And Liam Johnson Makes Three
BY JAY GREENBERG
(Second of two parts)
Fair to say that Princeton didn’t take Kurt Holuba just because his brother Rob had played here. That old joke about soft schedules that include Little Sisters of the Poor? Well, after three Ivy titles in seven seasons, and 18 wins in the last 20 games, there obviously is no charity being run here for smaller and slower little brothers. The Tigers do not subsist on siblings.
“A lot of our kids have younger brothers,” said Bob Surace. “But we don’t take many of them.
“It is incredibly competitive. So credit the Johnson family to have produced that great a player and student.”
Three times, not just two. Time will tell whether Liam Johnson turns out to be the best of the defensive recruits from Princeton’s football class of 2024, although based on genetic testing of Tom, James and tight end cousin Sam, reasonable to suggest the baby of the family has a shot. For now, Liam is the recruit of greatest familiarity and, to anyone who has been watching Johnsons in the middle of Tiger linebacking corps almost since the wins started piling up, the most comforting.
“Liam is agile in the box, has great instincts and is physical tackler, all the traits we are looking for at that position,” said Surace.
He also is already 20 pounds heaver than Tom ’19 and James ’21 were as freshmen and not just because of the delicacies Paul Johnson slings on that grill at the parents’ tailgate. Lucky him, license for Dad to slave over that thing has been extended four more years to a total of nine with a kid in the program, which is really remarkable.
He didn’t have to threaten any of his boys with a spatula, either, to get them to come to Princeton. While daily trips across the Betsy Ross Bridge from Moorestown N.J. to St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia was preordained by Regina and Paul, the college choice was up to each of the boys.
“From a football perspective, the turning point in Liam’s recruiting was the Dartmouth game (in 2018),” said Regina. “From a 16-year old linebacker’s perspective, it was watching excellence and Liam was challenged by it.
“He never has been intimidated about following his brothers. There is a sense of humor in the house about the competition that has made things a little lighter for all the boys.”
If you subscribe to the bromide that there are two kinds of persons in the world – leaders and followers – there also might be two kinds of siblings: Those who aspire to be just like their older brother or sister and those insistent on finding their own path. Liam had interest from Stanford and Northwestern and initial, curiosity about both, but his exposure to his brothers’ happiness at Princeton made him the first defensive commit in this class.
“Because of all the activities of his brothers, he’s gotten a good sense of what Princeton is like off the gridiron,” said Paul. “I’ve said to all my kids: one day you are playing and the next you could have a torn ACL and you’re not. So you have to really love the school you are going to.
“Of course from an academic standard anybody can be proud of going to Princeton. But when Liam had an opportunity to visit the campus and see how the kids support each other – including the football players but not just them – that drew him in.
“Liam likes to push himself, but also likes to be around winners, and there are winners at Princeton. He needs to be in a place like where there are a lot of smart people doing unbelievable things for other humans.”
More good – and strong and mobile – humans incoming: For the second time in three years 247Sports says this is the best recruiting class in the FCS, including the athletic scholarship schools. Virtually all had FBS offers, or would have had they not committed early to Princeton.
Jackson Ford. 6-0, 206, Perry High School, Chandler AZ – “His junior year was off the charts,” said Surace. “He can run, but Jackson lacked size so we waited to see how his body matured. He came to camp 20 plus pounds heavier but with the same body fat (percentage) and still growing, plus his agility, speed and explosiveness were at the top of the charts among the competition. He is a great fit for both special teams and our Will linebacker position.”
Liam Johnson, 6-0, 210. St. Joe’s Preparatory School Philadelphia, PA. – “St. Joe’s won another state title last year, Liam having five sacks as an inside linebacker in the championship game,” said Surace. “He is physical, has energy, and is a worker, all the traits we are looking for at that position. We couldn’t play without a couple of Johnsons on our team. They are winners and leaders.”
Ozzie Nicholas 6-5, 210, La Costa Canyon High School Encinitas, CA – “Ozzie is a big linebacker with speed and quickness,” said Surace. “He a very good blitzer who can cover the pass and is tremendous tackler in the box. His rare size and athleticism, which reminds me of Garrit Leicht (’15), will allow him to be three down LB.”
Caleb Coleman 6-2, 195. Groton School, Wellesley, MA – “Because we didn’t graduate any outside ‘backers, this year we took only two,” said Surace. “Caleb has such athletic ability that he could do it all for his prep team. When the quarterback didn’t have a strong enough arm to throw a Hail Mary, Caleb said, ‘I’ll do it’ and completed it for 55 yards to win the game.
“This is a high level athlete with a high level of intelligence. We have had some really good SAM linebackers and Caleb fits the mold. He is not only an elite athlete that can play in space but, once he develops in his pass rush, will be a terrific blitzer.”
Nic Sanker 6-3, 200. The Covenant School, Charlottesville VA – “Like Tavaris Noel ‘21, at camp we put him through the car wash – everywhere up and down – and he adjusted to everything,” said Surace. “ His body is filling out and as he continues to get stronger,
“Nicholas has the length, speed and bend to be a dynamic pass rusher. Athletically, he is similar to Elijah Mitchell (’14), who, after coming to Princeton as a safety, was dominant off the edge in his senior year. A difference is that Nicholas has a much bigger frame to fill out and play the run as well.”
Jackson Fischer 5-9, 160, Mira Costa High School, Manhattan Beach, CA – “All along coaches saw his athleticism and ball skills,” said Surace. “But as he physically developed later in the process, Jackson went from someone not highly recruited at the D1 level to a recruit who had a ton of interest after his senior season. Four or five of the top schools we compete against offered him during the winter, so we spent a lot time with him in a short period. Our high level football and tremendous academics put us in good standing.
“Jackson has plus speed and, as his body continues to fill out, is going to develop the complete coverage skills necessary to successfully match up against excellent wide receivers.
Pierson Tobia 6-1, 190, Bergen Catholic High School, Oradell, NJ. – “We have had so much success with kids from that school that we walk in there with a lot of built-up trust,” said Surace. “When (Coach) Vito Campanile says, ‘This is a kid who fits you,’ you believe he knows what makes a high level Ivy League player.
‘Just like (Bergen Catholic predecessor) Anthony Corbin, Pierson played on both sides of the ball, which is rare in that conference. This was a really easy evaluation on our end. He was a receiver-defensive back who has a lot of the attributes we look for in a safety – size, length, speed, instincts and physicality.”
Payton Tally 6-0, 178, Cy-Fair High School. Cypress, TX – “We had a very good film grade on him from his junior video and got to see he was a great fit for us at camp,” said Surace. “Payton is a physical player against the run, but the thing you get to see in person is the athleticism to play the deep throws. There are very few recruits who come in with the ability to do both.
“With all the rising juniors and seniors we have coming back in the secondary, this year, we’re taking a smaller group and we got a really good one. I think we got lucky with both these safeties and their all around skills.”
Jonathan Pittman 6-2, 245, Milton High School, Milton GA. “Jonathan is kind of like Sam Wright in that he doesn’t say a whole lot,” said Surace. “Also like Sam, he is a high effort player with explosive leg drive. In recording 15 sacks last year Jonathan showed the acceleration and agility to physically bull rush tackles but also the athleticism to bend around them on the edge. He already is aggressive against the run and we think he will develop counter moves like Sam’s and become an elite rusher.”
Ryan Savage 6-0, 230. LaSalle College High School, Wyndmoor, Pa. – “My first year Phil Bhaya and Joe Goss were tremendous high school players but on the small side and hard to evaluate,” said Surace. “Recently, Jake Strain was the same way. They got in front of us at camp to show off their attributes and became key players. So we probably got lucky that Ryan is a relatively local kid who could be the rare one to come twice to our camp. His motor didn’t stop at either and we could get a deeper appreciation for an undersized player who will reach his ability level because of his work ethic.
“He is relentless, Steve Verbit had him come off the edge against every top OT and he showed us the same ability to win each matchup just on his video.”
Chase Robertson, 6-4, 245, Independence High School, Thompson Station, TN – “In watching film he reminded me in body type and ability to Uche Ndukwe (’22) in that he has really good hands and is very mobile for his size,” said Surace. “As Chase get stronger, he is going to be versatile edge pass rusher and strong enough to hold the point in the run game. Like Uche, he can play on the interior and the edge, and Steve Verbit is the best at finding the matchups that put our DL in ideal positions.”
Mason Weber 6-4. 235, Bishop Miege High School, Shawnee Mission, KS – “I like watching recruits play basketball or wrestle and not just for more clues into their athleticism or strength,” said Surace. “Do they set picks, rebound, block guys out, and support teammates? And we want to see them compete. I watched Chuck Dibilio up against a guy going to Villanova (basketball). Chuck outworked and out-competed him and was the best teammate on the floor.
“I got the same sense about Mason, whom our coaches said was unusually powerful on the basketball court. We saw his physical style and competitive attributes take over at camp, where he stood out with his effort on every play and drill, confirming the same traits we saw on his video.”
Mason Armstead. 6-2, 170. Creighton Preparatory School, Omaha, NB. – “Right now Mason is only guy in this class being considered for either offense or defense,” said Surace. “Our program has been tremendously successful with athletic receivers but, on the other hand, it’s hard to find long, athletic, defensive backs. I have coaches on both sides making their arguments and I am going to have to play judge at some point. All Mason says about it is he just wants to help the team.
“Even though he and Miko (running back recruit Maessner) grew up 2 1/2 hours away, two of the fastest sprinters in Nebraska developed a relationship from their competitions. So that was really helpful to us through the process of getting Mason because we were not in on him early. At whatever position he winds up, it’s exciting to bring him to Princeton. He is an elite athlete with body control, coordination and sprinter speed.”