Tigers’ youth will fill openings
By: Justin Feil
There were plenty of unpleasant offseason surprises for the Princeton University football team, but the Tigers were able to begin preseason practices thankfully with only improvement on their minds.
Princeton lost cornerback Jay McCareins, linebacker Zac Keasey and free safety Brandon Mueller to academics. On top of the graduation of two-time, first-team All-Ivy Kevin Kongslie and linebackers Drew Babinecz and J.R. Sauder, it leaves the defense without much experience behind a talented line, and plenty of openings.
There were a few players who did not turn up for preseason camp, but no one significant. It’s up to the players who reported Monday to decide who fills in the gaps.
"That’s what we’re here to find out," said Princeton head coach Roger Hughes. "It’s unique. We do have some openings now. There are a number of positions still being determined. And the competition is real and pretty keen."
Hughes, who enters his fourth season at Princeton with a 12-17 record, was impressed with what he saw during testing Tuesday.
"Overall, I’d say we came in in pretty good shape," he noted. "Especially the linebackers, running backs and wide receivers. The linemen are in good shape too."
Princeton has had two days of helmet-only practices. Thursday and today, then they can add shoulder pads. Saturday is the first day in which the Tigers can wear full gear, and that, Hughes says, is when the real competition begins.
"It’s easy to do well when there’s no hitting," he said. "We’ll find out Saturday who enjoys both the physical and the technical. It’ll be the first day we can really hit."
Princeton is limited by new NCAA rules that restrict practices. For the first five days this year, the Tigers were allowed just one practice per day for a maximum of three hours. They can begin two-a-days Monday, but cannot hold such sessions on consecutive days. No two-a-day session can run longer than two-and-a-half hours, and there must me a minimum of three hours between each practice. On top of all that, Princeton must provide six hours of academic orientation per NCAA mandate And while Hughes has changed little within practices, the new rules are an adjustment.
"This is the first year it’s happened so it’s been a bit of a scramble," Hughes said. "We’re still going to get the same amount of practices in, the kids are in two days earlier than before. I was going to do orientation anyway, so that’s not much different. And we used a 2-1-2-1 schedule for practices last year, so that’s not too big a change."
In addition to the new players vying for positions, Hughes has a number of new coaches on the staff. While the core group of offensive coordinator Dave Rackovan, defensive coordinator Steve Verbit, defensive backs coach Eric Jackson, linebackers coach Don Dobes and offensive line coach Stan Clayton remains the same, their support cast is different.
Scott Sallach, a former assistant from Hughes’ old school Dartmouth, is the receivers coach in place of Cody Deti. He’ll also be the Tigers’ junior varsity head coach. Josh Nowocin, who was on the football team at Penn State before transferring to Virginia, will work with the defense in place of Craig Young.
"With Scott, he knew what we’re about anyway," Hughes said. "It’s not a big transition for him. Josh Nowocin is from Sacred Heart and he’ll help with the secondary. His learning curve is very steep. I’m lucky to get someone of their caliber, from a work standpoint and as a person."
Hughes is hoping they can help mold the Tigers from a 6-4 team last year into a league winner this year. It won’t be easy with such a young defense. Princeton gets its first live look Sept. 6 when it scrimmages Yale in New Haven, Conn. The Tigers host Lehigh Sept. 20 in their season opener, and there’s some catching up to be done before then.
"On the defensive side, we’re going to be young at linebacker and in the secondary," Hughes said. "Some of the kids who will have to play for us are untested. One thing for us is figuring out who will start out in those roles. The second thing is putting them in game-like positions, and giving them a sense of what it will be like against Lehigh."
On the other side of the ball, Hughes doesn’t have quite as many concerns. Dave Splithoff is back from offseason shoulder surgery to battle with Matt Verbit for the quarterback job. Mike Chiusano is also back after a broken collarbone cost him last year.
"On the offensive side of the ball, there are less question marks," Hughes said. "The biggest one, I guess, is quarterback, but it’s not really a question. Dave’s arm is sore (Thursday) and we’ll take it easy with him. But with movement and those type things, he’s shown he can still generate the same velocity he did before. Matt Verbit has matured. I’m comfortable with either guy in there, and more importantly, the players are too.
"The offensive line, we have to do some gelling. We have two seniors among the group. A lot of the kids will be underclassmen, which is good for next year. Certainly, we’re more athletic on the offensive line than we’ve been. Matt (Chiusano) is back and he’s bigger. He’s the type of kid that views (last year’s injury) as more of a bump in the road."
Outside of the offense and defense, Hughes has personally been giving more attention to the special teams, which Eric Jackson is also coaching. The Tigers had a young crew in charge of the kicking and punting duties, and it showed.
"We’re obviously making a huge emphasis on the kicking game, especially the punting game," Hughes said. "We have a heavy emphasis on putting our best players on the special teams. We have a couple good young kickers coming in, and the kickers who were there last year have improved. There is some real competition there, and there’s no question we’ll improve."
Hughes hopes that he feels the same way about the Tigers chances this season in three weeks as they welcome Lehigh to Princeton Stadium for a night game. It’s a game that put Princeton up against one of the top Division I-AA teams, and serves as a perfect primer for the Ivy season.
What kind of season it is depends on how quickly the Tigers young players get up to speed. Princeton is picked to finish fifth in the Ivy League. With a young team made younger by an offseason of surprises, a league championship is one surprise that Roger Hughes would enjoy pulling on the rest of the conference.