Princeton football fans have several reasons for optimism in 2009: A star running back returns, along with most of the offensive line, from a 4-6 team that fell a few plays shy of a winning season last year. On the other side of that coin, there are plenty of unknowns, including newcomers at quarterback and on the the defensive line. At the team's preseason media day Sept. 4, head coach Roger Hughes gave his first assessment of the coming season: "cautiously optimistic."

Some of his optimism comes from what happened before practice began. Dozens of Princeton players spent the summer on campus, lifting weights and training together in seven-on-seven games. Hughes said the team entered its August workouts with a healthy dose of camaraderie, much like it did in Princeton's 2006 Ivy League championship season. "Conditioning shouldn't be an issue, chemistry shouldn't be an issue," he said. "Now it's about execution."

Below, previews of the offense, defense, and special teams.

OFFENSE: The Ivy League's top rushing attack from 2008 remains virtually intact, with All-Ivy running back Jordan Culbreath ’10, fullback Matt Zimmerman ’10, and four offensive linemen -- John Paul Makrai ’10, Marc Daou ’10, Andrew Hauser ’10, and Mark Paski ’10 -- returning to the starting lineup. Reserve running back Kenny Gunter ’10 also will be back in action after missing all of last season with an injury.

By the season's midpoint last year, Culbreath's talent was hardly a secret, but even with defenses set up to stop him, the running back had stellar games against Harvard (154 yards), Cornell (169 yards), and Dartmouth (276 yards), thanks to strong line play. "They're a confident group," offensive coordinator Dave Rackovan said of the line, "and that's how we want it."

Princeton's passing game is another story. While starting quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12 said his confidence is growing, neither he nor backup Harrison Daniels ’12 has much game experience. Wornham had a couple of brief stints on the field last year, completing two of nine passes, and Daniels made his debut in the Tigers' spring scrimmage. At media day, Rackovan said he was happy with the progress that the quarterbacks had made so far.

Princeton's returning receivers and ends did not play a major role in last year's offense. The prospective starters -- receivers Trey Peacock ’11 and Andrew Kerr ’11 and tight end Harry Flaherty -- combined for just 19 receptions last year. But coaches are excited about the group, and Peacock in particular. Hughes said the 6-foot-3-inch wideout has matured significantly. "The skill set hasn't changed that much, but he's a lot more focused," he said.

DEFENSE: The good news? Seven starters return from the 2008 defense. The bad news? The Tigers ranked sixth among Ivy teams in yards surrendered (330.7 per game) and fifth in points allowed (21.4 per game).

Scott Britton ’10 and Steve Cody ’11 lead a solid group of linebackers that displayed speed and tenacity last year. Defensive coordinator Steve Verbit hopes to add "discipline" to that list of attributes. "You like them to play hard and fast," he said, "[but] sometimes they play a little bit too fast." Cody said that he's learning when to pursue and when to let the play come to him.

The defensive line lost two of its three starters, but Verbit said that while this year's group may lack experience, it has impressive size. Returning end Joel Karacozoff ’10 is among the smallest of the bunch at 260 pounds. Other players expected to earn playing time include 292-pound junior Matt Boyer, converted fullback Mike Catapano ’12, Mark Ethridge ’10, Kevin DeMaio ’12, and Caraun Reid ’13.

In the defensive secondary, safety Dan Kopolovich ’10 has returned to defense full-time, after doubling as a backup quarterback last season. He's joined by classmates Wilson Cates and Cart Kelly, who also return to the starting lineup. Forcing turnovers will be a top priority for the defensive backs. Princeton intercepted just six passes last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Ben Bologna ’10 is likely to be the top placekicker. He also is one of three contenders for the punting job, along with Otavio Fleury ’12 and Joe Cloud ’13. Juniors Jeb Heavenrich, Meko McCray, and Matt Ransom will handle kick and punt returns.

2009 Princeton Football Schedule
(with links to opponents' schedules and results)

Sept. 19 THE CITADEL, 3 p.m.
Sept. 26 at Lehigh, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 COLUMBIA, 3 p.m.
Oct. 8 COLGATE, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17 at Brown, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 at Harvard, noon
Oct. 31 CORNELL, 1 p.m.
Nov. 7 at Penn, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 14 YALE, 1 p.m.
Nov. 21 at Dartmouth, 12:30 p.m.