Jordan Culbreath ’10 owes the start of his college football career to two phone calls. The first, from a close friend, convinced him to rejoin his high school team as a senior. The second, from Culbreath’s mom to Princeton coach Roger Hughes, gave the undersized running back a chance to try out for the Tigers.
Both player and coach seem thrilled with the outcome. Two years after walking on as an unrecruited freshman, Culbreath slashed and smashed his way through defenses for an Ivy League-best 1,206 rushing yards in his junior season.
On a Princeton team that brings back 13 starters, Culbreath is the most valuable returning player. He headlines a running game that should be the foundation of this year’s Tigers, who kicked off the season against The Citadel Sept. 19 and will open Ivy play against Columbia Oct. 3.
Culbreath’s highlights include a handful of long touchdown runs, but Hughes said his most valuable contributions are subtle. “He finds ways to make average plays look above-average and make good plays look great,” Hughes said. “If you block a play to gain five yards, he’s going to turn it into nine.”
In high school, Culbreath skipped his junior football season, choosing instead to concentrate on basketball and baseball, so when he returned to the gridiron as a senior, few recruiters noticed. Hughes saw Culbreath’s game tapes but did not aggressively pursue him. Only Washington & Lee, a Division III school, showed significant interest, and Culbreath passed on that opportunity the minute he was admitted to Princeton.
There are a few explanations for Culbreath’s transformation from a lightly regarded teenager to a unanimous All-Ivy selection. He has gained strength and size — an extra 25 pounds since freshman year — along with a better understanding of how to read defenses. Though he lacks blazing speed and flashy moves, his ability to shed tacklers is extraordinary. Still, not even his coaches could have predicted a 1,200-yard season.
“Everybody around here would like to say, ‘Yeah, we saw that in Jordan,’” said Dave Rackovan, Princeton’s offensive coordinator. “But in reality, nobody did. We’re lucky we have him.”
Culbreath, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Falls Church, Va., also is grateful — and determined to improve. After gaining 276 yards in Princeton’s season-ending win over Dartmouth last November, he was humble and self-critical, giving kudos to the offensive line and making apologies for an inconsequential fumble in the fourth quarter.“Starting at the bottom of the depth chart helped me become the player I am today,” Culbreath said in August. “It makes being where I am today feel so much better, because I know I had to work for it.”