Tiger Football Q&A: 10 Key Factors Facing Princeton In 2011
The opening game of the 143rd season of Princeton football is fast approaching, and GoPrincetonTigers.com continues to provide the most complete coverage of Tiger football. Below is a schedule of what is coming up this week:
Friday, Sept. 9 - Offensive coordinator James Perry on Media Day
Monday, Sept. 12 - Defensive coordinator Jared Backus on Media Day l Season preview Q&A
Tuesday, Sept. 13 - Lehigh preview/game notes (including depth chart)
Wednesday, Sept. 14 - Head coach Bob Surace on Media Day
Thursday, Sept. 15 - 2011 debut of TigerCast, including Lehigh preview
Friday, Sept. 16 - Notes on following your Tigers throughout the season
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: 2010 was a rough football season for the Princeton Tigers.
From injuries to inconsistent play, the Orange and Black watched a promising start unravel into a winless season in Ivy play.
From the players to coaches to you, the fans of Princeton Tiger football, not much more needs to be rehashed about last season. It’s a new year. A new season. A new team.
Princeton will spend the next 10 weeks trying to answer as many questions as it can, and it will hope those answers are good enough to translate into many more victories. In honor of those 10 weeks, let’s look at 10 questions and what the right answers could mean this fall.
What can we expect from Year 2 of this coaching staff?
Last year, only two of the nine positional coaches returned from the previous staff. Besides a new head coach in Bob Surace, new coordinators arrived in James Perry (offense) and Jared Backus (defense). Both brought with them new systems to learn.
So if you were a player, you most likely were getting used to a new head coach, a new coordinator, a new positional coach and a new scheme. And you had 12 practices in the spring and three weeks in the fall to get it done before games counted. Good luck.
This year, there is only one new coach on the staff, running backs coach Andrew Aurich. If that name sounds familiar, he was a starting offensive lineman when Princeton began its upswing in the middle of last decade, so he is at least familiar with the challenges and pressures of the Princeton student-athlete.
Surace and his staff were able to implement a full offseason of their own strength and conditioning program, as well as break down film and show their players what went either right or wrong last season. Of course, they also spent a full year of recruiting, and they are already excited about what they’ve seen from the Class of 2015.
On the flip side, the players are far more comfortable with their respective schemes. Instead of trying to figure out where they need to be, they can play instinctual football. There should be much fewer defensive breakdowns, while the offense can be ‘Fast and Physical 2.0.’
In a league loaded at the quarterback position, can Tommy Wornham be a difference maker?
Simply put, yes.
Most other seasons, the return of Wornham, who suffered a broken collarbone during Week 5 last season, would be a major headline during the Ivy League preseason. But with each team returning a starter at the position, and several possessing elite-level numbers or talents, Wornham’s return has barely made a ripple on the water.
That could be a short-sighted mistake, considering the numbers Wornham had put up with limited knowledge of the offense last year. Against Lehigh, the eventual Patriot League champion and NCAA quarterfinalist, he threw for 392 yards. In the next three games, he passed for at least 200 yards each time and completed at least one touchdown pass every game.
One of the hardest workers off the field, he is now seeing what Perry wants him, even needs him, to see. After having a different quarterback coach each of his first three seasons, he finally feels comfortable both physically and mentally, and he has the absolute respect of his offensive teammates.
“He came back and just looked terrific,” Surace said of his tri-captain. “It’s a lot of stress for a quarterback to know what all of your responsibilities are. He has seen it all now, and he is just reacting to things. The game is slowing down for him.”
Who are these new guys lining up around Wornham?
Though Wornham is also a threat on his feet (he ran for two of the other three touchdowns last year … any idea who scored the lone remaining touchdown?), he can’t do it all. From new starters in the backfield to new targets on the outside, Princeton is relying heavily on some talented, yet inexperienced, skill players.
Senior wideout Isaac Serwanga has been the victim of either injury or the breakout seasons of last year’s senior wide receivers, so he lacks meaningful experience. That will all change this season, and he needs to take advantage. A tall, lanky and extremely fast option, Serwanga has shown flashes of brilliance in the fall. Consistency has been his biggest opponent, and he needs to win that battle starting tonight.
Sophomore Connor Kelley and junior Shane Wilkinson are the next two threats at the position, and both could produce Kerr-like numbers. Kelley played quarterback last season; with Wornham returning, Surace knew he couldn’t leave that athleticism on the bench. Wilkinson may have had the best fall of any receiver and could be a favorite target in the slot.
The top backfield tandem will be junior Akil Sharp and sophomore Brian Mills. Sharp started to make his presence felt late last season, and he carried that momentum through both a strong spring and fall. Mills, who scored that 18th touchdown last season, has the kind of breakaway speed that makes him a home run threat each time.
That would be the offensive line, and you can’t underestimate the importance of this group.
In this offensive system, where both speed and physicality are mandatory, the five men up front must be in harmony at all times. And they need to keep their quarterback upright.
Seniors Matt Allen and Kevin DeMaio are in their second seasons as starters, and junior Kevin Mill has returned from a knee injury that cost him the 2010 season. Mill and Allen will be the anchor on the left side, while DeMaio will start at right tackle.
Sophomore Joe Goss dealt with some injuries in the preseason, but he showed his potential at the center position last year. Seniors Mike Muha and Chris Grous and sophomore Taylor Pearson are among the rest of the group that will either start at right guard or find time in a rotation that needs better depth than it had last season.
Who’s that guy wearing number 51?
Senior linebacker and tri-captain Steven Cody led the Ivy League in tackles in 2009. He already had 12 tackles late into the Lehigh game last season when a leg injury ended his year. While several teammates, most notably Jon Olofsson, did their best to overcome his loss, nobody brought all of his intangibles to the field.
“He’s a winning football player,” Surace said. “Steven is the voice of the defense. He does things that most players in this league can’t do.”
Cody’s energy and intensity raise the level of his teammates’ play. Once considered by Harvard coach Tim Murphy as the Ivy League’s best NFL prospect, Cody is everything you need in a middle linebacker.
And with new life in his football career, expect that the best is still to come.
Who could form the dynamic duo on defense?
Overshadowed by the injury to Cody was the loss of defensive lineman Caraun Reid, who also got hurt during a very costly season opener at Lehigh. Reid, now a junior, is a physical force in the middle of the defensive line. Finally healthy, he will be critical in both creating a pass rush and stuffing the run.
Reid’s loss put more pressure on senior tri-captain Mike Catapano, who spent much of last season dealing with injuries of his own. Catapano is one of the few players in the league who can match Reid’s physical capabilities, and when the two line up together on the line, they will demand serious attention.
Who else will be making an impact on the defense?
When your league returns eight quarterbacks with starting experience, seven running backs with at least 500 rushing yards and 10 receivers with at least 400 receiving yards last season, you can’t survive on the broad shoulders of three key defenders.
While Surace would (and did) point out nearly 20 players who have impressed him defensively this fall, let’s point out two.
Senior Blake Clemons isn’t physically imposing, but he is an experienced cornerback who finds a way to stick with the best wideouts in the league. While a number of underclassmen vie for the starting job on the opposite side of the field, expect to see Clemons lined up with multiple All-Ivy receivers. He’ll need his best season to date, and Surace believes he’s ready for it.
Junior Andrew Starks ended last season ranked fourth in the Ivy League in tackles, but his game was not as well-rounded as it needed to be. His hard work in the passing game and his better overall grasp of the defensive scheme should make him a better player in 2011, and with offenses scheming away from Cody, he shouldn’t lack for opportunities.
“His defense in the pass game has improved tremendously,” Surace said. “Every practice, he makes a big play, either an interception or a tipped ball or he forces the quarterback into a mistake. He looks like he’s ready to have a pretty good season.”
Should we expect the special teams to be special?
At least in the kicking game, this team needs another top-notch season to have a real chance to get back into the Ivy League elite.
Senior Patrick Jacob, featured on page 57 of this program, went from reserve to first-team All-Ivy in one season. One of Princeton’s most reliable kickers in years, he made his last 10 field goals inside of 40 yards and made three from beyond that range. With points at a premium in this league, anything inside the opponent’s 30-yard-line should give Princeton a good chance to score.
Junior Joe Cloud had the top punting average in the league last season and also earned All-Ivy recognition. His ability to drive the deep punt is unquestioned; if he can get better with his accuracy on the shorter punt and pin the opponent deep, he will be well on his way to another All-Ivy honor.
As for the return game, Princeton will be hoping for much greater contributions this season. Mills, Roman Wilson and Phillip Bhaya should all be early factors, but this staff could also dip into its deep freshman class if needed.
Are there freshmen who could make Saturday impacts this fall?
On the offensive side of the ball, two early names to watch are Chuck Dibilio and Matt Costello. Dibilio, an all-state tailback out of Nazareth, Pa., rushed for 4,366 yards and scored 57 touchdowns in a brilliant high school career. Costello, out of Everett, Mass., set his high school team record for touchdown receptions and was an all-league player. Both have impressed during their first camp, although the coaches will be eager to see how they perform on the big stage.
Defensively, two early candidates for playing time are Garrit Leicht and Mike Zeuli. Leicht was an all-state linebacker in Kentucky and impressed the coaching staff with his physical strength early in camp. Zeuli was the South Jersey Player of the Year at safety, and his toughness has turned heads.
There are several others, including a trio of highly touted quarterbacks and a handful of linemen on both sides of the ball, who could find time by the middle of the season. The overall quality in the class has been one of the biggest bright spots in a preseason camp that Surace already felt good about.
How does the schedule factor into everything?
Ivy League schedules have basically been the same for the last decade, but this year’s Princeton schedule is a bit more quirky than normal. It starts with three home games, including the Ivy League opener against Columbia two weeks from tonight.
Following that stretch is a three-week road trip, which begins with the team’s first ever trip to Hampton. That follows with the brutal back-to-back New England trips to Brown and Harvard.
Three weeks of little or no travel follow, beginning with a home date against Cornell. A quick trip to Philadelphia for the Penn game opens November, and Yale comes to town for both Alumni Weekend and Senior Day on the 12th. The season ends with one more marathon trip, this time to Dartmouth on the 19th.