John Lovett ’18 ran for a school-record 20 touchdowns last year.
Beverly Schaefer

With Bushnell Cup-winning quarterback John Lovett ’18 leading a group of six returning starters on offense, Princeton football looked poised to compete for another Ivy League title this fall. The media agreed, picking Princeton and Harvard as co-favorites in a preseason poll. But an August announcement disrupted that sunny forecast: Head coach Bob Surace ’90 said that Lovett had offseason surgery for an unspecified injury and would miss at least part of his senior season. At the team’s media day earlier this month, Surace’s follow-up assessment was vague: “He’ll be back at some point, when he’s healthy, and then he’ll play.”

In the meantime, Chad Kanoff ’18, Princeton’s most adept drop-back passer, will take more snaps at quarterback. The bulk of the Ivy schedule begins Oct. 14 at Brown, so Lovett could still play a significant role in the league title chase.

Surace hasn’t shied from the notion that Lovett’s absence will make Princeton a different team on offense. “We try to get the ball in the best players’ hands, and he was the best player in the league, not just the best player on our team, in so many aspects,” he said. “We’re working through camp to figure out who’s taking some of those reps as a ball-carrier, as a receiver, as a thrower.”

2017 Schedule

Home games in CAPS

Sept. 16 – SAN DIEGO, noon
Sept. 23 – Lafayette, 6 p.m.
Sept. 30 – COLUMBIA, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 – GEORGETOWN, 1 p.m.
Oct. 14 – Brown, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 – Harvard, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 – CORNELL, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4 – Penn, 1 p.m.
Nov. 11 – YALE, 1 p.m.<
Nov. 18 – Dartmouth, 1:30 p.m.

The Tigers should benefit from an experienced and dynamic supporting cast. The passing attack will lean on Kanoff, returning receivers Stephen Carlson ’19 and Jesper Horsted ’19, and tight end Graham Adomitis ’19. Running backs Charlie Volker ’19 and Ryan Quigley ’20 will lead the ground game. And the Tigers have nine returning linemen who played significant snaps last year, including All-Ivy left tackle Mitchell Sweigart ’18.

Kanoff, who spent the summer at Princeton working in the eHub summer accelerator for an electric boat motor company started by his freshman-year roommate, said that he feels comfortable running the Tigers’ fast-paced offense, which aims to run more than 80 plays per game.

“[Kanoff] is a special intellectual quarterback,” said new offensive coordinator Sean Gleason, who was promoted after James Perry left to become head coach at Bryant. “There are times in practice where things go awry or a particular protection is overwhelmed, and he almost never takes a sack or does something wrong with the ball. … His is such a cool cucumber in the pocket.”

If the Princeton defense has an analog to Kanoff, it may be All-Ivy lineman Kurt Holuba ’18, who has been a standout on the field (eight sacks last year) and in workouts, where nothing seems to faze him.

For the last two years, coaches have been tracking practices using heart-rate monitors, and Holuba has emerged as an anomaly, Surace said: “His heart-rate never goes up! It got to the point last spring where I had our strength coach follow him. I said, ‘Is Kurt not working hard enough?’” The coaches confirmed that he was, indeed, working hard. Knowing that Holuba can handle a higher workload in practice, Surace said, gives them confidence that he can play more snaps in games, which could be key for a defense that is rebuilding after the graduations of three All-Ivy players.

Other key players on the defensive line include Jake Strain ’19 and Matt Hampson ’20, a top recruit who blossomed in his first collegiate offseason. The top linebackers in the preseason have been Mark Fossati ’18, Tommy Johnson ’19, Jackson Simcox ’19, John Orr ’20, and Mike Wagner ’19. In the secondary, Chance Melancon ’18 leads a young group, with Ben Ellis ’19 and T.J. Floyd ’20 in the mix as potential starters.

Defensive coordinator Steve Verbit’s first priority is having a defense of great technicians; with a less experienced group, he expects to add to the playbook from week to week. “You’ve got to move them along slowly,” he said. “If they’re going to play fast, they’ve got to have confidence in their knowledge. If you give them a little bit too much, then they’ve got to think a little bit too much. So it’s all about reactions, it’s all about quick communication, and it’s about execution. … You audition the defense, each and every day.”

Princeton’s first public audition will be Sept. 16 against San Diego, which won the Pioneer League championship in 2016 and reached the round of 16 in the FCS playoffs.