Football: Running into the record books
While Princeton suffered its second straight 1-9 season, Dibilio was a bright spot for the Tigers. He more than adapted, powering a top-ranked Ivy rushing attack on the way to honors as Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
“It was nothing that I really expected,” Dibilio said. “It’s the stuff I worked for, but not necessarily what I thought was going to happen. But when it was, I couldn’t have been happier. At the same time, you have to stay focused and keep the small things in perspective — I have to have another good week of practice, I have to play another good game.”
“Looking back on it, I couldn’t have been happier how my freshman year went,” Dibilio added.
Dibilio, from Nazareth High School in Nazareth, Pa., credits his experience in high school as laying the groundwork for his success in his rookie season at Princeton. After coming to Nazareth in Dibilio’s sophomore year, coach Rob Melosky turned the program around, quickly establishing the Blue Eagles as playoff contenders in the Lehigh Valley area. After a 3-7 record in his first year, Melosky had Nazareth in the district semifinals in 2010, Dibilio’s senior season, where he earned second-team all-state honors at tailback, en route to a 9-3 overall record.
“[Coach Melosky] ran our program just like a college — with the practices, the film, how practices are structured, and I think that helped a lot [at Princeton],” Dibilio said. “A lot of the kids coming in, their playbook was really simple compared to ours, or their practices were not as intense compared to, say, how ours were. My high school, the way [Coach Melosky] ran it really prepared me for the college game.”
Fittingly, it was in Princeton’s home opener against Lehigh — where Melosky had once coached — that Dibilio burst onto the scene. Against the Mountain Hawks, Dibilio led the Tigers in rushing with 86 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt on 14 carries. The freshman scored his first collegiate touchdown late in the fourth quarter, a shovel pass from senior quarterback Tommy Wornham that Dibilio punched into the endzone after running for 26 yards and breaking several tackles, which was only a preview of things to come.
“I knew coming in, I’d have a chance to show what I can do,” Dibilio said. “I came into camp, and I did all right. It helped that I was here in the summer to learn the playbook. Going to Lehigh, I knew I was going to get in the game, and it just kept going from there.”
As the season continued, Dibilio moved up the depth chart, coming into focus as Princeton’s primary option at tailback against Hampton, when he took on a talented Pirates defensive line and rushed for 147 yards on 21 carries. With the beginning of Ivy League play, offensive coordinator James Perry began to shift more and more of the offensive game plan onto Dibilio’s legs.
“My body started to wear and tear a little bit,” Dibilio said. “In high school, I averaged about 17 carries a game. Now I’m averaging close to 30. It was a big difference for me, especially with the physicality of the game [in college]. I loved it, I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it definitely took a toll on my body.”
The extra strain proved fruitful for Dibilio, as he broke 130 yards in five of his last seven games, racking up six Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards, which tied an Ancient Eight record. Week nine — homecoming against Yale — was the apex of Diblio’s freshman campaign, when he rushed for a season high 178 yards and became the first true freshman in Ivy League history to break the 1,000-yard barrier when he found the end zone on a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
“He’s such a competitor,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said after the Yale game. “He has obviously come to us as a mature football player from a good program, and he has been able to step in and play well all year.”
Dibilio’s freshman success is certainly due to a multitude of factors, including a scheme from Perry that emphasized Princeton’s strength on the ground as well as a strong performance from the offensive line. Dibilio’s running style, which can be described as bruising, certainly contributed as well, especially when facing defenders that had both years and pounds over the rookie.
“I’ve always been a one-cut-and-go guy, nothing flashy,” Dibilio said. “With the speed of the game, I think my running style has become more physical, just to match the play of college.”
Leading a strong freshman class, especially on offense, Dibilio will sneak up on nobody next season. Along with freshman quarterback Quinn Epperly, sophomore tailback Brian Mills and junior tailback Akil Sharp, the Tigers will look to establish a similarly strong, if not stronger, running game next fall. Princeton’s success on the ground, starting with Dibilio, will surely play a big role in the drive to return the Orange and Black to prominence.
“I come from a high school where we made a transition from a 1-9 season my freshman year to a 8-2 regular season my senior year,” Dibilio said. “I’ve been through the transition before. There’s no guaranteed formula, but if we keep working like we did this season, we’ll be fine.”