The Princeton University football team will try to do something this fall that it hasn’t since 1964.
The Tigers are hopeful that they have enough depth to repeat as Ivy League champions.
“We have a strong group of seniors coming back, leadership-wise,” said Bob Surace ’90, now in his 12th year as head coach. “I feel we’re in a really good place with older guys, experienced guys that are good mentors.”
Princeton opens the season at Stetson on Sept. 17 before its home opener Sept. 24 against Lehigh. The team will begin defending its Ivy title at Columbia on Oct. 1. The league’s preseason media poll picked the Tigers third behind Harvard and Dartmouth, but there’s nothing predictable about the Ivies this year.
The Tigers went 9-1 to win the Ivy championship in 2021. Their lone loss came against Dartmouth, with which they shared the Ivy title. Led by Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Jeremiah Tyler ’22, who was also a two-time All-America linebacker, an Ivy-best 10 Tigers players earned first-team All-Ivy League honors. Princeton’s Ivy title was its fourth in the last eight seasons, and last year Princeton hosted a bonfire to celebrate beating Harvard and Yale in the same season.
Only offensive lineman Henry Byrd ’23, tight end Carson Bobo ’23, and punter Will Powers ’23 return from that group of first-team honorees, although second-team All-Ivy selections of wide receivers Andrei Iosivas ’23 and Dylan Classi ’23 and defensive lineman Uche Ndukwe ’23 also are back and poised to step up. Iosivas and Powers were both named to the 2022 Phil Steele Preseason All-America teams.
“It’s really the first time since 2019, because of the pandemic, that we were able to do that,” said Surace. “It’s really the best time to develop players. We had so much more individual time with them. ... The group of guys that were freshmen that were developing but not getting a lot of playing time, they made the biggest jump. That was nice to see.”
Princeton’s roster size is back down to normal after a year in which every Ivy team had its numbers swelled by student-athletes returning from gap years taken during the pandemic. The Tigers had so many seniors last year that those experienced players absorbed the lion’s share of attention. In the spring, Princeton began focusing more closely on less-experienced players and looks forward to having a full group on campus from the start of the fall preseason.
For the fifth straight season, Princeton will have a new starting quarterback, developing a familiar sort of lineage.
“We go from Chad Kanoff ’18, to John Lovett ’19, to Kevin Davidson ’20 to Cole Smith ’22,” said Surace. “I think we’ve done a great job. None of those guys started as freshmen. Those guys really learned the offense, learned leadership, learned how to practice.”
Blake Stenstrom ’24, who saw the most action behind Smith last year, is a front-runner for quarterback along with two others who are in the mix after significant improvements. Joe Hutchinson ’23 and Blaine McAllister ’25 are pushing Stenstrom, who transferred from Colorado two years ago and competed for playing time last season. McAllister had the least experience as a freshman but made the biggest jump in the spring. Hutchinson made major strides through last fall and carried that momentum into the spring. As it has in the past, Princeton will rely on its fall preseason practices to sort out a starter.
“There was enough separation to make a decision before the season started,” Surace said. “I’m guessing it’ll play out similarly. I think all three of them are varsity players.”
That quarterback will utilize a strong arsenal behind an offensive line that has anchors Byrd and Connor Scaglione ’23 and veterans who can step in like Zack Zambrano ’23, Blake Feigenspan ’23, Jonathan Boyd ’23, and Jalen Travis ’24. Princeton lost its leading running back, Collin Eaddy ’22, to graduation, but he missed the end of last season after a severe leg injury that forced John Volker ’25, Ja’Derris Carr ’25, and Davis Kline ’25 into more action.
If the offense stalls, Powers is the best punter in the league, and if the offense is in field goal range, Jeff Sexton ’25 will bring experience from a strong freshman campaign that included the game-winner with 10 seconds left against Monmouth.
The Princeton defense has a few more question marks, particularly in the secondary, which returns only Mike Ruttlen Jr. ’23 from among its top-seven depth chart. The Tigers also lost two key defensive playmakers to graduation in defensive lineman Sam Wright ’22, who led the league in sacks, and Tyler, who was a generational player at linebacker.
“Knowing Princeton football since 1985, I think the only person on his stratosphere is Dave Patterson ’96 in terms of full career,” Surace said. “There were guys that had a couple good seasons or really good seasons, but J.T. had four of them.”
Spring practices reassured the Tigers that they have players ready to step in to fill some big shoes. Ndukwe is back as another force on the line, and Mike Azevedo ’23, Cole Aubrey ’23, Carter Christopher ’23, and Matt Jester ’23 are part of the deep and talented line group.
At inside linebacker, Anthony Corbin Jr. ’23 and Joe Bonczek ’23 have made big strides, and younger players like Ozzie Nicholas ’24, Liam Johnson ’24, and Jackson Ford ’25 could be in the rotation. Will Perez ’23, Larkin Ison ’23, and Caleb Coleman ’24 are part of the group that will fill in for Tyler’s loss. The secondary question marks will be answered through the fall preseason and into the early games with an emphasis on establishing the communication and cohesiveness that helped Princeton eliminate big plays from opposing teams last year.
Princeton will need to see more of that progress to repeat as Ivy League champions. It’s a task that historically has been difficult, but a gifted senior class and deep supporting cast give the Tigers optimism for 2022.
“We have a really good group of talented players, and we’re going to let them compete,” Surace said.