Football: Princeton seniors get NFL attention
“You aim high and you end up where you are, so I’m obviously aiming as high as I can go, which is the draft.”
That sentiment, espoused by senior co-captain and Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mike Catapano, holds true for a few members of the 2012 football team. The most recent Princeton graduate to play at the professional level was Jon Dekker ’06, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007, but this year's defense has three prospective NFL candidates in Catapano, senior linebacker Andrew Starks and senior defensive lineman Caraun Reid.
“In my first couple years at Princeton, we occasionally had a scout come by and check up on a guy. We had more people at practice this year; we’ve never seen anything like this ... A few times the director of college scouting came out, which is unheard of,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said, who worked on the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff from 2002-09. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had that at Princeton before."
Their chances of being drafted in April are still slim, given the Ivy League's lack of football prowess; only six Ivy players were on active NFL rosters this season, and four more played on practice squads throughout the league. Harvard represents four of these spots, while Princeton has failed to place a player on an active roster since Dennis Norman ’01 retired in 2009. (Tight end Harry Flaherty ’11 made practice squads in each of the last two summers as an undrafted free agent, but he was eventually cut both times.)
When it comes to going pro, Ivy League players are at a significant disadvantage compared to prospects who played for larger programs with fewer practice restrictions. But this has not stopped Catapano or Starks from attempting to pursue their dreams of playing professional football.
"[Scouts] feel they have enough size and speed and all the characteristics they’re looking for, so they’re going through the evaluative process," Surace continued. "That they’re coming back is a good sign. It means they’re extremely serious about them.”
Catapano is a returning senior defensive end from Long Island who was named first-team All-Ivy last week. After missing his freshman season of 2008 due to injury, he took the spring semester of 2012 off so he was eligible to return to the Tigers this fall.
“I think [taking a redshirt semester] really opened up a lot of opportunities for me, on and off the field,” Catapano said. “And to go out this way was really something special too, with feeling like we did something different ... It was unbelievably changing for me.”
Surace compared him to All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith, who played for the Bengals when Surace coached there and is now with the San Francisco 49ers. Aside from his physical abilities on the field, Catapano brought veteran experience and reliability to a young defense this season.
"The biggest thing was his leadership," defensive coordinator Jared Backus said. "That came on top of his play, which was dominant and speaks for itself. What people didn't see was his leadership that he displayed at practice, in the locker room, before games ... For me, he brought that leadership every day, and he brought everybody's level of play up around him. That was the X-factor that he brought this year. I know there were good players around the league, but I don't know if there was a player in the league who did that as well as Mike Catapano."
Despite the historically limited presence of Princeton players at the pro level, Catapano remains committed to pursuing his dream.
“I’ll do what it takes to play the game,” he said. “I love the game, that’s why I do it, and I want to take it to [the next] level.”
Behind him on defense this season was fellow co-captain Starks, who hopes to continue a family tradition of pro football. His father, Kevin Starks, played tight end at the University of Minnesota before being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1986.
“Having someone that you’re related to that’s played in the NFL that has a lot of insight and information is tremendously helpful,” Starks said. “As far as what I’m doing training-wise, what my goals should be realistically, in general how [the process] works ... He’s just been kinda figuring out what I want and exactly what I’m looking for, giving me advice and helping me with those goals.”
This support has only made Starks a harsher critic of himself, setting high bars for his performance so that he can play at the level he wants.
“As far as personal goals go, I fell a little bit short,” he said of his 2012 season. “I wanted to have 100 tackles, which is 10 tackles per game, and I wanted to be first-team All-Ivy. I ended up with 96 tackles and second-team All-Ivy.”
For most, 9.6 tackles per game and league recognition would mark a great season, but for an NFL hopeful, it is never enough. He said he hopes to improve his pass rush, footwork, blocks and drops into coverage, among other things — basically all aspects of his game — before going to any type of camp, showcase game or combine.
“You always want to get a little bigger, a little stronger, so I’ll work on putting on a little muscle weight and work on maintaining my speed,” he said. “Getting drafted is not an easy thing to do, and playing in the NFL has been a goal of mine for a long time, so I’m going to try and play for as long as I can. If that means going to a pro day, or hopefully getting invited to a camp or something like that, and making a practice squad for a little while, then that’s something I’d be interested in doing.”
Starks said he has already been invited to a couple of All-Star games and a combine in the spring, but he is waiting to talk it over with his father and coaches before making any decisions.
Reid, on the other hand, has yet to decide whether he will pursue a spot in the NFL this coming season. He may have the option to return to Princeton next year with an additional year of eligibility, much like Catapano did, after missing almost all of his sophomore seasonwith a torn pectoral muscle.
“I think everyone around this community would love to see Caraun in orange and black next year,” Catapano said. “Obviously we’ll support him wherever he goes — hopefully he comes back here, though.”
Both Catapano and Starks are looking to get stronger and more explosive in the time between now and pro days, combines and All-Star games. Working on combine drills like the 40-yard dash, bench press and three-cone shuttle, they aim to be ready to show off in front of scouts and adapt their games to the next level.
They are also both open to doing whatever it takes to make it in the NFL, including switching positions. For Catapano, that would probably mean an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, or even as a tight end.
“I’m open to whatever they need me to do, as long as they believe in what I can do,” Catapano said.
“I’m flexible. If it required a position change to play at the next level, I would do that in a heartbeat," added Starks, who began his Princeton career as a safety. "I just want to get an opportunity to play. This has been a goal of mine for a long time, so if I have to change [positions] another time to make that a reality, I’d do it.”
Even so, their flexibility and dedication may not be enough to overcome the disadvantage of playing for a relatively small program, facing few opponents with the same level of potential.
“I think [scouts] really loved how our guys practice,” Surace said. “Those three guys in particular lead every drill, they’re sprinting on and off the field, they’re high-energy guys and guys that have the characteristics they’re really looking for. At some point, they’re going to have to beat out grown men, though, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
“I think being drafted is definitely a long shot, but I don’t shy away from it,” Starks added. “We’ll just look to control what we can control, and continue working as hard as we can, and continue doing everything we can to get in the best shape as possible before career days and stuff like that, and just see what happens from there.”
Those long odds have not fazed Catapano, who went from having never played defense before college to becoming the Ivy League sacks leader as a senior.
“You have to believe in yourself, and you have to believe you can make it, or you’ll never have a chance to make it even close to that level,” Catapano said.