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From the Ground Up, Willis Has Learned How to Air It Out Too



The price of success has Princeton moving on to its fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons. Both Sean Gleeson and his successor Andy Aurich, the latter recently joining Gleeson on Greg Schiano’s new staff at Rutgers, worked their way up at Princeton from position coaches, just as has Mike Willis, the Tigers’ new O.C.

But staying inside is not necessarily the policy of Bob Surace, much more a reflection of the coaching talent he has recruited inevitably advancing, both internally and to positions of responsibility in other programs.

Dues can be paid at other schools, too, as did Gleeson, the new offensive coordinator at Rutgers following a year in that role at Oklahoma State; Aurich, and Chris Zarkoskie and Brandon Cuevas, who are being announced today as Princeton’s new offensive line and running back coaches respectively

It is fair to say, however, that no member of the staff is as purely Princeton as Willis, nor did any of the others start on this staff as he did in the most entry-level job. After playing here, Willis ’14 never has worked anywhere else.

“Mike came here as a quality control coach,” said Surace. “The first job I gave him before he got to do any football work was to revamp our football alumni data base, a project we had been struggling with for two years. Mike did it in a week and exceptionally well.

“Steve Verbit and myself just kept giving Mike more projects and he kept doing them really well. When the tight end job came open, James and Sean volunteered to me ‘we know he’s young but you’ve got to hire this guy (full time) and I felt the same way.

“That first year Mike was tight ends coach, I gave him the responsibility of JV offensive coordinator.  Mike had been coaching offense only four or five months and yet he called a game the way a professional would do it. From that day, I kept that in the back of my mind that this might be the route for him.

“I continued to load him up with responsibilities, on and off the field, sharing responsibilities last year with Jamel Mutanga running the scout teams, culminating with Mike being recruiting coordinator. He brings in the No 1 recruiting class (as recognized by 247 Sports) in the FCS.

“Since Mike got here, the tight ends (Scott Carpenter, Graham Adomitis) have been tremendous players. Sam Johnson had his struggle (as an underclassman) but Mike never gives up on a guy and senior year Sam did some great things. Mike relates to the players but pushes them. Guys like Adomitis and (Carson) Bobo would say the same thing.

“Very similar to Sean when he was the running backs coach, I continued to give Mike every responsibility and as the tight end coach, he had input into both the running and passing games. So I feel very comfortable with him in making this move.”

It’s a growth benefit of the smaller staffs at the FCS level that young coaches have an opportunity to expand their repertoires. Surace, a center at Princeton, who climbed the coaching ladder in multiple capacities in multiple stops, certainly by now has proven to be not a pigeonholing kind-of-a boss.   Other holdovers on the offensive staff will gain new responsibilities in the shuffling.

In going outside to hire Zarkoskie, Surace didn’t just look for the best guy available who had spent his career in a three-point stance and then taught it, but one who had growth potential.

“I reached out to some quality offensive coaches asking about coaches who would fit us,” said Surace.  “The one I asked who I respected the most had been around in the NFL and he came up with Chris Zarkoskie at Lehigh.

“I then asked a college coach I respect and he said Zarkoskie. Then two guys on our staff who I lean on both said his name. One of our coaches had already reached out to see if Chris was interested. I didn’t start that conversation but somehow a connection was made and he applied for the job.

“We brought in six candidates-the best group of guys we ever interviewed for any position.”

Pedigree doesn’t have to be a Princeton degree. Zarkoskie earned an attractive lineage playing and coaching at the University of New Hampshire.

“From the time I got into coaching, I learned to have a great deal of respect for that program at New Hampshire,” said Surace. “I coached at a lot of schools in New England during the 1990s–Springfield, Maine Maritime, Western Connecticut–and spent some time (observing) at UNH. More than being consistently successful, the things they did changed a lot of what went on in offensive football nationally.

“Chris then went to Brown under Phil Estes. You know how highly I thought of Phil and what Brown did for years.  I thought what they were doing offensively was putting them on the cusp of making a big breakthrough and then Phil got fired and James (Perry, the new head coach and Surace’s first hire as OC at Princeton) made a clean break with the entire staff. So Chris coached last year at Lehigh.

“But what Brown was doing schematically was impressive. That was a long week of preparation for our defensive coaches. Brown put our defenders on an island.

“I wanted someone who would give us some new ideas.”

Cuevas, who had interviewed for the offensive line job, now will take the running backs position vacated by the departure of Jamel Mutunga.

“We’ve known Brandon for a while,” said Surace. “He’s someone close to two members of our staff, (quarterback coach) Mark Rosenbaum and (inside)  linebacker coach Mike Weick, having worked with them (at Susquehanna with Rosenbaum, at Salve Regina with Weick).  We love hiring people whose work habits we know will fit us.

“Brandon knocked the interview out or the park with his passion and level of detail. He brings a high level of offensive expertise and someone able to connect with the players.

“He roomed with Rosey at Susquehanna and then they coached together there. That helped us get Brandon.”

Princeton averaging 32.2 points last season after two receivers and the quarterback from the preceding 10-0 team went to the NFL, was another tribute to the ongoing talent level in the program and these coaches ability to best use it. The Tigers are 18-2 the last two years, a hard act to follow, sure, but Willis already has been integral to that act.

“I have been preparing my entire professional life – I came to Princeton at 18 – to not just be an offensive coordinator, but to be the offensive coordinator at Princeton,” said Willis. “I have now been in this program for a decade as a player and coach, and am very excited to get started in this new role.”

“Learning on the job has been more important than anything else in preparing me for this opportunity. I have had the opportunity to learn from three incredible play callers and many great position coaches, like Dennis Goldman and Eddy Morrissey, who have worked here.”

“While the offensive coordinator is responsible for managing the call sheet, having a feel for how the game is developing, and working with his fellow coaches to make the necessary adjustments, a great game plan is a team effort. It is developed by the whole coaching staff and executed at its highest level by the players during a great week of practice.”

“A great game plan is not the sole product of any one person, but a collaborative effort between the offensive coaches and Bob, who sits in on all our meetings.  I have learned from my mentors what works and what doesn’t, and I’m excited for the opportunity to help shape this offense.”

“I also have confidence in our ability to recruit and develop talent. I enjoy working with our players and coaches. I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity.”






september, 2023