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2023 Football Preview: Offense

By Craig Sachson, PrincetonTigersFootball.com

Princeton football is in the midst of one of the great stretches in program history. Over the last four seasons, the Tigers have won 35 of 40 games and captured two Ivy League titles. While team success is always the top focus within the locker room, head coach Bob Surace has learned that individual drive comes in all shapes and sizes.

“Everybody is going to have their own chip,” Surace said. “Maybe for some guys, it’s the way last season ended. Maybe for others, it’s the NFL. Maybe it’s becoming the strongest guy on the team. They all have their own chips, so I try to make sure that the focus is always on today and getting better.”

The individual growth over the last nine months has been exciting, and it has been completely necessary. Many of the guys who played critical roles in those 35 wins will wear orange and black on Saturdays, but they will be doing so as spectators.

“We’re a new team,” Surace said. “We’ve graduated over 80 seniors over the last two years. We didn’t do the gap year, so it’s a smaller roster. We need to do the right things every day to find the best 11 to play on the field. I’ve seen that focus as we prepared for the season, so I’m excited about that.”

Many of the guys are gone, but not all. The Princeton offense returns a pair of All-Ivy standouts in Blake Stenstrom and Jalen Travis to lead the way, and it has a plethora of guys ready to make a name for themselves while extending the Tigers’ current run of success.

Quarterbacks
Princeton entered the 2022 season with experience and explosiveness at the wide receiver position, and that helped a first-time quarterback named Blake Stenstrom ease his way into navigating the offense. This year, Surace will look to the second-year starter to make life easier for everybody else on his side of the ball.

Stenstrom, a 6-4, 220-pound senior from Highlands Ranch, Colo., completed over 69% of his passes last season, throwing for more than 2,700 yards and 16 touchdowns on his way to second-team All-Ivy honors. He added 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and while he will continue to bring that added component to the offense, Surace has been excited by his growth as a thrower.

“He’s a big quarterback with sneaky good speed, but he has really worked on some of the technical aspects of throwing, and I think he is throwing it with more velocity and accuracy,” Surace said. “He’s more confident ripping the ball down the field. It was so much fun seeing Blake in February, because all he was doing was playing to his potential within the offense.”

Stenstrom earned the starting job with a brilliant year of football dating back to last fall, so he hasn’t felt the pressure of competing each day for the job. The backup position is a battle, though, and considering the variety of offenses Princeton has run over the last decade, there could be different players for different roles. Both Blaine McAllister and Blaine Hipa are capable runners in red-zone situations, and the two are competing with Kai Colon for more of the traditional backup role.

Freshman West Smith has done a strong job running the scout team offense, and Surace wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a large jump going into the spring.

Running Backs 
There is an open competition for the lead running back entering the season opener at San Diego, and Surace sees three guys who have all made a claim for the starting role: Jiggie CarrDareion Murphy, and John Volker.

Volker brings the most experience into the season. He had 28 carries and scored two touchdowns last season, and he’s an elusive runner with good hands out of the backfield. Carr is the strongest of the three and has made life difficult for defensive players trying to bring him down. Murphy is tall and the smoothest of the backs, and his best days bring Surace visions of Chuck Dibilio and Jordan Culbreath.

“We thought we had depth last year, but all three either got hurt or physically weren’t ready for a big workload,” Surace said. “I think we’re at a different place this year. One of them may take the lead role eventually, but I’m comfortable with any of the three right now, and I think freshman Ethan Clark will find his way to the field as well.”

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Andrei Iosivas and Dylan Classi combined to catch 127 passes for 1858 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Nobody is going to shed any tears for the Tigers now that they have moved on — including Iosivas’ move to Sunday football — and fans of seven other Ivy teams are happily celebrating the transition.

Derek Graham and Kevin Guthrie graduated together in 1984. Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson graduated together in 2019. Princeton football went on then, and it will go on this season too.

“Inexperience is what it is until you get a chance to play,” Surace said. “These guys had a couple of monsters in front of them, but they have been practicing really well, and they are excited to make the most of their opportunity now.”

The two most experienced receivers are likely the two that will be featured most prominently to start the season. AJ Barber caught 28 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown last year, while Jo Jo Hawkins added 19 catches for 130 yards and a score.

Surace pointed out others who have impressed during camp, including Matthew MahoneyLuke ColellaAnthony BlandTamatoa Falatea, and Jalen Geer.

“It’s been nice seeing them all take turns having big days in preseason,” Surace said. “I don’t know if we have that one guy that the offense will go through, but I think we have the depth to make this work. Blake has been great working with the guys after practice and getting everybody up to speed for the season.”

At the tight end position, Tyler Picnic brings experience from last season and can do anything the offense asks from him. Caden Dumas is a strong blocker and a savvy receiver, and he is fully recovered from the injury that cost him the 2022 season. Connor Hulstein, a converted wideout who has bulked up, along with Simon Brackin have made a late push for time.

Offensive Line
Graduating two All-Ivy offensive linemen will always present a challenge, but the coaching staff can take confidence knowing there are returning starters protecting Stenstrom’s blindside, including a left tackle in senior Jalen Travis who has already received some NFL visits.

“Jalen is 6-7, 300 pounds, with a basketball background, and he came to being a full-time football player a little later,” Surace said. “His growth over the last 2-3 years is incredible. He is getting a lot of buzz around the Senior Bowl, similar to Andrei at this time last year. Jalen is an amazing human being. He interned for Senator Klobuchar last year. He has done so many good things in his life, helping others.”

Surace believes he can help an entire offense this fall, though he’ll count on senior Blake Feigenspan and junior Tommy Matheson in that mission as well. Both players saw time starting at center last year; Feigenspan will own that role full-time this season, while Matheson will move to the left guard spot.

The other side of the line may not have the same experience, but Surace is a believer in the talent. Nick Hilliard was in the rotation last year and is the early pick for the right guard spot, while Will Reed and Cooper Koers are in a spirited battle for the right tackle position. Both are pick, athletic and improving, and Surace could see either one (or both) making a big leap after some early-season experience.

At this point, Surace sees a nine-man rotation at the position. Sophomore Jaden Wedderburn is likely to back up both Travis and Matheson on the left side, while Scott Becker will see time at center. Mac Duda has had a strong preseason and is the likely back at right guard.

Coming next week: Defensive outlook + Week 1 preview

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september, 2023

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