Ring In a New Year
BY JAY GREENBERG
Going a seemingly impossible 457 carries last season without a single lost fumble by a running back is one record made never to be broken. If the Tiger ballcarriers can’t possibly do better, they’ll settle for doing it again and again against all odds of contact by 230-pound opponents and basic human imperfection.
Just in case the hang-on-no-matter-what voices in these guys’ Princeton-level brains become a little repetitious, readers of this website henceforth should be secure in the knowledge that the program has come up with one more way that ball security never be taken for granted.
On the sidelines of the practice field is now a cart holding a bell. It is not the kind mounted on the wall of a school or a firehouse, but a scaled down Liberty type version–clapper, braided rope and all–awaiting an emphatic yank by a defender as, he holds the ball just recovered or intercepted in the other hand.
The bell will be present at every workout and all home games until either the 2019 Tigers, heaven forbid, come down with pre-concussive symptoms from too much clanging or the thing cracks from all the interceptions the Princeton secondary and linebacking corps are charged with making.
You laugh, but it already happened once in American history, albeit on an occasion almost as rare as going through an entire season without a backfield fumble. So let 2018 serve as a ringing endorsement, so to speak, of the most surefire way to go 10-0: 1) Hold onto the ball. 2) Take it away. 3) Make a ritual out of both.
“Miami was the first one to do something to rewards players like this,” said Coach Bob Surace. “This summer a couple of the players came to me, wanting to do something.
“I said, ‘We will, let’s come up with some ideas.’ Some of them coach (Steve) Verbit was more conservative about than I was. We came up with this. As a staff, we use the term ‘ring the bell’ a lot. When a recruit commits, that’s what we say, because we just got better.
“Jared (Montano, the Director of Football Creative Content) ordered the bell with a Princeton insignia. Perfect. The maintenance crew at Princeton was great building the support for it. We presented it to the players last week in a meeting. They went nuts.”
The defense still does every time a defender gets the ball; racing to the bell and surrounding it as the guy with the stolen property swings the rope. The enthusiasm with which they do this is hilarious-to the defense of course. For the offense, the object of the ritual is to avoid being the punch line. Or, eventually, tinnitus.
To reiterate: More than having the words of Surace, coordinator Andrew Aurich ’06, running backs coach Jamel Mutunga, and receivers coach Brian Flinn every day ringing in the players’ ears, there now is dread of literal ringing in the ears besides.
“Jamel is good at teaching the guys,” said Surace. “Sean (departed for Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Gleeson) had background in running back coaching. So emphasis in ball security has been huge. Guys like Jesper (Horsted ’19) and Charlie (Volker ’19) were trained for years.
“We didn’t do as much last year (with a more veteran group at skill positions), but with some guys emerging now as regular players this has been an everyday emphasis in camp. Of the 24 practices before Butler, in 18 of them we are doing ball security.”
For whom does this bell toll? For Collin Eaddy, Ryan Quigley and Tre Gray, whom we would say are the heirs to the 97 carries and 688 yards that the graduated Charlie Volker gained in 2018, except that the handoff essentially already has been made. Not fumbled, either, we might add. Eaddy got the ball 93 times on runs a year ago, only four fewer times than the workhorse Volker. Quigley had 47 carries, and thanks to all those blowouts, the freshman Gray had 37.
Roles change now but not really anything else according to Eaddy, including the responsibility.
“I mean, I have to be reactive as far as strength and conditioning, like getting into the training room even when I am not hurt,” he said. “But as far as transitioning to more carries, that’s not a different mindset for me. I always have been about 100 per cent effort and day-to-day getting better.
“It’s just football, something I’ve been playing for 14-15 years.”
Eaddy, good enough at football as a freshman in 2017 to be trusted with 63 carries, including two for touchdowns, now is more-than-good-enough to become what Surace calls Princeton’s bell cow, which he liked to say even before there was a bell.
“Collin is explosive,” said the head coach. “He has really good vision with good size and catches the ball, which is the area where most backs struggle when they first get here.”
In every skill, Eaddy has proven to be a natural.
“[The Late] Cedric Benson, who was with the Bengals when I was there, was a great runner in college who struggled initially in the NFL because he was running so hard and sometimes out-of-control that he ran into the offensive linemen,” said Surace. “He learned a little more pace to combine with his explosiveness and became an All-Pro running back. But not every running back has that pace naturally.
“Collin has had it since he got here and was advanced enough in pass protection, among other things, that it got him on the field as a freshman.”
Ditto for Quigley, who in year one on campus had a 50-yard touchdown dash in a blowout at Cornell. He already has run for 711 yards and caught balls for another 197 in three seasons of being a man for any occasion.
The most memorable of his yards were six to the Dartmouth 13 yard line last November; weary Big Green defenders hanging on, unable to keep Quigley and Princeton from the last first down it would need. Finishing the run, coaches like to call it, in this case finishing Princeton’s most epic win of the century so far.
Since Quigley is a well put together, but hardly imposing 5-11 and 210 pounds, that runs was all about leg drive earned in the weight room. Ultimately this story is about how the Tigers’ two lead backs for 2019 drive one another.
“We kind of balance each other in terms of our skill sets,” said Eaddy. “His versatility is something I want to strive for. He is the role model for the younger guys in our room.”
Unless Eaddy is.
“He is a year younger than me and yet I have learned so much from him in the way he asks questions, his approache to the game, his footwork, his vision,” said Quigley. “He has turned into one of my best friends off the field.
“I am honored to be in the same room with him.”
Gray learns a lot, too, from the time spent with both of them, just as Volker did from Joe Rhattigan ’17 and Hank Bjorklund ’72 from Ellis Moore ’70 and so on and so on through 150 years of Princeton football. A running back doesn’t just follow his pulling linemen but the line of example setters for him.
Good habits rub off. After three Ivy titles in the last six years, players at any position on this team are that much more ready than ever when their time comes. But already in Week Three of camp, some freshmen are getting reps with the second units at a few positions. Always some kids are more prepared for the next step than others and Surace’s staffs never have held any of them back.
“Tre Gray played in all 10 game last year because I trusted him,” said Mutunga.
“He was little farther behind than Collin was as a freshman but Tre made the big jump in the spring that you are looking for from the young guys.
“His abilities are a little different. Tre already is a really good pass receiver so we can utilize him in more ways than some others.
“Ryan we can plug anywhere and he gets the job done. I’m excited for his senior year. We still have some good depth but he’s near the top of it now.”
Behind Eaddy, Quigley and Gray is mighty-mite Austin Carbone, the kind of quick and fearless guy for whom Surace and two offensive coordinators always have found a role. Senior Tyler Campbell and sophomore Davie Kline also are both under six feet tall, but that hasn’t held back Quigley or Eaddy.
“Campbell played some varsity last year (11 carries including a touchdown) so I have a little more trust in him at this point than Davis,” said Mutunga. “Davis is picking things up, but naturally you want to see how any of them respond to getting tackled in a game.
“I’ll say this for the freshmen (Chiago Anyanwu and Lucas Warfield): From a mental standpoint, they are as locked in as a group as I have had in my eight years coaching. They know what they are supposed to be doing, but there’s a little uncertainty. It’s a matter for them to take that step and go. But I think they will be at a level where they’ll know what is going into a game plan and be almost ready. We have five or six who could play snaps for us.”
Can’t put any of them out there unless they are grounded, including in the means of not putting the ball on the ground. Let freedom from error ring.