Football Offense: As season approaches, questions abound — starting under center
Competition is the name of the game coming out of training camp. After going 1-9 in each of the past two seasons, the football team is looking to finally come out with a winning season. To determine this season’s starting quarterback, head coach Bob Surace ’90 and the Tigers aim to take advantage of an in-house contest to bring out the best in their developing roster.
With sophomores Quinn Epperly and Connor Michelsen and freshman Kedric Bostic all competing for the top spot under center, the coaches are playing it close to the chest, refusing to reveal who the starter will be until Saturday’s game at Lehigh.
“The talent, the work ethic, all those things are great, but there is that inexperience there,” Surace noted. The Tigers will miss Tommy Wornham ’12, who has been the starter at the position for the past three years, though Epperly took over for the final game of the 2011 season.
“We’ve had a very competitive camp at all the positions,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach James Perry added. “The quarterbacks have had a tremendous camp as well. At that position, having competition is huge; it’s something we’ve worked very hard to create, both through player development and recruitment.”
Bostic, the freshman, has talent, but the sophomores have the reps — or, at least, more reps. Despite their lack of experience in the type of fast-paced offense Princeton likes to use, all three have impressed the coaches throughout training camp.
“Seeing them push each other, you get the feeling that they can handle the pressure and the different stress that goes on in playing that position and handle the competition we play this fall,” Surace said.
Equally important as the players who will call the plays are the ones who will surround the yet-to-be-determined quarterback. The coaches are confident an experienced line can keep up with the fast-paced offense and provide good pathways for the run game as well. The Tigers return four starters up front from last season, including two seniors, tight end Mark Hayes and right tackle Kevin Mill — a rare feat on this very young roster. Junior Max Coale is the experienced veteran at guard, and he will likely start next to Mill.
Anchoring the starting line will be junior Joe Goss at center, a position that he has been playing since the second game of his freshman season, missing only two games since then in 2011 due to injury. Sophomore Spenser Huston made four starts as a freshman, while junior Taylor Pearson or sophomore Jack Woodall are the two likeliest candidates for the last starting spot on the line. Whoever wins the spot would be the only one on the line without previous starting experience.
“We felt really great about six guys [on the offensive line],” Surace said. “Now we’re trying to get those other guys into the mix.” Sophomores Tom Yetter, Ryan Peloquin and Max Wardaki, as well as four freshmen, are also expected to see a few snaps on the line and have shown notable growth throughout camp.
Surace was confident but conservative about the team’s deep threats.
“Our receiving group, it’s a deep group,” he said. “There are seven, eight guys there that I believe we can put in and they can be quality players, solid players, adequate players.”
The team returns senior Shane Wilkinson and sophomore Matt Costello, who combined for more than 700 yards last year on 67 catches, as well as sophomores Seth DeValve and Connor Kelley, who are both looking to have breakout seasons. Yet there is no standout threat yet who will automatically require double coverage, such as Trey Peacock ’11 was two years ago, meaning Princeton will need to run effectively.
In the run game, the team will miss 1,000-yard rusher Chuck Dibilio, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Dibilio suffered a stroke last January and will not be on the field for the team this year. However, coaches said senior Akil Sharp, who played well at the end of last season, has put forward an impressive camp, and the other backs are beginning to adjust as well.
Perry labeled the backs “very dynamic” and said he hopes they can limit their mental errors.
“There’s an element of playing fast,” Perry added. “We talk about being fast and physical.”
This mentality is pervasive in the Tiger offense but is even trickier with so many young players. Still, despite all the obstacles they have to overcome, the coaches feel the team is moving in the right direction as Saturday’s opening game against Lehigh approaches.
“Guys are excited. We’re having a really good training camp. I like the way we’re practicing; I like the way we approach things,” Surace said. “You’re learning from mistakes you’ve made. Red zone, turnovers, things we have to learn from if we’re going to get this fixed, but we live for the moment. You live for the period we’re in.”
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