Higher and Higher for This Defensive Line
BY JAY GREENBERG
Success in business, not just the business of football, is about leverage. As for the tall order of following up a defense than held opponents to an average of 13 points and half a rushing touchdown per game in 2018, let’s just say that there is plenty of length at the Tigers’ disposal.
For those of you who never have sacked a quarterback, let Coach Bob Surace explain how inches on a defensive lineman can be put to use for much more than just tipping passes: “When the other guy’s arms are longer there is more he can do to deliver that first punch, knock a blocker’s hands off him,” said the coach,
“Length just helps.”
Thus it is not a reach to say that the sophomore defensive line class of Uche Ndukwe, Tola Banjoko, Michael Azevedo, and Alex Kilander have a chance to become Princeton’s best ever. The elevator goes all the way up on these guys – from Azavedo’s 6-3, to Ndukwe’s 6-4, to Banjoko’s 6-5. Kilander is the runt of the litter at 6-1, but being the nose guard, he is even wider than the acclaim the Tigers earned for running the table a year ago.
Kudos to the men and women with the squirt bottles on the sideline who have watered these gentlemen to their current heights and potential.
“They are all gifted and working hard and I expect them to be good players,” said Steve Verbit, the line coach and defensive coordinator.
Sooner is preferable to latter, thanks to unexpected absences challenging Princeton’s depth behind starting ends Joey DeMarco and Sam Wright and nose guard Jake Strain. Next man up and all that, sure, but the next man had better be up to the task. Cold shivers still run down the spine of Tiger fans who recall the carnage of 2017, when a 5-1 start dissolved in proportion to the disappearing bodies on the rush line.
It is a recent example of an old adage: You can never have enough pass rushers. But even after losing Kurt Holuba again for 2018, this time before game one, the Tigers still had plenty to dominate. Charles Tomassetti and Adam Buchanan are in mix for roles. And, having graduated only Joe Percival, a third-down specialist, there still may be more talent at the position than ever in 2019, provided some guys grow up fast.
“Everybody is coming along,” said Surace.
“Almost all the young guys were here over the summer working out, and everybody has made huge gains in strength. As far as technique and knowledge of different scenarios, it just helps to have had that year and all those second halves last season where these guys were able to get game experience.
“I have no doubt they are going to be good.”
So too should Reece Hite, Cole Aubrey, Carter Christopher, and James Stagg from another freshman class of depth and length. Stagg and Hite are both 6-4.
Whenever these kids are ready to play, there is no such thing as a pecking order here. Holuba, an obvious prodigy, started from game one as a freshman. Kilander, of uncommon strength out of high school, was on the plane to Butler for the opener a year ago, and Strain was in the rotation by the second game of his freshman year.
“I wasn’t necessarily a good player but I could cause some trouble,” smiles Strain. He was playing at 225. Now in a fifth year, he s at 265 and an All-Ivy candidate, like the starters on both sides of him.
The 6-4 DeMarco is long like the underclassmen and was long missed during the deluge of 2017. He returned to school a year ago with a better body and a greater than ever love for the game, receiving All-Ivy honorable mention, not to mention being the best D-lineman on a 10-0 team.
“Long, strong, quick,” describes Strain. “Joey is (center) Alex Deter’s worst (practice) nightmare.”
Fifth year players necessarily are older, stronger and probably most importantly, wiser.
“You get to experience what life is like without football and when you get back into it, that passion for it comes back,” said DeMarco.
Nothing could ever fuel more passion than an undefeated season. “It was really fun,” said DeMarco. “I had an injury and had to deal with hardships that way, but the team kept winning and I played through it.
“Everybody had a smile on their face, everybody couldn’t wait to come to practice. In the end it almost wasn’t even about the wins, but loving everybody on the team.”
Speaking of love, the moon hits the Tigers’ eyes like a big pizza pie when the subject is Wright’s potential.
“He’s fast, he’s twitchy and bends in ways we haven’t seen before,” said Strain. “Linemen have a hard time getting their hands on him.
“He’s there one second and gone the next. And he’s the strongest of any of us. That helps too.”
So does being the fastest, working on becoming the smartest.
“I don’t say this too often,” said Surace. “But Sam is an elite athlete. I said to Verbs that when it comes power and speed he is the best we’ve had in the 10 years I’ve been [head coach].
“He is one of the strongest we have had in our program, and he broad jumps well over 10 feet. For a D-lineman that’s a special quality. He’s had to learn the technical aspects. Last year as a sophomore he had a good role, and then in the spring we saw it all come together.”
Says Verbit: “Every year guys make strides. The length of them is a reflection of how much work has been put in. Sam has been an unbelievably hard worker in the weight room and elevated himself to either the strongest or a close second on the team. He is in the 1,300 pound-plus club (total weight in three different types of lifts), which is a lot of iron.”
“He always has been gifted athletically. Now he is starting to put it together with knowledge of the game. There are times in the past where he has flashed and shown an exceptional skill set, so now it’s about consistency. He understands what he has to do to be a great player.”
Mike Catapano ’13, Caraun Reid ’14, and Kurt Holuba ’19 embraced the leadership requirements that accompanied their stature as the best players in their unit –Holuba especially as he continued to come to practice every day and serve as a mentor. Wright gets it
“He is taking responsibility in meetings,” said Verbit. “When I miss something, he’s now seeing it and speaking up, saying things like, ‘You should have planted the outside foot there and gone inside.”
Inside, outside, upside, some tackle’s head, Wright, entering his junior season projects as a guy going places. Running the table opened eyes on this team as to just how good that good can become.
“I definitely feel the responsibility that everything I can do from this point forward can prepare me to be an asset,” Wright said. “I didn’t know that they think this much of me, and it’s nice, but I don’t want that in my head.
“My technique and speed have improved through the coaching and training here. But the biggest improvement is my awareness. In high school I was doing what felt right. Now I have a deeper knowledge of the game.
That includes the depth of satisfaction that comes from a shared growth. For practical reasons, there is a high dropped ceiling in these new stadium meeting rooms, but no glass ceiling on these guys’ abilities. Wright is not the only guy with potential to require double teams, making everybody better.
“Last year was pretty much fun,” Wright said. “I’ve been a (high school javelin) thrower, won by myself and that’s one thing, but winning with your brothers, experiencing success because you have to rely on one another, nothing tops that. Last year was a testament to what we can achieve if that’s what we want.”
Right now the Tigers only are allowed to say that they want to beat Butler on Sept. 21. The approach suited them perfectly a year ago. So they will take it again.
Butler was clobbered by FCS power South Dakota State, 57-10, in their opener, Saturday. Bucknell, Princeton’s Week Two opponent, was outclassed by Temple, 56-12, and Lafayette fell to William and Mary, 30-17.
DeValve Now a Jaguar; Horsted and Carlson Make Practice Squads
Seth DeValve signed with Jacksonville Sunday after being cut following three seasons with the Browns. The tight end was injured and missed the final two Cleveland preseason games.
Jesper Horsted (Bears) and Stephen Carlson (Browns) made practice squads.
After a good start at Chief’s camp, John Lovett’s chances of making this year’s roster–and perhaps his season–was wrecked by an exhibition game injury. But injury and practice lists are fluid and opportunities may also still present themselves in the early weeks of the season to Caraun Reid, who was let by the Colts and Chad Kanoff, cut by the Cardinals.