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Surace looking for progress day by day at Princeton
Bob Surace was talking turnaround when he consulted former teammate and current Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett during the offseason.
Garrett took over a Cowboys team that was 1-7 and went 5-3 in the second half. Surace would love to see similar progress with his Princeton University football team that went 1-9 overall and did not win an Ivy League game last year.
”He talked about how he turned the second half of the season around,” said Surace, who is in his second year at the helm of the Tigers. “It was three words — be great today. That’s what I want our coaches, the people involved in our program, and our players to focus on. Let’s take this and be great today. If we put a lot of those together, and we’ll be OK.”
Princeton will open preseason camp Aug. 24, barely one week from now. They open the season Sept. 17 when they host Lehigh in a night game. The opener provides quite a challenge as the Mountain Hawks won the Patriot League and won a first-round Football Subdivision Championship playoff game. By then, work had already begun on turning around the Tigers, who understood some things had to change.
”The biggest thing, it started the day the season ended, was really making a bigger commitment to being stronger,” Surace said. “We really emphasized different things in the weight room. It started then. We have to play better fundamental football. The margin for error, with the competition we face, is so slim. We have to continue to build from the ground up with the young guys because, in my opinion, we lacked depth last year. A lot of teams had injuries and overcame them a lot better than we did. We have to do a great job with those young guys so they’re ready to play if anything happens at any position.”
Princeton didn’t just lose players to injury, it lost key leaders. Linebacker Steven Cody was defensive captain, but went down for the season in the first game of the year — against Lehigh. The All-America candidate is back for his senior year.
”Steve is obviously a tremendous player,” Surace said. “He was our best player in the spring and in training camp last year. He’s a terrific leader. He’s high-energy, tough, physical. He’s all those things. Beyond that, he was the guy on that unit that everyone looked up to. It was tough losing him, not only to replace a talented player on the field, but we had to replace a guy who was the voice of the defense. That really hurt us for a little bit that way. I enjoy coaching, anybody does, terrific players that love to play football. To have a guy like that coming back, that’s a big bonus for us.”
Surace is also counting on another returning game-changer, quarterback Tommy Wornham. Wornham missed the final five games last year with a shoulder injury, and the offense suffered without his veteran play. In the annual media day, Surace also singled out captain defensive lineman Mike Catapano, offensive lineman Matt Allen, defensive back Blake Clemons, punter Joe Cloud, linebacker Kevin DeMaio, defensive back Mandela Sheaffer, defensive back Caraun Reid, kicker Pat Jacob and linebacker Andrew Starks.
”I think there’s a really good core returning,” Surace said, “and we’re excited about that.”
Even with the Tigers returning so many players that couldn’t contribute fully last year due to injuries, they were picked seventh in the pre-season Ivy League media poll, tied with Cornell for the final spot. Penn was picked to win its third straight Ivy title. Princeton, though, will be playing with something to prove this year and the benefit of already having one year with Surace.
”Any time you’re building a program, doing things differently, the improvement we made in the spring, whether it was little mistakes or responsibility in terms of alignment in gaps or splits of a wide receiver, the more time you have on task, the better they’re done,” Surace said. “We really saw reduction in those errors, and hopefully with that we’ll be able to have more long drives and finish drives better, we’ll force more turnovers, we’ll be in the right alignment to not allow as many long runs, the fundamental things will be done at the right level. And it’s going to have to be with the challenges we face on the schedule.”
Princeton will play its first three games at home, all with 6 p.m. kickoffs, something they hope will draw more fans. Then they will go on the road to face a formidable Hampton team before finishing the year with six straight Ivy games.
”The coaches are excited, I’m excited, the players are excited to build off a good offseason,” Surace said. “A good winter of weight lifting, and spring ball, and what the guys are doing this summer. I think we have a really solid core of veteran guys returning.”
And ready to turn around the fortunes of Princeton football when they get started in barely one week.
By Justin Feil, The Princeton Packet