BY BOB SURACE
The commitment fulfilled by the football Class of 2015 may have been unprecedented.
|Bob Surace '90|
You face a lot of challenges as a college student -- academically, socially and, for these guys, athletically. To put in the time required of Division I players -- and in our case without a scholarship hanging over their heads -- yet not have one dropout in four years? Steve Verbit, who has been at Princeton 30 years and Jim Salgado and James Perry, who have been other places in the Ivy League, never heard of such a thing.
Khamal Brown, who like Chuck had to miss a year of school with an illness, will get one more year of eligibility and, hopefully, so will other student-athletes from this class who missed a season with an injury. So every guy who came into the program in the fall of 2011 is still with us except for Chuck, who would do anything to get back out there. For the group, that’s almost as amazing as these guys have proven individually:
|Joe Bonura '15|
Matt Costello -- Matt leaves third all-time in receptions in a 145-year-old Princeton program, a place that obviously doesn’t need any embellishment.
Even as the skinny guy who came here, he could be relied upon to catch the ball. And, as he added 30 pounds, Matt really became an effective open field type runner and blocker, too. He had tremendous body control to time his jump and get his hands on balls that weren’t perfect; probably the best catch he made was the one at the goalline that tied the game at Dartmouth a year ago. But what we appreciated about him the most was his consistency. Each game, you could pencil him in for at least four or five catches and 60 yards. That is going to be hard to replace.
Quinn Epperly -- He is going down as one of the great quarterbacks to ever play at Princeton. But for all those things that were visible -- like being named the Ivy League’s Offensive Player of the Year as a junior, being responsible for 43 touchdowns that season and breaking the NCAA record with 29 straight completions – I am more proud of what he accomplished this year. He overcame a major surgery, a staph infection that could have prevented him from ever playing again, then injuries to both feet that could easily require surgery, gutting out Tuesday practices when he had to be on crutches in the locker room.
He worked so hard to become an accurate passer. Plus he ran, caught, and punted, too, making him a true wild card, even though he wasn’t named to that extra spot they designate on the All-Ivy team. We had struggled in the red zone both before I got here and my first two years and he changed us into one of the best in the country.
Quinn handled both exceptional accomplishment and setbacks, which is who he is as a person and leader, something his teammates and me always will cherish. He is an amazing young man.
Jonathan Esposito -- He came out every day in such a good frame of mind and with such energy that you had to be a cynical person not to be in a good mood around Jonathan. He made everyone around him better.
Jonathan came here as a 200-pound back who had the ball in his hands and morphed into 225-pound fullback happy to do all the little things – pass protection, run blocking and special teams. It was great to see him embrace that role. Plus, he got a lot of tickets. Our crowds must have increased by 100 per game because of him.
|Dylan Jeffay '15|
Jakobi Johnson -- Jakobi was also a terrific high school basketball player who, although he had tremendous athletic ability, came here with a long ways to go technically as a football player. And every year he improved his coverage skill and gained a larger role. The Yale game in his junior season, when he returned an onside kick for a touchdown, was a highlight, but he did so many little things on coverage and return teams. He continued on special teams through his senior year but also did a good job on our defense this fall. I enjoyed seeing him mature into a cornerback that was always around the ball.
Connor Kelley -- Already committed to Princeton when I took the job, Connor was the only guy left on this year’s team who our coaching staff didn’t personally recruit. All I had to do was pop in the film and agree, yes, that this was a good take, a terrific athlete who had the it factor, a presence on the field.
We moved him from quarterback because we needed his athleticism as a receiver, then he suffered a major knee injury as a sophomore and missed nine games. He came back to get better every year, including downfield and on bubble screens, and we even gave him the ball in the backfield to run, all the while his leadership grew fantastically.
It seems like every one of his catches was on third-and eight. And the twisting one he made that got us off the goalline when we were down 16-0 at Brown two years ago actually was on third-and 18, if you want to talk about clutch. Connor leaves seventh all-time at Princeton in catches but we’re also going miss his blocking and the subtle things he provided, like the total trust he earned along with Matt Costello from the quarterbacks.
Garrit Leicht -- With Rohan Hylton emerging as a top player in the league and Garrit’s playing time cut, he came to me and said, ‘If there is any way I can get on special teams put me on, I’ll do a great job.’ Every other place I have been when somebody lost playing time, they came to me only to complain.
|Luke Merrell '15|
Luke Merrell -- Luke had the misfortune of playing behind Mike Zeuli both as a SAM and an inside backer. But every time he came into the game Luke always was lined up correctly and did exactly what he was supposed to do, so you never felt you were dropping off from an all-time player. Luke was consistent in everything he did and in the way he worked and really had a solid four years.
Connor Michelsen -- A year ago, the guy who had been standing next to him for three seasons had become Offensive Player of the Year. Connor easily could have said, ‘My role is going to be limited,’ and stopped going the extra mile but he didn’t. Throwing and watching film always had been a higher priority to him than other things, but he worked the hardest he ever worked, got in the best shape he ever had been in, and competed. You can say that about many guys but you are so proud when it is a quarterback because the position is so visible.
What makes a program is its culture and Connor and Quinn made ours right. Whatever internal frustrations they had -- nobody wants to share time -- they never flinched, an example I will use for the rest of my coaching career.
Every day for four years, in the weight room or at practice or on game day, Connor would come up to me with a fist pump and say, ‘It’s a great day for football.’ He wound up with 4,131 total yards, only 223 behind Dick Kazmaier and Dick was only the all-time greatest player in our programs history. Connor had quite a career.
Taylor Pearson -- The last two games this year, Taylor played with an injury that left him struggling to walk during the week. But he is a fighter who battled through it. Taylor doesn’t say much but does his job and after getting on the field as a freshman when we didn’t have much depth on the offensive line, he played four years at a high level for us. He had such great balance that the only times I can remember we ever caught him on the ground was in the last two games, because he was hurt and struggling to maintain a base.
I told his Mom (Leann) that not too many Moms have had to do what she had to do, take care of her husband (injured in a ski accident) and her son (academically ineligible) in times of great need. But the family stepped up and Taylor came back better than ever and gave us a really good year. The examples he helped set are important lessons as our line moves forward.
|Ryan Peloquin '15|
Dave Pennoni -- Dave, who suffered a concussion playing lacrosse in high school, wasn’t cleared to play football his first two seasons here but he stayed with the program and unselfishly went up on the lift and filmed for us. When he finally was cleared I didn’t know if he still was going to want to play but he was so excited to get back on the field. For a guy who missed so much development time, it was amazing to see him progress as much as he did. Dave had a tackle for a loss this season. It gave joy to everybody to see him so happy being a part of everything.
Alex Powell -- He came to us having been a high school tight end or a defensive end, but between a shoulder injury and us bouncing him back and forth, we never really found a spot for Alex until last year, when we had a couple of offensive line depth issues and moved him there. In hindsight, I wish we had done this right away because he got better and better. In terms of development, Alex really was a sophomore when he was a senior, making it hard for him to beat out top-level players. He was one of our most well-liked guys, though, because of how he approached things.
|Alex Powell '15|
He really had a great career, this season finishing 10th in the league in rushing yards. There were so many runs -- and runs after catches -- with great finish. Another tremendous worker.
Vic Prato -- I believe Vic is the only Princeton varsity athlete who is in ROTC, which, from a time commitment, is like playing two sports your entire career. But after battling some injuries early in his career, he kept getting better and better as a football player and made our defensive line rotation, a true credit to him. To be able to accomplish everything he did on campus is. . . well, it’s really Princeton. Students don’t say no, they keep adding to their plates. Vic had more on his than anyone I ever coached and he ended up excelling at everything he did, including engineering curriculum, ROTC leader, and football.
Mike Ramos -- Recruiting Mike, he was a big guy who worked hard. We just didn’t know if he would have the feet to play tackle or the strength to play inside. During freshman year, Mike struggled but he had an unbelievable winter, spring and summer to get on the field.
|Vic Prato '15|
Week-in, week-out, he graded above 90 per cent, usually in the mid-nineties, and this was after we flipped him from right tackle to left due to Spenser’s injury. One quarter of the snaps, Mike still was playing the right side and he handled all this switching flawlessly. For the run game, the pass game, in effort and in finish, Mike’s was one of the best years we have had from an offensive lineman.
Brendan Sofen -- After a really good freshman year, Brendan suffered an injury that limited him in everything he could do. Last season, he got back on the field but never exerted himself 100 per cent because of worry about re-injury. But this year we had kicking competitions every week and Brendan won them often to push Nolan Bieck. Brendan got the length back on the kickoffs, challenged Tyler Roth as the starting punter, and was terrific when called upon to pooch punt.
The specialists spend a lot of time together. I think Brendan constantly set a routine for Pat (long snapper Hall), Tyler and Nolan that was valuable. And his Mom (Ginny) made 20,000 cookies for the guys over four years, which was just unheard of.
|Jack Verducci '15|
Robby flew to San Diego regardless of his injury to be part of the team and all season was the first guy out for practice every day to root for his teammates. For Dartmouth, he was given permission to take his boot off to dress and be part of the team, which meant a lot to him and just as much to us. I rooted for 110 guys, but I rooted for him more than anybody because of what he had been through.
Joe Tull -- He is the nicest kid, doesn’t say two words, but when Joe walks across the lines, he was as good a finisher as we have had on the offensive line. He is tough, physical, and smart. After starting at guard as a junior, Joe moved to center the day Joe Goss got hurt at Dartmouth and did so without issue, even with all the added responsibility of the line calls.
In this whole recruiting class of offensive linemen, Joe probably started at the bottom in terms of strength and athleticism. But having such respect for players who come from Archbishop Moeller (Cincinnati) and that (Greater Catholic) league, we wanted to take him regardless. And he showed if you have toughness and can get strong enough, you can be a really good player in the Ivy League.
|Jimmy von Thron '15|
Jimmy von Thron -- Our values always have been playing the guys who are smart, tough, disciplined and team-oriented. But there were times this year I passed by Jimmy, who had always played well on special teams, for a more talented player and didn’t get him on the field until the end of the year. I regret that because he remained the hardest worker on our scout team. When guys on the scout team didn’t want to give effort they would see him running around and pick it up. He had the total respect of all his coaches and teammates. So everyone was excited to see him get on the field (in the Dartmouth finale).
|Max Wardaki '15|
Mike Zeuli -- When NFL scouts were coming in to look at Mike Catapano and Caraun Reid, one of them asked me, “If you put the two of them in a room and told them, ‘only one can come out’, then who comes out?” Putting Mike (Zeuli) against either of those guys, my answer would be, “I don’t know, but I’m signing up for pay per view to see it!’ Going back to when he suffered a knee injury against Penn his freshman year, Mike always was the toughest guy in the room.
After it happened, I told him what I tell everyone who has had a serious injury: “Attack the rehab, you’re going to get better,” but this one was so bad that as I was telling him I was thinking, “I don’t know if he is going to be able to run again.’ But he went at in a way there was no question he was going to come back an even better player.
(Head athletic trainer) Charlie Thompson, who has seen it all, told me that summer I had to modify training camp for Mike, with no [two-a-days]. When I told Mike that, it was like I had delivered the most devastating news in the world. He said ‘I’m doing them’ in a way that said, “I’m putting the pads on anyway" and he came back to play at a high level as a sophomore.
You don’t get to coach too many guys who play with a different level of urgency. Long before he became a Bushnell Cup winner and a unanimous All-Ivy choice, I was thankful to be around a player like this.