Football Preview

Last fall was a breakthrough season for head coach Bob Surace ’90 and the Princeton football team. The Tigers’ fast-paced offense shattered the school record for points en route to an 8-2 record and a share of the Ivy League title in Surace’s fourth season at the helm. With most of its offensive stars returning, Princeton was voted the favorite in this year’s Ivy race, with Harvard close behind and Dartmouth, the only Ivy team to beat the Tigers in 2013, ranked third. Below, PAW takes a brief look at the season ahead by highlighting some of the players to watch.

Running back Dré Nelson ’16
Running back Dré Nelson ’16
Beverly Schaefer

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Surace, offensive coordinator James Perry, and a handful of players agree: Running back Dré Nelson ’16 is poised to be the next big thing for Princeton. Nelson is just 5 feet, 5 inches tall and 175 pounds, but he has a sprinter’s speed and a knack for slipping through tight spaces. In practice, Surace said, “It seems like every day he does something special.” Tiger fans saw a glimpse of Nelson’s potential in last year’s Yale game, when he rushed for 77 yards and two touchdowns.

COMEBACK CORNERBACK

When the Tigers take the field against San Diego Sept. 20, defensive back Khamal Brown ’16 will see his first game action since 2012, when he suffered an aneurism during a midseason practice and was forced to sit out for a year and a half. It’s been a long road back, and Brown’s teammates are happy to see him in pads instead of in the coaches’ booth, where he charted the Tigers’ movements last fall. “He has a great understanding of what our defense is all about,” co-defensive coordinator Jim Salgado said.

THE MAIN MAN

Co-captain and 2014 Ivy Offensive Player of the Year Quinn Epperly ’15 remains the most compelling player in the Princeton lineup, with an accurate passing arm, a powerful running style, and an unparalleled ability to find the end zone. What can he do for an encore? Become a better pocket passer, he said. Surace and Perry think Epperly is well on his way, thanks in part to the Tigers’ defensive backs, who challenge the Princeton quarterbacks in practice.

Co-captain Mike Zeuli ’15
Co-captain Mike Zeuli ’15
Beverly Schaefer

IN THE MIDDLE

Princeton’s defense will look to its inside linebackers for leadership on the field. Co-captain Mike Zeuli ’15 and fellow senior Garrit Leicht ’15 ranked first and fourth on the team, respectively, in tackles last season. With six starters lost to graduation, the veterans will be responsible for directing a relatively inexperienced defense. “Everything starts with communication on our defense,” Zeuli said. “Everyone is expected to do their job, and I think everyone will. We’re pretty confident that everyone can execute.”

UNDER THE RADAR

If receiver Matt Costello ’15 repeats his 2013 production (48 catches), he’ll finish his career in the top three of Princeton’s all-time receptions list, behind Kevin Guthrie ’84 and Derek Graham ’85, and just ahead of Chisom Opara ’03. That’s impressive company for a player who has yet to see his name in the postseason All-Ivy lists. “He’s been Mr. Consistent, Mr. Reliable since freshman year,” Epperly said. “I think he’s one of the guys that goes under the radar the most but comes in every week and gets big catches for us. He gets big plays down the field but also moves the chains.”

HELP WANTED

Princeton’s 2013 defensive-line rotation featured an NFL draft pick (Caraun Reid ’14, now of the Detroit Lions), two other senior starters, and one senior backup, leaving plenty of openings to fill this year. Surace anticipates that the Tigers will use a deeper rotation — eight or nine players — and as of early September, the depth chart featured Ty Desire ’17, Dan Dreher ’16, and Evan Kappatos ’16 in the starting roles. … The Tiger offense will be looking for a replacement to Roman Wilson ’14 on its various end-around running plays, a key component of Perry’s attack. Perry acknowledged that he’s been auditioning players to find who has the speed, vision, and strength to run those plays, but he declined to name the top candidates.

IN THE MIDDLE

Princeton’s defense will look to its inside linebackers for leadership on the field. Co-captain Mike Zeuli ’15 and fellow senior Garrit Leicht ’15 ranked first and fourth on the team, respectively, in tackles last season. With six starters lost to graduation, the veterans will be responsible for directing a relatively inexperienced defense. “Everything starts with communication on our defense,” Zeuli said. “Everyone is expected to do their job, and I think everyone will. We’re pretty confident that everyone can execute.”

UNDER THE RADAR

If receiver Matt Costello ’15 repeats his 2013 production (48 catches), he’ll finish his career in the top three of Princeton’s all-time receptions list, behind Kevin Guthrie ’84 and Derek Graham ’85, and just ahead of Chisom Opara ’03. That’s impressive company for a player who has yet to see his name in the postseason All-Ivy lists. “He’s been Mr. Consistent, Mr. Reliable since freshman year,” Epperly said. “I think he’s one of the guys that goes under the radar the most but comes in every week and gets big catches for us. He gets big plays down the field but also moves the chains.”

HELP WANTED

Princeton’s 2013 defensive-line rotation featured an NFL draft pick (Caraun Reid ’14, now of the Detroit Lions), two other senior starters, and one senior backup, leaving plenty of openings to fill this year. Surace anticipates that the Tigers will use a deeper rotation — eight or nine players — and as of early September, the depth chart featured Ty Desire ’17, Dan Dreher ’16, and Evan Kappatos ’16 in the starting roles. … The Tiger offense will be looking for a replacement to Roman Wilson ’14 on its various end-around running plays, a key component of Perry’s attack. Perry acknowledged that he’s been auditioning players to find who has the speed, vision, and strength to run those plays, but he declined to name the top candidates.

Sept. 20 — at San Diego, 4 p.m. Radio: WPRB

Sept. 27 — Davidson, 6 p.m. Radio: WPRB

Oct. 4 — at Columbia, 12:30 p.m. Radio: WPRB

Oct. 11 — at Colgate, 1 p.m. Radio: WPRB

Oct. 18 — Brown, 3:30 p.m. TV: NBC Regional Sports; Radio: WPRB

Oct. 25 — Harvard, 1 p.m. Online: ESPN3; Radio: WPRB

Nov. 1 — at Cornell, 12:30 p.m. TV: FOX College Sports; Radio: WPRB

Nov. 8 — Penn, 3:30 p.m. TV: NBC Sports Network; Radio: WPRB

Nov. 15 — at Yale, 12:30 p.m. Radio: WPRB

Nov. 22 — Dartmouth, 1 p.m. Online: ESPN3; Radio: WPRB

This version of PAW’s football preview has been updated to correct an error in the listing of Princeton’s all-time leading receivers.