After earning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year honors and breaking the NCAA record for most consecutive completions, junior quarterback Quinn Epperly can add another title to his ever-growing list: the Daily Princetonian’s Male Athlete of the Year.
“For it to turn out the way it did was very special and definitely something that I didn’t see coming,” Epperly said of his miraculous 2013 season, which was marked by some of the most exciting Princeton football games in recent history and culminated in a share of the Ivy League championship.
He was not the only one — Epperly split time with fellow then-sophomore Connor Michelsen in 2012 but was seen as a clear choice for the backup role going into 2013. Having proven himself as a runner, many believed he would not be good for much else.
“I think we’re in a society where everybody wants instant success,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said. “For some guys, it happens.”
But others have to endure a lot of hard, thankless work, as well as criticism — something Epperly had to get used to. His initial reputation as a run-first, low-completion-percentage playcaller invited plenty of comparisons, flattering and otherwise, to the much talked-about Tim Tebow, former National Football League quarterback.
“I don’t mind that comparison at all. I’ve actually always looked up to him. His faith, and how he portrayed himself in the media, I think is very special,” Epperly said. “I think we have similar playing styles, I think we were treated similarly our whole college careers … I think our pattern of how we grew was kind of similar.”
“Hopefully I can be regarded as a better passer by the time I graduate,” he joked.
That probably won’t be an issue. Epperly led the Ancient Eight in scoring with 25 passing touchdowns and another 18 rushing touchdowns, placing fourth in the league in yards per game through the air and fourth in yards per game on the ground. If you’re still not sure whether or not he’s a good passer, consider his 29-straight completions against Cornell Nov. 2. Epperly says he “just kind of assumed” he had thrown an incompletion until the fact that he had set an NCAA completions record was announced over the PA system in the second half.
That game exemplified the high-velocity offense that became Princeton’s hallmark this season.
“We may not have the biggest guys in the world on our line, but we’re in shape,” Epperly said. “I think there’s a lot of games where our fast-paced offense really wore down teams.”
Despite his ability to read a defense and know exactly when to kick the offense into full gear, Epperly was not Princeton’s starting quarterback for much of his breakout season.
“The whole year, each week, I had to go and check: am I starting, how much am I playing?” Epperly said.
Surace believes this has been an important part of Epperly’s success.
“I think all athletes, most of us have certain chips on our shoulder,” he said.“To the really great ones like Quinn, an incompletion is an imperfection.”
Epperly started for the first time in his career in week five, playing the whole game as Michelsen was sidelined with a concussion (though Epperly says he would have started regardless). The game will go down in history as one of the great Princeton-Harvard matchups, a shootout in Boston which went into triple overtime. Epperly says he had all the confidence in the world, even as Harvard refused to go down time and time again.
“We had come so far in that game, and that season, that once we had the ball and they were giving it to us on the 25 yard line, I was pretty confident,” he said.
With that confidence, Epperly stepped up and won the game on a quintessential Epperly play. Using the capital he had gained from a season of tearing up defenses on the ground, he faked a run, pulled back and fired the ball to senior wideout Roman Wilson. Just as he had a year before, Wilson came down with the ball in the corner of the endzone to give the Tigers the win.
Proving that the 2012 homecoming win was no accident meant a lot to Epperly.
“The year before, its seemed like we were doing all these trick plays … a lot of people, they kinda called it a flukey win,” he said. “I think [this season’s win] just showed how far the program had come.”
That program is now squarely in the hands of the rising senior from Knoxville. Epperly and his roommate, junior linebacker Mike Zeuli, will captain next year’s squad as it seeks an outright Ivy title — and more.
“It really helps to be an exceptional player, but that’s not why you’re chosen captain,” Surace said. “[The players] want to see a guy who does everything right.”
“Quinn isn’t one who talks a lot,” he added. “But when he does it’s very meaningful.”
“I really would love to go undefeated next year,” Epperly said. “I would want nothing less than a very remarkable, historical year.”
Of course, every player would love to go undefeated, but this goal does not sound too crazy when you consider that the Tigers played probably the worst game of their season against Lehigh and still only lost by one and were four points away from beating Dartmouth in their season finale.
Even if the Tigers don’t go undefeated next year, Epperly & Co. have already brought about a drastic shift in campus culture. After seasons where “Are you going to the football game?” was something of a joke, 14,824 people were on hand at Princeton Stadium to watch the Tigers beat Yale 59-23 on Nov. 18.
“I think we’ve turned around the culture here,” Epperly said. “We love for the campus to support us.”
The Daily Princetonian’s Athlete of the Year award very often goes to a senior. Princeton crowds will be grateful that Epperly has a chance to repeat this honor, as well as to achieve some more important goals, next season.
And after that? Epperly says he would love to play professional football in the NFL, CFL or wherever. Surace, who would say so if he thought otherwise, agrees.
“I don’t think there’s ever been more scouts at an Ivy League game than when [recently-drafted senior defensive lineman] Caraun [Reid] and [Cornell quarterback] Jeff Matthews were on the field,” Surace said, referring to Epperly’s NCAA record-breaking game. “I think anybody who left that day wrote down a note: ‘Come to Princeton, see Quinn Epperly next year.’ ”
Maybe this time next year we’ll be talking about the draft again, but Epperly is focused on the upcoming season.
“He looks at this like ‘I’ve got such a long way to go. Everybody thinks I’ve arrived, but I’m not even close to being the type of player I can be,’ ” Surace said.
It’s an exciting idea to think that the man who brought Princeton football back may not have peaked yet.