Saturday, November 24, 2012

It Was So Much Better and Still Not Good Enough


BY JAY GREENBERG

Both quantitatively and emotionally, the Tigers’ glass measured exactly half-filled in 2012.  The same coach who engineered a huge improvement to 5-5 remains haunted by how much bigger the season still could have become.  

After five consecutive losing years and consecutive 1-9 records in Bob Surace’s first two seasons, the rational hopes for Year Three were for a move to the middle that, as it turned out, didn’t exist. In an Ivy League even more balanced than usual, Princeton, which defeated presumed powerhouse Harvard, which let eventual champion Penn escape in the second half, turned out to be as talented as anybody and didn’t get a share of the title.

“It kind of hit me Monday night,” said Coach Bob Surace.  “There were so many good things but the big errors by the team and the coaches haunt me.

Bob Surace '90
“There was a terribly unfortunate play against Penn where a tipped pass gets knocked back to a defensive lineman who runs it in (for the game-tying score). There were 50-50 (officials) calls, five or six of them that went against us in three losses (in the last four games) or we would be sitting here talking about a championship.

“You don’t get rings for beating Harvard and Yale. You get a bonfire, which was awesome celebrating with students and alumni, but for a team the ultimate goal is winning the title.  You want to win both and we didn’t. And when you see how close it was, that’s why you have sleepless nights, thinking about what I could have done better.”

In the end, the Tigers made too many mistakes.

“I harp on decisions with the players,” said Surace. “So after  almost any turnover I think back on how I could have presented something better to better get through to them.

“For two years we had been playing from behind. This year we played from ahead and a few times didn’t finish out what we could have done.  We were much better in the red zone (62 per cent touchdown conversions) and on third (40 per cent) and fourth (64 per cent) downs and now we have to improve in the red zone and on turnovers even more.   

“We were minus-23 last year and minus-one this year, essentially even, and our record was even as a result. In our last four losses, the three league games and Georgetown, we had 15 turnovers and only created three. In the three league games it was 11-1. So how do we get to being a double digit plus, where you have a much better chance of winning the league?

“Penn was able to go from a big hole in turnovers in non league games (eight in a loss to Lafayette) and learn from that and be pretty clean in their league games.

“We had them 21-14 and had two chances inside the 35 to get a two-score lead against a team that wasn’t throwing it too effectively against us and we didn’t score. Then we had chances to stop them and didn’t.

“You can’t second guess the ball bouncing the wrong way, but [Connor Michelsen’s end zone] interception was our error. We have young players and you try to hit every situation possible, so it’s my fault for not building enough good habits. (Mike) Catapano, (Andrew) Starks, Mandela (Sheaffer) (Mark) Hayes, those seniors built habits over four years.  We had lots of guys step up. And I’m looking forward to building habits (with underclassmen) in such a way that we limit our errors.”

Seven freshman and sophomore starters were a reflection of a deepening talent base that now must replace stars and leaders. Most of them are on defense, but four starting-level players graduate from the offense, too.   

WR Shane Wilkinson, who caught 62 passes the last two seasons; TE Hayes, who emerged as a dependable receiver in addition to providing perhaps the best blocking services of a tight end in the Ivy League; RB Akil Sharp, whose ankle problem basically made him the backup running back behind sophomore Will Powers, graduate in June.  So will Kevin Mill, a potential all-conference OT who missed the entire second half of the season.   

Mill’s ACL tear, which necessitated the move of Taylor Pearson ’14 from guard to tackle, and forced more underclassmen to play significant snaps, had the silver lining effect of bringing back a practically two-deep veteran offensive line for 2012.

Max Coale '14
“When I first got here we were taking defensive guys like (Kevin) DeMaio, and (Mike) Muha and trying to have just five offensive linemen with ability,” said Surace. “We have built depth.

“It’s unfortunate Kevin had that (knee) injury, that was hard because of what he put into the program and (backup sophomore guard Jack) Woodall went down, too.  But (Britt) Colcolough, (Tom) Yetter, (Joe) Tull, (Mike) Ramos, and (Ryan) Peloquin made big jumps (as underclassmen).  Next year Joe Goss will be a four-year starter and Max Coale and Spenser Huston three-year starters.

“I thought a lot of the sacks early in the year – maybe this is an old O-lineman talking -- were quarterback driven.  They held onto the ball too much, there was a process [sophomores Connor Michelsen and Quinn Epperly] had to go trough.  Once the timing got right, we were operating at a tempo and rhythm, even while using six receivers and two quarterbacks.

“When we were 0-2, it would have been easy for the quarterbacks to say they weren’t getting enough reps or Wilkinson to say ‘I’m not getting my catches.’ But they bought into everything. And there was a combination of creativity and utilization by our offensive staff that had to think quickly with our no-huddle.  

“I was really pleased.  If the league had allowed (its coaches) to vote for somebody named Qunner Micherly, he might have been the All-Ivy quarterback.  The play at that position in this league is really high and I don’t remember a game where I said ‘their quarterback is better than our quarterback.’  As good as (Harvard’s Colton) Chapple was against us Connor and Quinn played equal to Chapple that day, and Connor wasn’t outplayed by (Cornell’s Jeff) Mathews."

Using two quarterbacks in packages that played to their individual strengths proved to be a coach’s dream and a tribute to offensive coordinator James Perry’s touch.  But as Michelsen showed running ability and Epperly’s throwing velocity and accuracy improved, the differences between them became blurred.  So even if the system isn’t broken, Surace still is fixing to make Michelsen, Epperly and Kedric Bostic ’16 compete to never leave the field. 
Kedric Bostic '16

“I told all three of them this:  If there is separation that is clear on video and at practices and it shows that it should be one guy, it will be,” said Surace. “But if it is not clear, lets see how we can utilize the guys so we are the best team possible. 

“Even if one guy is the starter, I foresee us continuing to have packages where you have multiple quarterbacks in the game at the same time.  When Quinn and Kedric were in the (Dartmouth) game together, our success rate on those plays was extraordinarily high.  I’m not going to live and die with that, but if it will mean a 10-20 play package each week.”

That will impact somewhat the situation at running back where, despite consistent yardage and highlight plays by Will Powers ‘15, plus some promising early bursts by DiAndre Atwater ‘16, the depth was tested by injury and of course, the absence of Chuck Dibilio, who plans to re-enroll in spring semester and hopes to return to the playing field.

Dibilio, who in January suffered a blood clot and a stroke of still-undermined cause, has been taking medical tests and gathering opinions of specialists who may disagree about the level of risk in what is an almost unprecedented situation.  When Tedy Bruschi returned to the Patriots, the problem that caused his stroke, a hole in the heart, had been corrected.

“I was so glad to see Chuck at the bonfire,” said Surace. “You grab him by the arm to give him a hug and he is rock solid, just in great shape.

“But other than to tell him I will support him, I have removed myself from the process in favor of doctors who can tell us whether we are putting any of our players, not just Chuck, at risk.  I’m not going to let my selfishness to see this young man run again influence that.

“We all want to see him play.  If not, we will put him on staff or have him do something to be part of the team.”

If Dibilio returns, he will have missed a year, making an immediate resumption of his old workhorse role problematic.

“There was a known quantity that Chuck would carry 25 times a year and would get somewhere in the 150-yard range,” said Surace.  “That put more work on the coaches to specialize things, like putting Will Powers on special teams.  

“Will is a very good special teams player, so it would be hard to give him the ball more than 15 times and see him last as a strong runner through the year.  We have to be cognizant of the number of reps we are giving guys and the contributions they can make elsewhere.

Will Powers '15
“Will was going to get 10-14 carries a game and maximize every one.  He pass blocked well and underrated was how well he caught the ball and what he did after catching it.

“There was that play against Cornell a swing pass on third-and-eight where two guys had him boxed in and he got ten yards to keep a drive alive that we scored on.  He had one where he beat a guy to get a first down on the winning drive against Harvard, and then the spectacular one against Penn where he broke two tackles and dove into the end zone.  And I would have told you last year at this time I didn’t see that part of his game, another example how players can grow.

“Will does all the things you need to be reliable as a three-down back. But if we are going to continue to rely on him on special teams, you have to watch how much we extend him. And it’s a good group behind him.

“(Freshman) Di Andre (Atwater) showed really good ability. Unfortunately he sustained injuries two different times. He has to prove he is durable but Di Andre is a worker. I’m confident he will attack the off-season.

“At times in practice, Dre Nelson looked terrific.  We never got him out in the open field as much as we would have liked but for a freshman he had a terrific year so I can foresee him being in a role where he starts to make plays. Using two quarterbacks in the game at once against Dartmouth took up a little bit of his role. And when Akil came back healthy enough to contribute, I felt he deserved the opportunity.

“Going into camp (sophomore Jonathan) Esposito, was a guy who had a great off-season and we thought was going to emerge.  He had a foot injury that he battled back from and a couple of ball control issues; we gotta get him back to where he was because when he was confident he looked really good.  And I think (freshman) Zach Smith led the world in JV rushing yards; he had to have 500 in four games.”

“With (junior) Brian Mills, I will chalk up (a lost season) to me thinking that he could be an every down corner.  I think if we had put him there from every day as a freshman he would have been fine but he struggled some.  We moved him back (to running back) because we were so banged up and tried to get him up to speed but there is only one football and it was just so hard to get it to him. 

“Brian will have a role in the offense next year.  If he is healthy he can play a big role.  But if not (Mills was plagued by back issues in 2011), we are going to manage it.

“Roman Wilson added a dimension to the run game that was really positive, helped us spread the ball around. And I think that kept Powers and the quarterbacks strong.

Jonathan Esposito '15
“But we want to go from an above-average rushing team to a being really good one again and improve the number of explosive plays.  Will had a couple, DiAndre had a couple and Roman had one, but five (of 25 yards or more) isn’t enough. The year before we were in the mid-teens. I think we can get there again, especially with the linemen coming back.”

If the Tigers were going to make a significant improvement in 2012, it was presumed a defense with two NFL-potential defensive linemen and a veteran linebacking crew anchored by seniors Andrew Starks and Tim Kingsbury would have to be the team’s strength while an inexperienced offense grew.  Essentially that happened. Going into 2013, it is the defense that has the greater question marks.

“In the last 27 years, as long as (assistant head and defensive line) Coach (Steve) Verbit has been here, Mike Catapano had as good a season on defense as Princeton has had.” said Surace. “Twelve sacks, one of the nation’s leaders, 15-and-a-half tackles for losses, five pass breakups and three caused fumbles.  

“His effort was unbelievable from every practice to every game.  He, Caraun (Reid), Starks and Kingsbury are high motor guys and that’s what we have to replace.

“(Junior) Greg Sotereanos hasn’t had to do that yet because he had Cat and Caraun.  (Junior) Alex Polofsky and (sophomore) Garrit Leicht haven’t because they had Starks and Kingsbury and (junior) Phil Bhaya hasn’t because of (senior) Mandela Sheaffer.  Andrew took his intensity from being really good to obsession and what these guys brought to the locker room and the practice field became contagious.

“Even in games where we didn’t stop teams like we wanted, you still saw guys hustling to the ball. Harvard was up and down the field but we just kept playing and eventually we got a pick, made a stop, tipped the ball or got off the field.  We don’t win that game if we didn’t have the leaders we did.”

With Reid’s return uncertain, linebacker is the position definitely hardest hit by graduation.

Luke Merrill '15
“We tried to build depth and should have done more of it earlier or we would have been further along than we were,” said Surace.  “(Sophomore) Luke Merrill when he had opportunity would grade very well. (Sophomore) Jess Patton played a lot when Garrit was out and did very well.  I think (freshman) Wes Moon is going to be highly competitive at SAM; he reminds everyone of Starks, a high school safety who is now up to 228 and probably will be 235 like Starks. 

“In the preseason I was using the name Leicht with Catapano, Reid, Starks; that’s how well Garrit played in the spring. Unfortunately he was hurt and it wasn’t until late in the year where we felt comfortable giving him 25 snaps a game.  He and (junior) Alex Polofsky will be in the middle, then it’s a matter of where we want to put (sophomore) Mike) Zeuli, on the back end or is he a SAM backer?  

“If Mike outgrows safety, he will make a heckuva SAM backer because he is tough and physical and can cover.  He came off a major knee injury and never missed a beat, never missed a practice.

“Early in the JV games (freshman) Marcus Stroud stepped up then he got hurt, then (freshman) Baxter Ingram stepped up before he got hurt.  And in the pre-season (freshman) Andrew Ehrets was maybe the best in that bunch. Those guys are going to push. We finally are going to have the 2-3 depth at linebacker I have always wanted.”

If Zeuli goes to linebacker, competition is wide open for Sheaffer’s job at strong safety, next to Bhaya.

“(Sophomore) Jimmy von Thron did okay on special teams (after coming back at mid season from a concussion) but didn’t get a lot of reps on the back end, one of those unfortunate things,” said Surace. “We have Jimmy and (freshman) Max Lescano as guys I feel comfortable about.  

Taylor James '14
“We are going to have to make a decision on (freshman) Matt Arends. He did very well at corner but there is part of me that says he will be an exceptional safety.

“I’m told it will be 12-18 months before Khamal Brown will be allowed to have contact, so that would take us to 2014 on him.  (Junior) Trocon Davis struggled in training camp with his tackling and as the year went along he got stronger and stronger at it. And he was a special teams dynamo, too.

“I am super-enthusiastic on (sophomore) Jakobi Johnson and (freshman) John Hill. They are guys who allowed us to make Mills a running back again. (Junior) Taylor James probably was our best cover corner in the spring, granted (freshman Anthony) Gaffney wasn’t there. Then Taylor tore his hamstring in camp and by the time he got back it was too late. I anticipate he will have a really good offseason, and we’ll see. 

“The offseason is huge for everybody.  I thought Bhaya would compete this year, couldn’t have told you he would be as good as any safety in the league.”

Trocon Davis '14
Place kicker Nolan Bieck was more challenged in 2012 by snapping and holding misadventures than by pressure kicks.  After three field-goal misses against Georgetown, the Tigers started scoring touchdowns, leaving the freshman no opportunities to win or lose games in the fourth quarter.  That, of course will change.

“The history of freshman kickers in this league is that they make a big jump,” said Surace.  “I anticipate Nolan will make one with his kickoffs too.

“These guys never admit weakness, but freshmen typically wear down if they are playing all year and his kickoffs lost distance. It probably was a little big technical, too, there were some mishits and Nolan’s not one to mishit.  After going through the issues we had with our protection and snapping, I think he’s really confident we will get everything fixed.”

Bieck had done nothing to warrant losing the job when (sophomore) Brendan Sofen, who had suffered a leg injury during camp, became available again by Game 7.

Nolan Bieck '16
“I told Brendan I want him to do all three -- kick, kickoff and punt -- and he is the leader in the clubhouse as the punter,” said Surace. “When he injured his leg he couldn’t kick deep but he was able to work on his drops because they weren’t extending his leg. He became so much more consistent.

“There is only one Joe Cloud, a three time All-Ivy guy, a borderline NFL prospect.  So it would be hard to say we will replace a punter as good as that.  But we probably will bring in somebody to compete with Brendan and be real solid there.”           

Senior Tom Moak caught 13 passes this year and also threw for two touchdowns off bad Jason Tiemeier snaps, demonstrating the value of the holder, who will have to be replaced, perhaps with (junior) Connor Kelley or Bostic. A long snapper to replace the graduating Tiemeier is also on the recruiting list.

“We have guys who did it in high school,” said Surace. “And we’ll look at them in the spring.”

jaygreenbergsports@gmail.com

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