Jeremiah Tyler ’22 could be playing on an NFL field next year.
Princeton’s star outside linebacker might have even been in the NFL this season, had he not taken a year off school in 2017-18 and then another last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic before returning this fall to the Tigers.
“I had to,” said Tyler at a press conference to kick off the season. “I felt like I was going to let these guys down if I didn’t, and I felt that within my heart.”
Tyler is one of 17 seniors who returned after taking a gap year off during the pandemic that canceled the 2020 Ivy League season. They combine with 10 other rising seniors to give Princeton a plethora of experience at the top of their roster. There are also 31 juniors on the team.
“Our two senior groups are war tested,” said senior running back Collin Eaddy ’22, who also returned after a gap year. “A lot of these guys have been playing since freshman year like I have. I feel like we have a lot more game time experience, which when it comes down to it, makes a difference in crucial moments when we need it most.”
Princeton will open the season at perennial Patriot League power Lehigh at noon on Sept. 18. It will be the Tigers’ first game since Nov. 23, 2019. The Patriot League played a spring season last year, and Lehigh always present a stiff challenge for Princeton. Princeton opens the Ivy League hosting Columbia on Oct. 2.
“I love how we are working, I love how we are doing things,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’90. “If we keep doing things the right way, I think we have a great group.”
Princeton’s experience persuaded the media to tab the Tigers the Ivy favorites in its preseason poll. Tyler and Eaddy are household names in the Ivy League, and Delan Stallworth ’22 was All-Ivy at defensive back. The Tigers have gone 18-2 over the previous two seasons with a perfect 2018 campaign. They placed second in 2019 at 5-2 in the league, and the class that was to be seniors last year returned in force for one more shot at an Ivy crown that would be Princeton’s fourth in eight seasons.
“There are more leaders,” Surace said. “You have this extra group of guys that should be joining the work force right now and that are really mature leaders. You have that extra group including the true seniors, the ones who would have been seniors anyway. They are doing an amazing job of helping the young players who have never been on campus.”
There is a big hole to fill after the graduation of 2019 quarterback Kevin Davidson ’20, who as a senior set the Ivy record for touchdown passes in a game with seven. There are no quarterbacks on Princeton’s roster who have started a college game. Blake Stenstrom ’23 is a junior who saw limited playing time at Colorado before transferring after the 2020-21 year. He’s in the mix to start along with Joseph Hutchinson ’24, Cole Smith ’22, John Tracy ’22, and Brevin White ’23.
“We have had this a few times since I have been here, where we have graduated a veteran player — a really good player — and we have had to compete,” Surace said. “I think that room is so solid, the way that we coach all of them, that there is this natural transition.”
Drawing more cohesion has been a big focus of the Tigers through the preseason. Surace and his staff hadn’t met some of their new players in person until they reported to campus Aug. 19, but they add to a mix of talent.
“Now we have freshmen playing and a big extra senior group who could have graduated, so we have close to five classes this year,” Surace said. “So it creates competition.”
Cracking the lineup will be tough for the young players stuck behind the likes of Eaddy and Tyler, who both played as freshmen. Tyler was a finalist for the Bushnell Cup for the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year when he last played in 2019. The last time he took off a year, he returned to earn first-team All-Ivy honors in 2018. Now he’s back after adding 20 pounds of muscle, something that will help his NFL aspirations, though that’s taking a back seat to his season goals for now.
“I’m really focused on bringing my team together right now, going to practice every day and making sure we get everything done, like the small details I preached on,” Tyler said. “We have to clean that up, and everything will play out. If we keep grinding the way we are now, everything will fall into place.”
The defense will look to get stops and create turnovers to give the ball to an offense that has proven potent over the last decade. The offense features Eaddy, who was the Donold B. Lourie Award winner as Princeton’s top offensive freshman in 2017. He led the Ivies in rushing touchdowns in 2019 with 12. Like Tyler, his team goals supersede any individual hopes in his final season at Princeton.
“I think it drives you more, if anything,” Eaddy said. “For us, we realize we won’t get this opportunity again. You’re putting that much more time and energy into it. You always do, but this just makes it that much more special and more intense. You’ll never get another opportunity. These are the last 10 games in my college lifetime. It’s all or nothing for us.”
Practices began in August with Princeton lining up All-Ivy caliber players head-to-head when offense went against defense. The return from the long layoff had players hungry and ready to prove themselves, and an offseason in which the captains and strength and conditioning coaches pushed players to get stronger and absorb the Tigers’ systems more completely than ever had them ready.
“We have been meeting with the players for so many Zooms that the players have taken it from the laptop and transferred it onto the field,” Surace said.
The Tigers are hopeful that preparation will translate into wins when the games resume. It’s been a long wait for every player on the Princeton team, but the year taken away by the pandemic has only made them more eager to return to action.
“It made me grateful,” Eaddy said. “I’ve been playing football the last 17-18 years and it was the first year I didn’t have any football. You miss this. You take it for granted, a lot of things until it’s gone. It makes it even more special that I’m back here now and I get one final run at an Ivy championship.”
Tyler agreed: “It’s just so good to play football again from that year and everything that we went through as a team, as a community, as humans. It took a toll on everyone. Having everyone here on one accord and one place, it feels great.”