Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lowering Their Shoulders, Not Their Expectations


BY JAY GREENBERG

In full understanding that it would be bad strategy to pass every play during the 2012 season, the so-far unchaired Committee to Replace 1092 Rushing Yards has decided to carry on.  As the only one of its six members old enough to order a beer, Akil Sharp will not cry in it.

“I love Chuck Dibilio to death and I’m always going to keep in touch with him,” said Sharp ’13. “But we always have to do our job regardless of what happens.”
Akil Sharp in 2011 vs. Yale (photo by Beverly Schaefer)

Dibilio, fully recovered from a January stroke and hopeful of a return to the field in 2013, is taking the semester off from Princeton.  Six guys not exactly trudging along in pre-season practice during his absence can send him postcards from the edge, where they are regularly turning the corner, if not yet the predominant opinion that it is impossible for a team coming off a 1-9 season to recover from the loss of its star offensive player.

Because there was not a single touchdown recorded in 2011 by any running back on the 2012 team, to suggest the Tigers will not miss Dibilio would be even sillier than it would be insensitive.  But there are positions on the team of less depth and more concern.  Sharp, who lost his starting job to Dibilio a year ago, is returning only 246 yards and sophomores Will Powers and Jonathan Esposito a combined 70.  But with freshmen Di Andre Atwater, Dre Nelson and Zach Smith making positive practice impressions, there still is strength in numbers, if not exactly reflected in last year’s numbers.

“Akil is a different guy,” raves Coach Bob Surace.  “He is a little bigger and quicker maybe, but the big difference is he is so much more decisive.

“It’s fun to watch a guy mature.  Sometimes it takes until a senior year.  If you talk to him, he is a very thoughtful person and as a running back you have to be instinctive.”

See, you bring these guys to Princeton with big SAT scores and impeccable transcripts and it turns out they are thinkers, sort of an institution-wide pattern.  But Sharp who used a lot of his brain cells on track his first two years at Princeton, confirms he spent a lot of football time pondering getting bigger and faster and perhaps not enough on hole hitting, which, as it turns out is a 300-level course.

Will Powers runs against Penn (photo by Beverly Schaefer)
“This off-season I really focused on my techniques, football-oriented drills, rather than strength and the speed,” he said.

“Blocking is always something I will stay after practice to work on until I graduate and thereafter.  But I hadn’t focused on making people miss one-on one.

“As you get older, the game slows down.  I am able to see the field a lot better.  But a lot of it is a credit to everybody working hard.  We have linemen sprinting down the field, what championship teams do.”

Indeed, it was a sight to behold Monday, when, with the Tigers working on running-out-the-clock, Sharp broke an 80-yarder for a touchdown, his offensive linemen chasing him to the end zone like he owed them money. 

Alas, the joy was short-lived when Esposito, the next guy up in the same drill, fumbled and got an earful from Surace.

“You just cost us a game!” he said.

The drill was simulated, of course.  As it turned out, so was much of the coach’s anger.           
Jonathan Esposito

“Can’t remember the last mistake Jonathan made,” smiled Surace.  “Finally had a chance to yell at him.

“Jonathan is a solid blocker, solid runner, catches the ball, can play almost anywhere [in the backfield].  He carried the ball a lot in [Conard] high school, and he could be that workhorse for us, too.”

That remains Esposito’s intention, along with never fumbling again.

“I took it pretty hard,” he said. “You can’t fumble running out the clock, can’t fumble period.

“But if they didn’t yell, I would be more concerned.  It means they really rely on me and expect big things. Fortunately last year, with support of the guys and the coaches, I got to play the last five games, which was great.  But obviously I am expecting way more this year.
Will Powers

“I didn’t want to go to school someplace where I didn’t have a chance to be a potential starter or get major minutes. I’m real passionate about the game, there's nothing more I like to do but play football, the reason I am here at the greatest university in the world.

“There is a lot of competition out here.  Di Andre and Dre can play. But like Coach says, you either excel against competition or it gets the best of you. You gotta make something out of it.”

Dibilio made an impact from Game One last season, but still didn’t become a starter until he could be trusted with pass protection.  

“Di Andre and Dre are where Chuck was a year ago at this time,” said Surace, trying to hurry the process because he has two freshmen with talent and runs a hurry-up offense requiring fresh legs.  “They are both fabulous,” said the coach.   

It’s also hard not to like a running back named Powers, especially one built low to ground, and difficult to hit a hard shot, much like Dibilio.
Akil Sharp

“I am not the best at running over guys or around guys,” said Powers. “I run through them, breaking a tackle to get a couple extra yards.  

“I try to be decisive with my cuts.  You can’t stop in the hole, that doesn’t work.“

Neither does feeing sorry for yourself.   It was a bad break for a building football team to lose its best offensive player.  But it remains a bad assumption that the Tigers won’t have a productive ground game regardless.

TIGER TAILS

Sophomore Brendan Sofen '15 is doing nothing to lose his leg up on freshman Nolan Bieck ’16 to replace Patrick Jacob as the placekicker.  “[Sofen] has picked up his accuracy,” said Surace.  “When he misses, it’s by inches or hits the goalpost.  Bieck has a really strong leg, but he isn’t as accurate yet.  I feel much better about [the position] than I did on April 28.”

Ryan Peloquin ’15, projecting as the starting center until incumbent Joe Goss ’14 (mononucleosis) is cleared for contact, has picked up his pace. “Ryan started off sick with that flu that was going around here and didn’t tell anybody,” said Surace. “He was lethargic and then he lost confidence.  [Monday] he started with a false start and a fumbled snap but we let him keep playing and he ended up having a pretty good day.”

Likewise, Brian Mills '14, switched from running back to corner and dealing with back troubles, is having an improved second week.  Safety Jimmy Von Thron ’15 has done nothing to lose his first team spot while getting a good push from Phil Bhaya ’15 and Matt Arends ’16.  Safety Mandela Sheaffer ’13 is making plays on the ball he did not make last year, not that anybody else in the defensive backfield did either.

“Our first group [including incumbent corner Khamal Brown ’15] is tackling well, running to the ball, playing better pass coverage,” said Surace.

Tigers will scrimmage at 11 a.m. Saturday morning on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.






Monday, August 27, 2012

They Mean To Back It Up


BY JAY GREENBERG

When salivating offensive and defensive coaches make their cases as to who can better use freshman receiver-DB Anthony Gaffney in the next day’s drills, coach Bob Surace has to referee.  And Gaffney still may not be the most immediately impressive member of Princeton football’s class of 2016.

“John Hill has fantastic footwork,” says Surace about another freshman just switched to defensive back.  “He is so fast in his ability to drop and break on the ball, has tremendous coverage skills.”
Andrew Starks

This is a fast team, five days of practice have left us quick to conclude. Freshman Matt Arends (“just terrific, says Surace) is pushing experienced players at safety and freshman receiver Isaiah Barnes, while still learning where to line up, might have the most raw athletic ability on the squad.

These Tigers can run unlike any others in recent memory, but there also is no hiding from the fact that all this promise won’t turn into improvement until players start to change games with their heads as well as their legs.  That goes for both underclassmen who have a chance to play and seniors who assuredly will, and it applies at all positions on both sides of the ball, no better example being linebacker.

Seniors Andrew Starks and Tim Kingsbury are, “better than just solid Ivy League players” according to Surace, and both still have to take their games up a notch, same as the running back who replaces Chuck Dibilio as this year’s workhorse, same as the two sophomores and a freshman competing for the quarterback job, same as whoever steps up to plug the leak in the secondary.

“I am pretty comfortable in coverage and playing on tight ends,” said captain Starks, the team’s leading tackler last season.  “I have been working on my pass rush this year.

Tim Kingsbury
“Two years ago it was the run defense that was the big problem,” said Kingsbury.  “We worked on that and got much better last year.  Now we’re working on the pass defense.”

Everybody is working on something and seeming to enjoy it, a very good sign.  It is too early to handicap the wide-open competition at quarterback, running back, receiver and place kicker, not a single guy being established in the clutch at any of those spots.  But it’s not too soon to see players making each other better.

“We have created a lot of depth at the linebacker and defensive backfield positions,” said Starks.  “That level of competition will improve our pass defense tremendously.

“And it seems like every other play in practice I’m going up against somebody different on the offense with the level not going down.”

Last season 15 freshmen playing significant minutes in the 24-17 Game 10 loss at Dartmouth that seemed more like a beginning than an end.  Among them was Garrit Leicht, the favorite to land the critical middle linebacking position opened up by the graduation of Steve Cody.

Cody, who lost his 2010 season and probably his hopes of playing professionally with a broken leg suffered in the opener at Lehigh, wasn’t the same player in 2011, but he was the same influence on Leicht.  “Steve taught me how to practice, how to watch film,” said Leicht.  “When I got in against Yale [Cody was hurt in the second quarter] it didn’t seem too fast for me.

“This camp I feel great.  I’m flying around.  Coaches probably will tell you I’m better against the run, so my focal point is pass coverage because it was such a deficit in the defense last year.  We all focus on something we need to feel better about."

Surace is focused on depth so he can feel a lot better about getting through Game 10 with as good chance to win it as Game 1, September 15 at Lehigh.  The coach wants the guy behind the guy to be almost as good.
Garrit Leicht

“Garrit is showing up so much more on the film than he did this spring,” said the coach. “He is not letting the thinking part get to him

“The guy behind him, Alex Polofsky, is a high energy guy with a lot of fight. He’s challenging Garrit.  Kevin Navetta has been good at the Sam [behind Starks] and then it’s all those guys after them.  Who is going to step up?”

Ultimately, more options will mean more victories.

TIGER TAILS

DE Caraun Reid '13, the only Ivy League player on the pre-season Senior Bowl Watch List, did not participate in Sunday’s first drills in full pads.  “He banged his knee on another player knee’s [Saturday],” said Surace.  “We’re holding him out another practice or two to be smart.” . . . Center Joe Goss '14 is still limited to walkthroughs because of an illness, a source of concern.  "Our back up centers have been just average,” said Surace.  “We’re not as good at center as I thought we were going to be.  And at fullback, there has been way too much error.  We’ve got to get better there, too.”

Tigers have been dealing with multiple cases of a 24-hour virus.  “Charlie Thompson had it [Sunday],” said Surace.  “When you have to send the trainer home, that’s how bad it is.”  Princeton will practice morning and evening on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Tuesday and Thursday just in afternoon.  There will be a scrimmage at 9:50 a.m. Saturday morning.

           





Thursday, August 23, 2012

Catapano, Reid Not Shrinking from Responsibility


BY JAY GREENBERG

Mike Catapano has lost 20 pounds, all the more reason he gives pollsters who picked Princeton to finish last in the Ivy League for a third straight season the slimmest chance of being correct.

“We have just as much talent at No. 1 [positions on the depth chart)]as anybody in the league,” says Catapano ’13 who is lean and means to make his senior season the one that turns the program around.

Caraun Reid has gained 20 pounds, but fat chance that’s going to slow down the best defensive player in the Ivies.  Or, his optimism.  “We’re sick of losing,” says Reid ’13 who at 302 pounds has become almost as big as his expectations. 

Catapano felt he needed to get 20 pounds quicker.  Reid wanted to become 20 pounds stronger.  Two returning senior All-Ivy defensive linemen plan to halve the difference when they meet at the quarterback more often than they did during 2011.

“The weakness against the pass game was not just the secondary,” said Catapano Wednesday as pre-season camp began.  “We need better pressure against the quarterback; we got exposed last year.”

Reid had eight sacks and Catapano five of Princeton’s scant 18 for the 2011 season, which is part of the reason why the secondary totaled a sad three picks and the Tigers, riddled for an average of 270 passing yards per game, went 1-9 despite significantly-improved numbers against the rush. 

To sack the losing, Princeton needs Matt Landry ’13, Brad Megay ’13 and converted fullback Jason Ray ‘14 to come hard off the edges.  Also for underclassmen to provide depth.  But while Catapano and Reid certainly are players who make those around them better, both insist they can do better, too.

“Last year, [coming off a torn pectoral muscle], I didn’t have the summer to train,” said Reid. “This year I knew I had to amp up the lifting and the amount of protein I put into my body. 

“The strength is going to help me, especially playing the inside.  The coaches say they are fine with it as long as it is muscle and I maintain speed.”

Catapano went the opposite route, deciding less was more.

“I’m stronger now at 265 than I was 285 my sophomore season,” he said.  “One reason was diet; I found out a couple months ago that I had gluten allergies so I got that out of my system and all of a sudden started losing weight and got stronger and faster.”

Also, smarter and more versatile.  Mike looks explosive and more confident now and has the speed to be more productive.

“Mike looks explosive, looks confident,” said Coach Bob Surace.  “He got away with being bigger and stronger but now wants to be more productive.

“To do that you have to be able to do multiple things.  I saw him today with different rush moves, slanting, and movement skills, really good to see.”

Suddenly, Cat is quick as one, both with his first step and to credit a new mentor, former All-Pro Chuck Smith, the Falcons’ all-time sack leader, who runs an Atlanta pass-rushing camp, not exactly the kind where they roast marshmallows or invite marshmallows.

“I saw his stuff on You Tube,” said Catapano.  “[Osi] Umenyiora sacked Donovan McNabb six times and swore it was from all his work with Chuck Smith.

“I sent my film down, was there three weeks during the spring, the only non-pro guy.  Some of them were NFL starters.  I saw that I had as much natural ability as they do, just had a lot to learn.  Chuck and I formed a good relationship.  I went back just before camp to brush up, this time just the two of us.  

“His life is the pass rush; he has dedicated his whole life to it.  He breaks it down step-by-step-by-step, one move, one day, then a different move the next.  A guy like me, I get very excited, very emotional, but he simplifies it into getting out of your stance and working with your hands to get off the ball a lot faster.

“So I have a few more things in my arsenal.  I’ve got to step up my game on the stat column because I have more potential than I was showing.  I feel like a different pass rusher, what this team needs.”

What this team needs, Surace believes, is about six more Reids and Catapanos at all positions.  The coach made the obligatory speech Tuesday night about nobody’s position being guaranteed, and with so many talented underclassmen competing, that’s probably truer than in most years.  It also was a big, white, lie at two positions.

“I told them there are no positions written in permanent marker on the depth chart, even for Catapano and Reid,” said Surace.  “But if they continue to practice like they did, [Wednesday], they will be in permanent marker soon.

“They attack every drill, are first in line for everything.  It’s exactly the leadership you want.”

TIGER TAILS

Returning starting center Joe Goss ’14 is recovering from mononucleosis that was diagnosed only in July.  He is limited to doing drills and hitting pads, no contact. . . .

“The majority of guys came extremely well prepared,” said Surace after Day One.  “[Comparing] from the first day of practice last year, the number of errors we had – false starts, turnovers, missed alignments – were way down.  I didn’t see coaches losing their minds over that stuff.  They were losing their minds over freshmen not ready to play yet; we need to get them up to speed.

“Freshman safety Matt Arends just killed the [conditioning and strength] test, though.  A lot of them did well. [Kedric] Bostic is leaps and bounds ahead of where we have been with any freshman quarterback in the past.  But all three [Quinn Epperly and Connor Michelsen] looked sharp.  They made good decisions, delivered the ball on time.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Flaherty Takes Another Shot


BY JAY GREENBERG

One day much like the last since Harry Flaherty’s Princeton career ended in 2010, he has been rounding up any quarterback he can find, putting himself through 3-4 hour conditioning and strength training sessions on alternating days, and waiting for The Call.  Thrilled as Flaherty was to get it last week from the Dallas Cowboys, he realizes little has changed.

“My goal is to make a roster and can't think much past that," said Flaherty '11. "I am keeping that one-day-at-a-time mentality and see where it takes me.

Harry Flaherty
On just 90 minutes notice on August 14, it took him from lunch at home in Oceanport, N.J. to the Cowboys camp in Oxnard, California, then to San Diego, where Saturday night Flaherty at least got one step closer to an NFL career than a year ago, when he was cut by the New Orleans Saints before playing in an exhibition game.

Against the Chargers, Flaherty got some snaps, hit some NFL players. Unlike his competition for a backup tight end spot -- No. 6 pick John Hanna from Oklahoma and free agent Andrew Szcerba of Penn State, Flaherty did not catch a pass, but a foot is in the door beats one in the butt, especially after investing off-season time with the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cowboys and still not getting a training camp invite. 

“Each place there has been encouraging feedback that I can play in this league,” he said.  “That’s what’s kept me going but if I didn't get into a camp this year, it probably was it for me."

One never says never, but when the first week of exhibition games already have been played and you are still in your Princeton shorts on the Red Bank Catholic field, it is pretty much third-and-18 to your dream. And all-but time to start filling out the law school applications.  

"Goes to show how injuries open things up," said Flaherty. "We’ll see where this takes me.

'I've felt it’s just a case of being in the right position.' 

Harry Flaherty had 43 receptions at Princeton (Photo by Beverly Schaefer)
Often that means with the right people.  Uncle Jason Garrett ‘89 is the head coach of the Cowboys, uncle John Garrett ‘88 is the tight ends coach and uncle Judd Garrett ‘90 is a pro scout.  Nepotism isn’t going to get Flaherty on the regular-season roster, but it certainly had him on speed dial when Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten suffered a lacerated spleen last week that almost surely will keep him out through the exhibition season.  

After Witten, John Phillips’ 22 career catches are all the NFL the experience the Cowboys have at tight end. So if this Flaherty’s last shot, at least it is with a team that has a need and with people who know him and obviously care about him.

“When I got cut [by the Saints] it left a bad taste in my mouth," he said. “From my experience in camp, I felt I belonged and could play, and wanted a full look, he said. “

"Every team you are around you get a little more acclimated to the speed of the game and how good you have to be in every aspect.”

That is awfully good, and the late invitation doesn't help, but Flaherty is the quick study one would expect of an Ivy Leaguer. And a face in an NFL playbook certainly beats one in the phonebook, where he practically has to go to find quarterbacks to throw to him in Oceanport. 

“Gets kind of comical,” he says.  But if life as just another camp body is hard, don’t knock it until you try it, and try it, as Harry Flaherty will keep doing until the phone stops ringing.

NOTE:  Flaherty was released on August 27.



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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dibilio Rules Out 2012, Looks to 2013


BY JAY GREENBERG

Chuck Dibilio, who ran for the most yards of any true freshman in Ivy League history in 2011, will not return to Princeton for the fall semester.

Dibilio, who completed his fall semester work after a January stroke that occurred while he was studying with teammates for a final, plans to take a class at a college near his home in Nazareth, PA to build confidence towards handling a full Princeton academic workload in the spring.  He still hopes to return to the field for the 2013 season.

“Chuck has made amazing progress over the last six months and hopefully he will make even more in the next few months,” said Coach Bob Surace in a statement issued August 14.  “While we would have loved to have him on the football field this season, I believe he is making the best decision for his future, and I’m very hopeful we will see Chuck back on campus as a student in the spring.”

Doctors continue to look for a fixable cause for the blood clot that brought on the stroke, which would ease concerns about Dibilio playing football again.  But as he has continued to thrive without the need for blood thinners, it is not out of the question he would be cleared to play while continuing on an aspirin regimen. Doctors, coaches and family agree it is too soon to make such a determination.

“We’re working through the process of getting all the evaluations,” said Dr. Bonnie Ronco, Dibilio’s mother.  “The hope is we will get clearance by the end of the year.”

“Physically and mentally you would never guess that he has had a stroke.  He is back to lifting and working out and is in top shape. 

“I marvel at his ability to stay positive.  I know how much he wants to play again so we keep hanging on the hope that he will return next year.  But to me the happy ending already has occurred.  Chuckie has recovered completely.”

           
             

Questions and Answers as the Tigers Go to Camp


By JAY GREENBERG

Leading questions as the Tigers begin pre-season practice on August 22:

Who replaces Chuck Dibilio?

A committee, out of which Coach Bob Surace looks to appoint a chairman. 

“In 2009, we averaged around 60 offensive plays a game,” said the coach. “Last year we averaged close to 80 and the 20 additional were Dibilio carries, which made him the bell cow.

“So who is going to be the bell cow?”

In the absence of Dibiliowho suffered a stroke in January but may be back on the field in 2013it has been little acknowledged that Akil Sharp ’13, averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season to Dibilio’s 5.3, albeit with 154 fewer carries.

Akil Sharp (photo by Beverly Schaefer)
“Akil is a solid player but I think he can be better than a solid player,” said Surace.  “He is athletic, explosive, strong, all the things you want. 

“In spring practice he was turning three-yard gains into five-yard gains.  But he has to do a better job in the open field.”
           
Will Powers ’15 has the quickness to project as a Mr. Outside, and Jonathan Esposito ’15, has the strength to be a short-yardage Mr. Inside.

Di Andre Atwater ’16 can hit the hole. If he hits the playbook hard enough and proves he can block, the fresh bodies required by offensive coordinator James Perry’s no-huddle offense will give the freshman some opportunities.  Surace also believes the diminutive Dre Nelson ’16, could make an instant impact if the Tigers can get him out in space against linebackers.

Who is the quarterback?

Surace says the two sophomores, Quinn Epperly and Connor Michelsen, both have good heads, so likely the coach will start the season figuring two are better than one.  Epperly, who ran for two touchdowns in a starting role in the finale at Dartmouth, needs to prove he has the arm strength to reach a talented and deep receiving corps downfield while Michelsen, who has a high ceiling as a pocket passer, must demonstrate ability to escape a pass rush.
Quinn Epperly (photo by Beverly Schaefer)

Kedric Bostic ’16, who threw well on the run at Jupiter Christian HS (Jupiter, FL), will have to be a fast learner to go into the season as either 1 or 1a).  But that may not be a long shot for such a prized recruit. Until one of the three underclassmen clearly emerges, Surace will make opposition coaches prepare for two different kinds of quarterbacks, which can be an advantage.

Can the Secondary Be Primary to the Tigers’ Improvement?
           
The Tigers showed flashes of competence last season everywhere but in a defensive backfield that was riddled for an average of 270 passing yards per game and only came up with three interceptions.

The coverage instincts of cornerback Brian Mills ’14, who has been converted from running back, are unproven.  One could say the same for incumbent starters, CB Khamal Brown ’15 and S Mandela Sheaffer ’13, who both tackled well in 2011, but failed to deliver a pick.

“We threw Khamal, who was recruited as a receiver, to the wolves last year, really put him in a tough position,” said Surace.  “Most of the time he was right there (with the receiver), just didn’t make the play on the ball.”

“Mandela is a thinker, we need him to be more instinctive.”

The weakside safety job became Jimmy von Thron’s to lose after he acquitted himself well well in the season-ending loss at Dartmouth.  Von Thron ‘15 will be pushed by Phil Bhaya ’14, and Sheaffer may have to fight for his starters position against Mike Zeuli ’15, who missed getting valuable experience after he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Penn.

Mandela Sheaffer (photo by Beverly Schaefer) 
Trocon Davis, ’14, Taylor James ’14, John Ed McGee ’14 and Greg Kohles ‘13 are competitive guys and Surace and defensive coordinator Jared Backus are open to becoming impressed. Anybody who creates turnovers can move up on the depth chart and the more trustworthy the DBs become, the more the Tigers can blitz.

What are the health concerns as camp begins?

Other than Dibilio everybody is ready to go, although we will see if Connor Kelley ‘15 and Zeuli ’15, both coming off knee surgeries, are all the way back.  The versatile Kelley, converted from quarterback to receiver, is a key to improving the Tigers’ dismal red-zone success rate.  Tight end Des Smith (concussion in 2011) is cleared for full practices.

From where will a better pass rush come?

“Mike Catapano is in his senior year, we think he can take his pass rushing up another level,” said Surace.  “And we’re hoping Jason Ray ’14 and Brad Megay ’13 will give us more off the edges.”

In DE Caruan Reid ‘13, perhaps the best defensive player in the Ivy League, and Catapano, the Tigers last season consistently stuffed the run, the biggest improvement over 2010 in any aspect of the team’s play.  Add the strength-training demon, NT Greg Sotereanos ‘14 and DE Matt Landry ’13 and the Tigers have what Surace calls  “a pretty good starting four.” 

“Ray (who had a good spring after being converted from fullback) and Megay can give us six.  But to play with Harvard and Penn we need eight.”

Jess Patton ’15, Alex Polofsky ‘14, and converted running back Kevin Navetta ’13 will be given every opportunity to run up that count.

Does the offensive line have enough experience?

Kevin Mill, an all-Ivy candidate, is the only senior.  But center Joe Goss ’14 has been an anchor for two years and guard Max Coale ’14 and Spenser Huston ’15 were starters by the end of last season, with Huston showing enough at the critical left tackle spot that the versatile Mill will play the right side.  Then again, when the lefty Epperly is the quarterback, the right side is the blind side.

The right guard spot will be a camp battle between Taylor Pearson ’14 and Jack Woodall ’15, but Surace believes the loser can still help make Princeton a winner by providing badly-needed depth.  Ryan Peloquin ’15 was the most improved offensive lineman in the spring and if sophomores Tom Yetter, Joe Tull and Mike Ramos keep coming, this will no longer be the position at which the Tigers probably can least afford a significant injury.

Is Patrick Jacobs, 15-for-18 on field goals in 2011, replaceable?

“Brendan Sofen was automatic in high school, has done a lot of work to add leg strength, but in spring practice was missing the chippies,’ said Surace.  “Nolan Bieck [’16] will make it interesting.  They both could be very good. “

What freshmen have the best chances of seeing significant playing time by mid-season?

On offense, Bostic, Atwater, Nelson, tackle Britt Colcolough and guard Alex Dixon.  On defense, backs Anthony Gaffney and Matt Arends.  The specialty teams always are a proving ground for underclassmen, but kicker Bieck has the best chance to get noticed.

Will the tight ends finally play a pass catching role in the offense?

Maybe, if Mark Hayes, plagued by drops, has a breakout senior season, but both he and Des Smith ’13, will be pushed by Alex Powell ’15.  Seth DeValve, though second on the depth chart behind Matt Costello at wide-out, doesn’t have quite tight end size at 215, but can block and out of the slot will serve some TE functions, like, hopefully, catching touchdown passes over the middle.

What is the  Surace’s greatest anxiety?

He has little experience at quarterback, must replace a 1092-yard running back and a deadly field goal kicker.  And yet he still worries most about depth along the lines, fair indication that for all the obvious questions at skilled positions, the coach believes he has a growing number of answers out of two strong recruiting classes.

What is the least of Surace’s anxieties?

Punter Joe Cloud ’13 has no competition and doesn’t need any, headed into a senior year with the leg strength to impress NFL evaluators.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

He's The Dean of True Believers in Princeton


BY JAY GREENBERG

Fifteen years after the end of the role that still defines his career, Dean Cain believes he continues to act regularly in part because he is not a bad act.

“You take four years of a role (as Superman), you are obviously more invested in that than anything you have done,” said Cain. “But I like every role that I do and I do my best in every one. 

Matt Whalen (l) and Dean Cain
“I am prepared, I show up on time, I take direction well, and I am a team player. And I learned that from football.  I thought I had been a team guy (at Santa Monica High School), but never really had to work at it until I got to Princeton.  It was the first time I had been challenged at school and the same thing with being a teammate.

“In Buffalo (with the Bills), if you were five minutes early you were 10 minutes late. And you were fined $500 for every minute.”
Let the record show that Cain ’88 barely made it on time to the first tee Tuesday at the annual Princeton Football Association golf outing, largely because he had been warmly engaged with princetontigersfootball.com and bearhugs from old teammates and friends.  Eighteen holes with Dave Wilson ‘88, Matt Whalen ’88, Pancho Micir (father of Princeton basketball star Addie Micir ’11) and Cain’s old coach Steve Verbit, went by faster than a speeding bullet.

His teammates told dinner jokes about Cain’s habits at practice, but that appeared to be the only part of his Princeton experience he did not treasure.  

“Being a part of this program is one of the greatest things I have had in my life,” Cain said.  “These are the guys who, if I had a real problem, would be the guys that I call, the guys I want to hang out with, my real backbone of friendship.”

Princeton football loves all its former All Americans; loves even more the ones that take the time to love the program back.  The advantages of being The Man of Steel, which Cain was from 1993-97 opposite Terri Hatcher, meant never having to sit through airport delays, being able to fly as you please. 

But, even as a mere mortal, the Tigers’ once Man of Steal (12 interception as a senior) nevertheless gets back to Princeton from his home in Malibu to at least one game a year.  And he believes, as seem most of the alums who gathered at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield to honor Cain and captain Matt Whalen ’88 of the 1987 team that brought the program out of a slump, that another corner is about to be turned.

“I love Coach Surace, I like his philosophy, and think things are going to turn around this year,” said Cain.  “He needs it, we all need it and we’re all behind him 100 per cent.

“I think he has had a really tough couple of years with injuries, just like we did my junior and senior seasons. I think we would have won the Ivy title cleanly in 1987 but injuries did us in.”

The Tigers, rocked by the sudden August death of Coach Ron Rogerson, bounced back from a 2-8 in 1986 to go 6-4 for Coach Steve Tosches, setting up an era of three Ivy titles in seven seasons.  “We feel like we turned the program around, no question,” said Cain who singlehandedly flipped three different games with three interceptions on the way to 12, still a school record.

“That’s a pretty good number for 10 games,” he beamed.  “And I didn’t drop one.

“We had a really strong corner in Frank Leal who they wouldn’t go after but they didn’t throw on me much, either. We had a lot of pretty inventive coverages where I would sneak up and they didn’t know where I was.  We had a great secondary that year with Leal, Wit Hall, Sean Brennan and Dave Wilson, until he had a devastating knee injury.

From left:  The Class of '88's Wit Hall, Dave Wilson, Tom Criqui, Dean Cain, Matt Whalen, Luis Castro, Mike Engels
“I decided on Princeton because it met my sort of romantic idea of what a University would be. My Dad was courageous enough to say, “Go to school where you want to go, doesn’t matter if I have to pay for it.’  so I was pretty lucky to be in that position.  You accept a scholarship someplace else to play football for four years.  But the education you get at Princeton lasts a lifetime.  

“So my outstanding memory is the camaraderie.  But if I had to pick an actual football moment it would be the Lehigh game my senior year.

“I had three interceptions, which was great for me but even then we were [third-and-28] from our own six yard line down two points with [1:21] to go.  The Garretts (quarterback Jason, running back John and receiver Judd) executed this incredible drive and Rob Goodwin kicked a (38-yard) field goal with no time remaining.  For a memory, that’s a pretty tough one to beat.”

The Tigers lost three of the final four, their bodies betraying them, as would Cain’s in the camp of the Buffalo Bills, where he went as a free agent.

“That’s when they had 12 rounds in the draft, so to not get drafted back then was . . . whoa.   They didn’t pick a Princeton safety because they didn’t have film of him matching up against guys from the University of Florida, like I did in camp against a kid named Bernard Ford, who ran the fastest 40 in the combines.  “I pressed up on him, got a hand on him and [covered him] fine.

“I hate the way they now measure your jump and times to determine your draft position.  That’s absolute baloney.  Do you make plays; do you have a nose for the ball?  As a free safety playing 12 yards deep, the fastest guy on the planet, was not going to beat me.

Cain suffered a knee injury three days before the first exhibition game.  Five years later, he instead became the fastest guy out of The Daily Planet whenever Lois Lane was in a fix.

The Friends of Dean Cain
“I had a torn meniscus and a piece of my bone blew out but in no way did I figure that was the end of my career,” he said.  “I figured, great, now that I have been through the system a little bit, I have a year to get really strong and ready.  

“They said if nobody picked me up after they waived me they would bring me back, but [the knee] never came around.  Today, with the surgical techniques and rehab and some of the stem cell stuff they have going on, I think I would have come back.
Things have worked out well for me, sure, but I would have liked to have had about five years in the NFL though.  In Buffalo in that era, that would have meant being in four Super Bowls.  That would have been okay.”

At 46, Cain continues to do more than just okay, with a name, face and personality that is getting him work on the dating show “The Choice” and “Stars Earn Stripes” a military reality series with General Wesley Clark that begins airing on NBC after the Olympics.  

Cain is still considered enough of a hunk to have played himself in an episode of “Don’t Trust the B---- I Apartment 23.”  “Bounce” in which he plays a pro basketball coach in a series about the team’s cheerleading squad, starts shooting in January, a good thing because now that his son Christopher is at an age, 12, “where he doesn’t think I’m so cool anymore” Cain doesn’t feel as compelled to limit his workload.

“I wouldn’t take a lot of the bigger roles for the last 12 years because of him,” said Cain.  “Being a single father, you really have to balance that out.  Otherwise you miss everything, which is really easy to do and I refuse.

“Now it’s as much for me as it is for him, I don’t want to miss the games or anything.  I need to be there because he is my favorite person on the planet, even more than Steve Verbit.”