The football team’s 2014 campaign kicked off with a trip to San Diego, the longest journey the Tigers have made since head coach Bob Surace ’90 took over. That’s not the only unfamiliar territory they’ll be dealing with —Princeton is the reigning Ivy League champion for the first time since 2006.
“It’s going to be a different experience; it’s going to be a cool experience,” senior linebacker Mike Zeuli said of the upcoming season. “No one’s really complacent —everyone knows we’re still working toward our main goal of winning an Ivy League championship.”
The Tigers, Ivy League cellar-dwellers as recently as Zeuli’s freshman year, are now almost entirely different from the team that went 1-9 in back-to-back seasons. Though the change has undoubtedly been for the better, that means that certain players who were instrumental in the turnaround have now departed. Notably, Caraun Reid ’14 recently traded the Orange Bubble for Ford Field.
Reid, one of the most feared defenders in Ivy League history, is not the only key defender the Tigers have lost. Surace compared the loss of linebackers Greg Sotereanos ’14 and Jason Ray ’14 and defensive backs Phillip Bhaya ’14 and Elijah Mitchell ’14 to the loss of Chuck Dibilio ’15 and its effect on the offensive backfield: “Maybe there’s no one at this point in time who’s as good as Caraun or Greg, but [we’re] playing more guys and getting them more active.”
On the other hand, the defensive backfield will welcome back junior defensive back Khamal Brown, whose aneurysm in 2012 nearly took his life and caused him to miss all of the 2013 season.
“Last year, I thought with [junior defensive back] John Hill and [senior cornerback] Jakobi [Johnson] and [senior safety] Matt [Arends] at safety, we really started playing well in the secondary, and to have Khamal back is just huge,” Surace said.
“We’re definitely excited to have him back. He was a big part of our defense before he got hurt,” Zeuli said of Brown. “He’s looked pretty good, and he’s definitely going to contribute this year.
Arends, an All-Ivy honorable mention in his first year at safety, and junior cornerback Anthony Gaffney, a first-team All-Ivy selection, combined for three interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 83 tackles last season and will provide some much welcome consistency to a defensive backfield that led the league in picks last season.
On the other side of the ball, things look a little more like they did last year. Senior quarterback Quinn Epperly, who started last season as a backup and ended as Ivy League Player of the Year, is looking to pick up where he left off. Epperly has spent the offseason tending to a minor injury and working on his skills as a pocket passer. After he led the league in passing and rushing touchdowns as well as completion percentage, it seems that dropping back was the only thing Surace and Epperly could think of that needed work.
“Last year, that was probably the one area that he was [only] above adequate —he wasn’t at the top of the charts on that,” Surace said. “He wants to be good at everything —great at everything.”
Epperly, whom his coaches often praise for being the football equivalent of a “five-tool player,” will be without his most reliable target from seasons past: Roman Wilson ’14. In addition to his 16 career touchdowns and lifetime average of 52.7 yards per game, Wilson also gave the University some of its most memorable moments from recent years, including dramatic game-winning receptions against Harvard in 2012 and 2013.
“Roman’s obviously a tough guy to replace; he brought a lot of explosive plays to us last year,” Epperly said. “[But] I think we’ve got a great group of guys coming back.”
Epperly named senior receivers Seth DeValve, Connor Kelley and Matt Costello, who accounted for 12 touchdown receptions last season, as reliable candidates to fill Wilson’s shoes.
The Tigers have three viable options at tailback as well: junior tandem DiAndre Atwater and Dre Nelson are expected to complement senior Will Powers. None of the three emerged as a feature back last season, but each made major contributions. In addition to these backs and Epperly’s formidable running ability, offensive coordinator James Perry will continue to surprise opponents with the kind of creative playcalling that led to three quarterbacks lining up in the backfield against Yale. Epperly will start, of course, but junior Connor Michelsen and junior Kedric Bostic can also be relied upon to pass accurately and to run evasively. This season will likely provide fans with their first glimpse of sophomore Chad Kanoff, whose choice of Princeton over Vanderbilt was considered a major win for the program.
Without giving away any of this year’s tricks, Surace praised his quarterbacks.
“Our quarterbacks happen to be very talented at throwing and catching and blocking,” Surace said. “We’ll utilize our most talented players.”
The Tigers are excited to be starting the season on the West Coast, but they emphasized that their focus is on the Ivy League championship. In order to achieve this goal, they will need to overcome a resurgent Yale squad in New Haven and survive a Harvard team that will seek revenge for the last two seasons with the help of senior quarterback Conner Hempel, one of the best signal callers in the league. Though the players and coaches are trained to say they “take it one game at a time,” they are no doubt pleased that Dartmouth, whose four-point victory over the Tigers in New Hampshire forced Princeton to share the league title with Harvard, will be visiting Princeton Stadium for the last game of the 2014 campaign.
The season opener in San Diego resulted in a 39-29 victory for the Toreros, with the home opener scheduled for this Friday at 6 p.m. against Davidson.