At first glance, Princeton football does not appear to be in a great position heading into the 2018 season. Not only are the Tigers coming off an underwhelming, second-to-last finish in the 2017 Ivy League standings, but they also graduated quarterback Chad Kanoff, now playing in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals, who in 2017 indisputably posted the most impressive season by a quarterback in Princeton history. Further examination, however, reveals the Tigers have good reason for optimism. Princeton will return several key players who missed most or all of the 2017 season, including the 2016 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, senior quarterback John Lovett, and senior defensive standouts linebacker Mark Fossati and defensive lineman Kurt Holuba. The Tigers will also benefit from an influx of young talent looking to make an immediate impact — their 2018 recruiting class was ranked as the best in all of Football Championship Subdivision football and includes a quarterback, Brevin White, who chose Princeton over football powerhouse Alabama.
Lovett spent the 2017 season on the sideline after offseason shoulder surgery watching Kanoff’s impressive showing. This year, the 2016 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year and First-Team All-American will have his chance to lead the Princeton offense. Lovett earned those accolades in a 2016 season in which he broke the Princeton single season record for rushing touchdowns with 20, throwing for another 10 while sharing reps at quarterback with Kanoff. After missing the entire 2017 season due to injury and taking off the 2018 spring semester in accordance with Ivy League medical redshirt policies, the fifth-year senior enters training camp as the clear top dog on the quarterback depth chart.
“It was obviously frustrating as a competitor,” said Lovett of the 2017 season, “but it gave me an opportunity to really enhance my mental aspect of football and my knowledge of the game.”
Lovett possesses the tools of an elite-dual threat quarterback but will need to expand his abilities as a passer to grow into his role as an every-down quarterback rather than the red zone and running threat he posed to defenses in 2016. Citing his work with his receiving corps over the summer, as well as his increased understanding of the game, Lovett believes that he has made the leap as an accurate passer.
“Lots of hard work this summer,” Lovett said. “You can never get enough reps, [and] it's also the mental game. Accuracy is a product of making good decisions.”
“To John's credit, he's worked really hard to be a more accurate thrower,” said head coach Bob Surace ’90, “and it's showed in practice.”
Even with Lovett returning, one can't help but wonder how long it will take for prized recruit Brevin White to see the field. Princeton's offense has been known in the past to play two quarterbacks at once, sometimes with both on the field at the same time, and the more pro-style, pure-passing White would serve as a natural complement to Lovett and his capabilities as a runner.
“All the guys are in competition to earn some playing time,” said offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson regarding his quarterbacks. “We'll play with the best 11 at any time, that's really the only thing we're protective about.”
Whomever is playing quarterback for the Tigers will have the fortune of leading an offense with a plethora of weapons. Foremost among them is senior wide receiver Jesper Horsted, who enjoyed a record-breaking season of his own in 2017, setting Princeton records for single-season receptions with 92 and touchdowns with 14. Other returning receivers include senior Stephen Carlson and junior Tiger Bech, who, along with Horsted, accounted for a majority of Princeton's receiving yards in 2017.
Even with the amount of talent at the skill positions, Princeton's offense will falter if its relatively inexperienced offensive line isn't able to provide the protection needed for plays to develop. The first challenge facing the unit will be replacing Mitchell Sweigart ’18, who Surace called one of the best offensive linemen in Princeton history, as well as Richard Bush ’18 and Erik Ramirez ’18, two other dependable starters on the O-Line, each of whom graduated in the spring. Surace is confident, however, that their replacements are up to the challenge.
“They're going up against some outstanding defensive lineman [in practice], and they're doing well,” he said of his offensive linemen. “They keep growing and we've got a chance to be really good there.”
Defensively, Princeton will need to improve its performance from last season to reclaim a spot near the top of the Ivy League standings. Injuries to key members of the interior of the defense as well as inexperience in the secondary plagued the Tiger defense in 2017, as they gave up more points per game than every Ivy League team but Brown. Two of those injured players, Holuba and Fossati, are back and prepared to anchor the Princeton defense in 2018.
Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit said that the unit would benefit not just from the pair's performance on the field, but from their leadership as well.
“It's absolutely tremendous to have two leaders like Mark and Kurt,” he said. “When they're not on the field, they're coaching other players.”
The absence of so many players in the 2017 campaign did, however, allow for several players to gain more experience than they otherwise would have, meaning that the 2018 unit will benefit from that depth. Linebackers John Orr, Jackson Simcox, and James Johnson, for example, all saw meaningful playing time last season and will return to give the Tiger defense several solid options at the position.
“There's more guys returning on defense that have seen action,” said Surace. “Building depth is always critical.”
“We're deep up front, we're deep at the second level,” added Verbit. “In today's style of football, in terms of the tempo of the offenses, you've got to be deep at every position.”
The team opened their season last weekend with a commanding 50—7 win at Butler, with both the offense and defense justifying their coaches’ preseason confidence in their ability. This Saturday, the Tigers will make their home opener against Monmouth, before kicking off the Ivy League schedule with a Friday evening game at Columbia. The Tigers were picked to finish second in the Ivy League preseason media poll but have the misfortune of playing the other three Top 4 teams on the road. In particular, Princeton will play both Harvard, voted to finish third, and Yale, voted to finish first by a wide margin, on the road. This development will complicate the Tigers' effort to defeat both teams and secure the first bonfire since 2013.
So, while Princeton appears on paper to have the tools required to return to the top of the Ivy League standings in 2018, Surace doesn't want his team to get too far ahead of itself.
“It's got to be put in chunks, where the focus is on that week,” Surace said.
In the early stages of the season, however, he sees little reason to complain.
“I like the group we have,” he said. “When we're handling the little details in the training room, in the equipment room, in the meeting rooms, [and] in the walkthroughs, that tends to lead to positive things.”