So how, exactly, do you preview a team with so many unknowns at key positions? So many potential changes in offense, defense, and special teams? The answer is you have to dig in and do your research, which I've done.
Breaking Down Princeton
Head coach Bob Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry started off, in 2010, instituting what Surace himself called a "fast-break" offense for the Tigers involving a no-huddle, quick-strike passing attack. In 2011, though, personnel dictated that the offense be structured around the talents of RB Chuck DiBilio inmore of a running style. With DiBilio sidelined for the year in recovery, what will Surace and Perry come up with this time?
Futher muddying the progonstication on the Tiger offense is that they don't really line up in a spread or run-and-shoot offense - they really go with a basic pro set, fullback and running back, double-wideout base set. The "fast-break" is more of a no-huddle mindset than anything.
Much has been made of Princeton's "battle" for the starting QB nod this offseason between sophomore QB Quinn Epperly and sophomore QB Connor Michaelsen. Surace has refused to name the starter until game-time on Saturday.
Epperly, the starter in last year's 24-17 season-closing loss to Dartmouth, is a strong runner that is hard to bring down (261 yards rushing in 3 games), but was not effective at all passing the ball, notching fewer passing yards than rushing yards (259) and registering more interceptions (3) than touchdown passes (0).
Michaelsen seems to be a much better pure passer than Epperly - even though his time last year was limited to mop-up duty - but doesn't have the escapability that Epperly possesses. "Michelsen made the most impressive throw of the day," Jay Greenberg from Princeton Tigers Football blog reported from a recent practice, "but all three quarterbacks had their moments and their misses."
Ah, yes. Could freshman QB Kedrick Bostic, the 6'3 quarterback out of Jupiter, Florida, work his way into the starting nod on Saturday?
"He threw for 1,803 yards and rushed for 1,127 more as a senior at Jupiter Christian High in 2011," the Daily Princetonian reported, showing that he possessed some serious skill in Florida, a state known for cranking out huge numbers of NFL and collegiate talent. "He was the 10th rated QB out of the state last year by 'Friday Night Football Florida'", his thin bio on Princeton's athletics web site states.
“[Bostic] is light years ahead of where Quinn and Connor were a year ago,” Surace tantalizingly told Greenberg. “It’s just that at this point their command is a little bit better. They are all playing well though. I wish they would have some separation and make it easy on me.”
It would be an easier choice, certainly, if Epperly's legs and Michaelsen's arm were on the same quarterback. But when you look in Princeton's game notes, it says that Epperly and Michaelsen will split time starting at QB, with Epperly backing him up.
Surace has split time with quarterbacks before, and it's possible that he's doing that this Saturday with Epperly and Michaelsen. He can choose to do that, thinking that one of them will emerge and take over the position down the line, when Ivy League play begins, while Bostic learns the ropes of Division I football holding a clipboard.
Or he could just put Bostic in right now, the "guy who is playing well in camp and is light years ahead of where the two other guys were a year ago". and have him learn by doing. They are clearly impressed by him - and he's the closest thing they have to Michaelsen's arm on Epperly's body. He may not have Michaelsen's arm yet, or Epperly's rushing ability yet. But if you believe the whispers coming out of Princeton's camp, his potential is huge.
As Surace says, we won't know for sure until 12:30 on Saturday. I just happen to think that it is Bostic. I have to believe, with the coyness from the Tiger camp, the "closeness" of the battle and the "mystery" of the selection that Bostic is going to snap the ball for Princeton on their first offensive series.
There are, of course, a lot more offensive players than just the quarterback. The Tigers have some experience returning, but not a lot of last year's offensive production.
5'9 senior RB Akil Sharp's 2011 numbers may not seem impressive (319 all-purpose yards and 0 TDs), but he was hurt for most of that year and sat behind DiBilio on the depth chart. He's a speedy, slashing back that is more than worthy to be the No. 1 rushing option alongside either Bostic or Epperly.
Backing him up is a back of similar makeup, 5'9 sophomore RB Will Powers, who saw limited action last year. (Didn't he make a song about how to succeed in business?) 6'1 sophomore FB Joe Bonura, starting in his first varisty action, lines up at fullback. Historically, the fullback has been primarily a blocker for Princeton's offense under Surace, but he is a compeltely unknown quanitity.
Princeton's top two receiving targets return this year, though: senior WR Shane Wilkinson (38 catches, 384 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Matt Costello (29 catches, 341 yards, 0 TDs). Last year they were mostly short-yardage receivers, along with 6'5 senior TE Mark Hayes (11 catches 107 yards, 1 TD), but with a strong-armed quarterback it remains to be seen what they could do. There is more there, I think, than they showed last year.
Speedy senior WR Tom Moak and possession man sophomore WR Seth DeValve, both returning receivers from last year, back up Wilkinson and Costello. Add junior TE Des Smith and you have six receivers returning which caught a football for the Tigers last year. That's a lot of experience.
The offensive line, too, starts four players who saw time as starters last year as well. Junior OL Joe Goss, a two-year starter at center, has the most experience on a smallish "O" line that averages less than 285 lbs across.
For the third straight week, Lehigh will be facing a 4-3 defense. Unlike Monmouth and Central Connecticut State, though, they will be facing a more multiple-style defense that shifts their extremely talented front seven all around.
That's a concern, since the Tigers feature a couple of defensive linemen that hope to prove that they can play on Sundays.
6'2, 305 lb senior DT Caraun Reid is literally everything NFL scouts look for in a defensive tackle: a guy with size, yet still blessed with speed, and the ability to fly to the football. His breakout junior season (68 tackles, 16 tackles for loss including 8 sacks, 3 blocked kicks) has NFL scouts rightfully looking to see if he can expand on this year to become a draftee.
Next to him is 270 lb senior DE Mike Catapano, a powerful bull-rusher who notched 49 tackles and 5 sacks in his own right. Just one of these guys on the same line would be tough to handle. Both are a daunting 1-2 combination. Might both be NFL players? It's a real possibility.
And you can add very large veterans junior DT Greg Sotereanos and senior DE Matt Landry to this mix to make it an eye-popping front line that head coach Andy Coen said that "hopefully will be the biggest and toughest we will face all year".
At linebacker, too, the Tigers have another strong returning player in senior LB Andrew Starks (80 tackles), who led the team in tackles. Less experienced players senior LB Tim Kingsbury and sophomore LB Garrett Leicht round out a very tough front seven.
Princeton's secondary has two returning players in the secondary: senior SS Mandela Sheaffer (52 tackles) and sophomore CB Khamal Brown (51 tackles). But they return from a unit that were ranked 119th in pass effeciency defense last year. Furthermore, the team only had three interceptions all last year, and none of them come from this secondary.
Gone is Princeton's placekicker from last year, PK Patrick Jacob, so sophomore PK Brenden Sofen will take over those duties this year. He's an unknown, but the Tigers always seem to find great kickers, so it's fair to assume that he'll be up to the challenge.
Senior P Joe Cloud "has a 40.1 career average punting", the game notes helpfully tell us, which puts him in the above-average category of Lehigh opponents in the past. Sophomore WR Matt Costello will return punts, and sophomore WR Will Powers and freshman WR John Hill will be returning kickoffs. Powers and Costello returned kicks last year, but didn't return any for touchdowns.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Sidewiders. With mammoths like Princeton's defenders on the front line, it's east-west plays that offer some possible places to work on the Princeton defense. Using senior RB Zach Barket and junior RB Keith Sherman on outside runs could be very useful in wearing down the Princeton defenders.
2. Focused energy. Princeton will be coming out with a lot of adrenaline, and will be "looking to hit another jersey," as junior FS Rickie Hill said this week. That can be a big advantage for Lehigh to absorb their raw adrenaline from the start and break them down. Focus, and discipline, can beat adrenaline.
3. Heaping the pressure. Whomever is starting at QB for Princeton will be an underclassman, and they will be very green. It's important for Lehigh's defense to fly to the football early, and often, and not let whomever is back there get comfortable. If senior DE Tom Bianchi has a couple of sacks on Saturday, I'll feel good about a Lehigh victory.
They've got talent. They've got a surprising amount of experience. But their strengths are tempered with a whole lot of underclassmen, many of whom are playing in their first significant game action, and some issues that need to be fixed from last year's 1-9 campaign.
But there's optimism at Princeton. They're undefeated, and no team has scored a single point on them. It's all positive right now.
Coach Surace is playing things close to the vest, saying that the "element of surprise" helps Princeton out. But in this case, I think the opposite. With a team with so many young players, coming off back-to-back losing seasons, it's extremely difficult to face off against a team that has had two weeks to play together and work out the kinks. Especially a team with senior WR Ryan Spadola on it.
I don't know how Princeton will do this year. I think Reid is a serious NFL prospect, and there are certainly a lot of very good athletes out there for the Tigers. But as they learn how to compete together on a week-to-week basis, beating Lehigh on the road is too tough an order for the young Cubs.
Lehigh 30, Princeton 3