By Craig Sachson – PrincetonTigersFootball.com
Step into our time machine for a moment, and let’s go back 10 years.
One decade ago, Bob Surace and the Princeton football team was coming off its worst two-year stretch in program history. The Tigers had gone 2-18, suffered through losses and injuries and life-threatening health situations and, well, more losses. The team maintained a belief in itself, even if few others shared in the optimism.
That was rock bottom, and it was only 10 years ago.
There was only one direction to go from there, but even the optimistic few couldn’t have imagined the heights this team would travel over the next decade. They have won four of the last eight Ivy League championships, haven’t posted a losing record since that 2011 season, and have seen numerous Tigers earn major postseason recognition or play on Sundays.
The 2022 Tigers, who open their season Sept. 17 at Stetson, have every intention to build on the program’s greatest decade in more than 50 years. They were picked to finish third in the Ivy League this season, though only four points separated co-favorites Harvard and Dartmouth with Princeton, and both Yale and Columbia earned solid vote totals in the polls.
This team is more focused on the present than the past, but it can add to the incredible set of milestones with a championship season. Since Ivy League play began in 1956, Princeton has never won five titles within nine seasons, and it hasn’t won back-to-back titles since 1963-64. Both could change within three months, but the Tigers know they’ll need another special season to be in the mix come November.
Over the next week, we’ll preview the 2022 Princeton Tigers, before taking a closer look at the opener in Stetson. This section will focus on the offense, which faces the challenge of replacing its starting quarterback from last season. It’s not an easy situation, but it’s one this coaching staff is well-versed in. After all, this is the fourth straight season it has done so.
How did the previous three seasons go? 27-3, two Ivy titles.
Yes, it’s hard, but it’s certainly possible.
Chad Kanoff to John Lovett (2018) to Kevin Davison (2019) to Cole Smith (2021) to … that is the biggest question for the offensive staff in the preseason. It isn’t a question that causes head coach Bob Suraceany panic, considering both the 2019 and 2021 competitions went deep into the preseason. Junior Blake Stenstrom brings the most experience after getting into five games last season, but senior Joseph Hutchinson and sophomore Blaine McAllister have impressed in camp.
“They all bring different strengths, but they have also all been doing the important things well,” Surace said. “They’ve been precise, they’ve been making good decisions, and they’re picking up the blitz well. Blaine made a big jump from last season, while Hutchinson has been throwing it great. Blake is the most comfortable in the offense. I’d like to see it play out for another week, and usually it sorts itself out by then.”
Those familiar with the recent history of Princeton football know that Surace can get creative with his quarterbacks, so don’t forget Niko Vangarelli, a 6-3, 230-pound sophomore who rushed for three touchdowns last season. He could be a dangerous option on the goal line.
John Volker started the 2021 season with a familiar name, but due to the season-ending injury to All-Ivy running back Collin Eaddy, he quickly became a familiar face to Tiger fans. And they were excited by what they saw.
The younger brother of former All-Ivy Tiger tailback Charlie Volker, John Volker capped off his freshman season with 35 rushes for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including a 64-yard score in the critical late-season win over Yale.
“The injury to Collin was devastating, but John took advantage of the opportunity and really finished the season strong,” Surace said. “His confidence has soared since then. You can see it in more than just his run game, but in his ability to catch the ball and protect the quarterback. He has really advanced since last season. The end of the year showed him that he really belongs here.”
The offense has a bevy of young backs who could have an impact this season. Fellow sophomore Ja’Derris Carr had a fantastic start to camp, while freshmen Ryan Butler and Dareion Murphy have impressed as runners and are developing the all-around game they’ll need to get on the field. Senior Davis Kline is the type of solid, dependable presence that the coaching staff wants around this young backfield.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Princeton has had no shortage of All-Ivy skill players over the last decade, and the 2022 frontrunner for postseason recognition is senior Andrei Iosivas, a two-sport standout who already has the attention of every Ivy League defensive coordinator.
“He’s a different level of fast,” Surace said. “It’s more than just the speed, though. He has the hands, the route-running, the competitiveness to be really special.”
Iosivas, a first-team All-American in the heptathlon last year, caught 41 passes for 703 yards and a team-best five touchdowns in his 2021 All-Ivy season. He’ll force at least one safety to respect the deep ball, which will open up space for senior Dylan Classi, the only Tiger to average more yards per catch than Iosivas last season. Classi fits in the Matt Costello/Connor Kelley mode over the past decade — tough, reliable receivers who catch eight-yards passes on 3rd-and-7s.
Classi has 76 career receptions, putting him on a path to become the 176h Tiger with at least 100 career receptions. Following the departure of All-Ivy receiver Jacob Birmelin, and with defenses likely focusing on Iosivas, Classi could be primed for his best statistical season ever.
Senior Michael Axelrood had double-digit catches last season, while junior Jo-Jo Hawkins plays with consistent energy and could become a dangerous part of the offense this season.
Senior tight end Carson Bobo is coming off two All-Ivy seasons, including a first-team performance during the 2021 championship season. He caught 40 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns over the last two seasons, but he also brings All-Ivy effort as a blocker for this versatile offense. There are young tight ends behind him, and one will likely earn rotational time this season, but Bobo is a central figure in this offense.
With a new starter at quarterback and underclassmen in the backfield, Surace is especially happy to have so many familiar faces returning on his offensive line. That group starts with Henry Byrd, a two-time All-Ivy League honoree who will start his third straight season at left tackle. Byrd saw time as a freshman on the undefeated 2018 team and was named Princeton’s top offensive freshman, and now he is looking to bookend his career with another championship season.
Classmate Connor Scaglione also started every game for the 2021 championship team and figures to be the starter at right guard. Zackary Zambrano, yet another senior, saw time in every game last season and is likely to hold the left guard spot next to Byrd. Classmate Blake Feigenspan doesn’t have quite the same game experience as those three, but he’s had a strong camp and figures to be in the center rotation.
It can’t all be seniors, of course, and one name who could be in line for serious time is junior Jalen Travis, a 6-7, 310-pound athlete who could be in line for the right tackle position. Jonathan Boyd provides the needed versatility to provide depth at several spots, while lesser experienced linemen like Tommy Matheson, Nick Basten, Will Reed, David Heath, and Nicolas Hilliard will all vie for rotation time.