BY JAY GREENBERG
With less than twenty days until the opener, time is flying by while members of Steve Verbit’s most inexperienced defensive line in his 28 years at Princeton prepare for action in San Diego.
‘We’re trying different combinations, giving everyone pretty much the same opportunities in looking for the six, seven, eight guys who are going to step up and be part of the rotation,” said the coach. “We have a chance to put together a very representative group, but at this point no one has really distinguished himself.
|Coach Steve Verbit and His Unit Have No Time to Waste|
“It’s going to take time.”
The Tigers, who lost all three starters (Caraun Reid was an All-American and Greg Sotereanos all-Ivy) plus their top two reserves, can buy some time in 2014 with perhaps Princeton’s best and deepest secondary in Verbit’s memory. There also is such a surplus of linebackers who can run that sophomores Brannon Jones and Baxter Ingram have become D-line candidates.
Who is going to step up? The sheet is blank.
|Tyler Desire '17 Has No Fear of Expectations|
“Virtually none of these guys has taken a rep in quality time during the course of a game,” said Verbit.
The most noteworthy experience comes from rising Junior Ian McGeary, who started the first two contests in 2013, when Sotereanos was out, but afterwards, McGeary's snaps dwindled.
As a freshman last season, Tyler Desire was used in pass rushing situations only. Otherwise, there is enough greenness to this group to ripen yellow that pre-season poll picking the Tigers to repeat as Ivy League champions.
“We’re just trying to find the most positive quality of each of these guys and get them on the field based upon the things they do best,” said Verbit.
In other words, the Tigers will be running so many specialists in and out that hopefully San Diego will get dizzy tying to keep track, enabling a Tiger linebacker or safety or two to come free. This defensive backfield will enable Verbit and Jim Salgado, the co-defensive coordinators, to get creative, even exotic.
“I don’t know if exotic is the right word because actually it might be simple,” said Bob Surace. “If our defensive backs continue to cover like they have covered, you can get extra guys down in the box.
|Brannon Jones '17|
“If we are really good on the back end, we can do some experimenting with coverages. Bottom line is, if we can match up at the corners you always have the offense outnumbered.”
One other way to outnumber the offense is to have one defensive lineman so quick and powerful that the opposition requires two guys to block him. A year ago, Caruan Reid did not have an overpowering game -- in terms of statistics -- until Dartmouth, but his graduation to the Detroit Lions will, for better or worse, give us a deeper understanding of how much effort the enemy put into occupying him.
Desire, strictly an outside speed rusher last year, is taking significant reps inside during camp, a reflection of both the Tigers’ needs and improvement as a run stopper. The sophomore has the quick feet, long arms, attitude and now an additional 50-pounds above his high school weight to become exceptional, but how soon? The expectations for him are based on his measurables and work ethic.
“I don’t feel burdened by that, it means the coaches have confidence in me,” Desire said. “For coaches to invest so much trust and belief in your ability is not something that happens all the time.
“The kind of person I am, I am not going to sit up all night stressing, ‘I am not Mike Catapano, not Caraun Reid, what’s going to happen?’ I am just taking it one step at a time.”
There are preliminary indications that the highly-recruited Kurt Holuba will, as expected, be advanced enough to play important downs early in his freshman season. But he won't be playing 60 snaps a game.
"The younger guys seem to wear down faster than the older ones," said Verbit. "Thus the need for a minimum of six guys to step up." Two stars of the weight room, McGeary and Evan Kappatos, must turn their raw strength into performance on the field. And Jones and Ingram have much to learn in a short time of they are going to provide pressure from the edge.
“I wouldn’t say they are big projects," said Verbit. "But both moved over midway through the spring, so at this point they have had about 10 days under the belt, that’s all.
"The game is moving a little fast for them. They are good-sized kids, tremendous workers, who run well and are quick off the football, but they are very inexperienced as far as recognizing schemes, which slows them down,”
The advantages of playing standing up are obvious: Your vision of what is in front of you is better and you have an extra split second before being hit to react. But starting with your hand on the ground can be a good thing, too.
“At linebacker, I didn’t always where my first step would be,” Jones said. “Maybe to the left, maybe to the right, maybe coming off the end.
“Now I know what it is going to be. And since [the offensive linemen] are a lot bigger than me and slower, I think I can get around them.”
Says Ingram: “Being a little undersized (225 pounds) right now, it’s a little bit of a challenge But I think I can use my speed to offset that.”
He meant foot speed. There is enough of that here for the Tigers to eventually have a creditable unit. But to handle San Diego, Davidson and Columbia, Verbit and his students are in a race against time.