Hero Sports as a top 100 recruit in all of college football.
Surace acknowledges the rating services’ numbers putting Princeton near the top of FCS classes again as validation of another strong group. But specific to the linebackers, the number the coach believes most significant is six.
“Every position, every year, is important but given the losses we have coming up at linebacker, it was huge to hit on all six of our top choices there, which we did.”
Here are the 15 defensive recruits. Comments are Surace’s:
Joe Bonczek, 6-2, 220, St. Augustine Prep, Richland, NJ –“Guys who coached against him said he was the best player on the field in their games. Joe is really physical and reminds me so much of Steve Cody (’11) in that you would never guess he is 225 pounds because of his speed. Cody was 230, ran like 200. Joe committed early and, being from Jersey, has been up visiting often. He was one of the easiest guys in our freshman class to bond with.”
Jaylen Bailey, 5-9, 194, Belmont Hill School, Belmont, MA–“He can run like Rohan Hylton (’17) and Daniel Beard (’22) but, as a bonus, Jaylen is bigger than Beard. This is a linebacker who can be successful on all three downs. We got three Boston-area kids this year- Bailey, (receiver) Alex Cherry and (tight end) Eddie Duggan–which is really nice.”
Anthony Corbin, 5-11, 205, Bergen Catholic High School, Oradell, NJ –“Anthony is slightly undersized but, like Fossati, is one of those guys whose desire is immeasurable, like (wideout) Dylan Classi (’22), from the same high school. They are said to be too slow, too this, or too that but never mind, they are football players. They make plays. They lead. I just love those guys, like almost anybody recommended to me from Bergen Catholic, which includes Kurt Holuba (’19), who was obviously the whole package everybody wanted coming out of high school.”
Cole Aubrey, 6-3, 225, St. John Bosco High School, Bellflower, CA–“On film, he reminds you of Mike Wagner (’19) for ability to get to the quarterback. But the big difference is that Mike was a high school quarterback and Cole has been rushing quarterbacks for last year’s No. 1 rated school in the country, playing against some of its best competition. He has the spin moves, the hands, and athleticism that stands out on film, making him one of the higher-rated recruits (36th including all positions, by Hero Sports) in the country.”
Joe Dalsey, 6-2, 215 Shawnee High School, Medford NJ –“His versatility probably hurt him some in recruiting. Joe played everywhere—safety, linebacker, tight end, fullback, even wildcat quarterback–and was good at everything, so where does he fit? Well, NFL scouts were here all year looking at film of John Lovett, asking ‘where does he fit?’ and I would say, ‘He’ll fit wherever you want to make him fit. Just take him.’ That’s what we did with Mike Zeuli (’15) who we moved from safety to linebacker because that was where he could do the most for us.”
Caden Johnson, 5-11, 200, Corner Canyon High School, Draper UT–“Caden came to one of our camps and was phenomenal in every way. It didn’t discourage us at all when he was upfront about being committed to a two-year Mormon mission before enrolling in college. The timing actually works out well for us. Like Caden, we see Will Perez as a one of the best SAM backers we ever have had here and this enables us to space them two years apart. Caden will come to us that much more physically mature and with leadership experience from his mission, a win-win.”
Will Perez, 6-2, 192, West Essex High School, North Caldwell, NJ –“If there is outside version of Corbin, it is Will Perez. He runs to the ball and is physical, a good fit on the outside, like Quincy Wolff (’17) that way. If we weren’t quite ready to make a decision off the video he sent us, Will came to camp and settled it by how hard he worked. A tremendous student, he went to all eight Ivy camps. We’re very happy to get him for better reasons than just because our rivals didn’t. “
Carter Christopher, 6-2-285, Bishop McDevitt High School, Harrisburg, PA –”The FCS school where he was committed had a coaching change so Carter opened it up again and we got him late, a very nice addition. He is much like Simeon Lane (’19), a stout, run-stopping, interior lineman. We have had some excellent nose tackles through the years and they all were very strong and played with great leverage. Carter fits the profile perfectly.”
Reece Hite, 6-4, 240, Mission Viejo High School, Mission Viejo, CA –”His film stood out. Reece has good bend, is strong, athletic, and a playmaker with a Kurt Holuba-type body who has a chance to be an all-around pass rusher and run stopper. We haven’t had many three-down defensive ends who were ready to be in our rotation early but he has a chance. His quickness is outstanding and he does a good job with his hands, especially in the pass rush.”
James Stagg, 6-4, 245, Desert Vista High School, Phoenix, AZ –“Like a lot of programs, we had a high level of interest in James before he chose the Naval Academy. Then, about three months before he was supposed to start there, a medical condition disqualified him. After losing a lot of weight, James started to get his body back and decided he still could play, so he called back a few of the schools he had given strong consideration, came to see us play Dartmouth, and accepted our offer. He is very similar to Henry Schlossberg (’17) in build. The rating services call this a big get for us, like George Triplett (’22), who also had a medical disqualification after deciding on Navy a year ago.”
Michael Axelrood, 6-2, 185, Evanston Township High School, Evanston, IL –“He reminds me a lot of Matt Arends (’16), who came to us as either a wide receiver or a safety and ended up playing corner after Khamal Brown went down. When Matt grew, we moved him to linebacker. Michael, too, is a tremendous athlete. We have had a number of freshmen that excelled on special teams. I can see him playing early.”
Davieon Carrington, 6-0, 180, Garner Magnet School, Garner, NC –“We have another open field ball hawk here. Being still so young–but already veteran–on the corners with (juniors) C.J. Wall, Delan Stallworth, Saltaan Shabazz and (sophomore) Christian Brown, we see Davieon best fitting our needs in the middle, where he might be part of the nickel as soon as this year. Eventually we could use him on the corner.”
Jayden Wickware, 6-1, 175, San Diego High School Cima, San Diego, CA –“Like Davieon, Jayden may be in nickel situations early. Like T. J. Floyd, Trevor Forbes and Dorian Williams were for us. Jayden, really athletic with good ball skills, has that type of talent. The other thing that separates our defensive backs who compete early is a quiet confidence, He has that.”
Ken Lim, 5-11, 185, West Deptford High School, West Deptford, NJ –“We were made aware of Ken even as sophomore. He came to camp before his junior year and, a terrific student, committed to us early. Ken also was a good running back and, like Corbin and Perez, you weren’t intrigued so much by Ken’s body or measurables as much as you were simply impressed with him as a football player who can do a lot of good things. Like Axelrood, we will start Ken at safety and see.”
“After one day at camp, (Defensive coordinator Steve) Verbit pulled me aside and said ‘I have been here a long time and this is the best group of DBs I think we ever have had here in one day. Four of our six committed on the same weekend.”
Zach Bouggess, 5-8, 175, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA –“We have built a strong and trusting relationship with a top program in Philly. They alerted us to Zach, who was under the radar at that point, and he came to camp, did everything right, and then went on to have a great senior year. Zach is kind of built like Chance Melancon (’18) and is just as physical and competitive.”
Michael Ruttlen Jr., 5-9, 175, Mt. Juliet High School, Mt. Juliet, TN –“When I walked into that school and said the name Michael Ruttlen, the red carpet got rolled out. Everybody lit up and said he was the nicest kid and best student so you could tell how respected he is. Corners tend to be cocky sorts, in a good way, I mean, but Michael plays a lot faster than he talks. He is athletic and very disciplined, with good ball skills.”