Dorian Williams ’17 won the John P. Poe–Richard W. Kazmaier Trophy a year ago as a junior, and Princeton football’s senior free safety could become just the fourth two-time winner in the award’s 100-year history.
But Williams has a bigger goal: He would like to be the fourth Poe-Kazmaier winner to play for two Ivy League championship teams.
“I feel like everyone is pretty sound in what they’re doing,” Williams said. “I’m pretty excited for the season watching everyone come together and our team come together.”
This year’s seniors saw what it takes to win an Ivy championship in 2013 before back-to-back 5-5 seasons. Princeton lost four of its final five games in an injury-riddled season full of missed opportunities last year. The Tigers were leading in the fourth quarter or had a chance to win in the final minute of four of those losses.
“We don’t want that to happen again,” Williams said. “Everyone is saying, ‘we’re going to finish, we’re going to finish, and we’re going to keep pushing that so it’s not the outcome this season.’”
Home games in CAPS
Sept. 17 – LAFAYETTE, 5 p.m.
Sept. 24 – Lehigh, 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 – Columbia, noon
Oct. 8 – Georgetown, 1 p.m.
Oct. 15 – BROWN, 3 p.m.
Oct. 22 – HARVARD, 1 p.m.
Oct. 29 – Cornell, 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 5 – PENN, noon
Nov. 12 – Yale, 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 19 – DARTMOUTH, 1:30 p.m.
Princeton’s newfound depth and wealth of experience are key to its Ivy chances. The Tigers open the season out of conference Sept. 17 at 5 p.m. when they host Lafayette at Princeton Stadium. Last year, Princeton rolled over Lafayette, 40-7.
“It’ll be a different Lafayette team,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’90. “They were decimated by injuries when we played them that week. They’re a 60-scholarship school. We’re not going to have any easy games.”
The Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the Ivy League in the preseason media poll despite returning starting quarterbacks Chad Kanoff ’17 and John Lovett ’17, top running back Joe Rhattigan ’17, six of their top seven pass catchers, and their front seven on a defense that has Williams behind them to lead the secondary.
“I don’t feel like there are missing links,” said Williams. The second-team All-Ivy selection was one tackle away from leading the Ivies last year. He’s been reliable from the time he was a freshman, when Princeton last won the Ivy championship in 2013.
“He was arguably the best rookie in the league and then he comes out and he’s All-Ivy as a sophomore, he’s All-Ivy as a junior, and he’s close to being Defensive Player of the Year last year,” Surace said. “And where Chad and John set the tone on offense, guys like him and Kurt Holuba ’18 and Rohan Hylton ’17 and RJ Paige ’17 are doing it for our defense. And he’s the ringleader of that.”
It’s a role that he is embracing after being the youngest starter in the secondary year after year. Williams is one of three captains for Princeton along with classmates Kanoff and Rhattigan.
“It’s kind of like your last chance,” Williams said. “You’re pushing people and you want people to give that little extra effort. They are.”
Holuba and Hylton were All-Ivy-type players last year when they suffered season-ending injuries, Holuba after three games and Hylton after five games.
“It’s always tough watching your teammates out there when you feel like you can’t get out there yourself,” Hylton said. “It’s always next-man-in mentality. I don’t think we had any drop-off in ability, maybe just some in depth because not as many people were available in the second half.”
Holuba and Hylton returned for spring practices and their energy is contagious at practice, and their play in games is inspiring. They are part of the front seven on defense that should be among the league’s best.
“It all starts with our front seven,” Williams said. “You get a good push and stop the run, it’s only going to lead to quarterback hurries and help the secondary and linebackers. That is something that I know I’m excited about with our front seven. Just in camp, they’ve been doing it so we’re really, really looking forward to it.”
The front seven features linemen Ty Desiré ’18 and Henry Schlossberg ’17 and a deep group of linebackers led by Birk Olson ’17, Paige, Quincy Wolff ’18, and Tom Johnson ’19.
“We have a D-line that I think could be one of the better ones,” Surace said. “We have two NFL players right now [who played on the defensive line during Surace’s tenure]. It’s one of the better ones since I’ve been here.”
It should help Princeton’s inexperienced secondary. Williams anchors one of the big question marks as the Tigers replace three graduated veterans from the defensive backfield.
“I would expect them to get tested just to see what we have,” Williams said. “Just through camp, through communication and from them being able to sit back the last couple of years and learn the techniques, I do think everyone in the back feels ready.”
Seniors James Gales, Sam Huffman, and Markus Phox are expected to make their first starts against Lafayette.
“They just haven’t started,” Surace said. “In terms of experience on the field, they’ve been special teams guys and they’ve rolled in. Gales and Phox and Huffman, they all made plays but they didn’t play every snap like you saw [Anthony] Gaffney ’16 and [John] Hill ’16 and Khamal Brown ’16. Those guys were stalwarts. You knew what their stats were and what they did. These guys, instead of doing it for 10 or 20 plays, now they have to step up and do it for longer.”
Everywhere on defense, Princeton feels it has depth, more so than in the past. They have third-team linebackers that could start elsewhere, Surace believes. It’s a welcome byproduct to the unwelcome injury bug that forced so many into action last year.
“The one thing we can do that we haven’t done since I’ve been here is roll more guys in,” Surace said. “We always do that on offense. We’ve been able to do that with all that depth on offense the last four years and last year I thought we had it [on defense] and there was some attrition when you lose the Kurt Holubas and that.”
Princeton’s defense is focusing on finding ways to get the ball into its offense’s hands as quickly as possible. Last year, the Tigers ranked 41st nationally in turnovers gained.
“It’s got to be a conscious effort,” Hylton said. “Coach [Jim] Salgado says it all the time, it’s got to be on your mind, it doesn’t just happen in the game. You have to work for it in practice and try to punch the ball out, take the ball when you can. It has to be on your mind at all times.”
Princeton feels confident its offense will be tough to stop. Led by Kanoff and Lovett, who split time at quarterback last year, the Tigers offense returns its experience at the skill positions while the offensive line is building depth around returning All-Ivy tackle Mitchell Sweigart ’18.
“We know we have some phenomenal backs and if we get them a little bit of space, they can make some really great things happen.”
— Tackle Mitchell Sweigart ’18
“We had a lot of seniors graduate last year that were an integral part of the O-line, but we had a lot of guys step up and we’re getting better every day,” Sweigart said. “We have a lot of seniors and juniors that are ready to take on the roles that the seniors that graduated last year had. I think we’re playing well.”
Sweigart has started every game since he arrived. Princeton moved another tackle, Mason Darrow ’17, inside to center, and Erik Ramirez ’18 returns with experience to play a guard spot. The other spots on the offensive line will go to less experienced players. The offensive line’s development holds the key to an offense that otherwise is sound.
“We love that challenge,” Sweigart said. “There’s nothing given in life so we take that approach every day. We want to get better every day. We’re confident and other people might think we’re not going to be very good because we have a lot of new guys but we don’t see ourselves like that. Everyone practices the same whether they’re a starter or a back-up. We feel like we’re ready.”
On the end of the line, Scott Carpenter ’17 returns at tight end after an All-Ivy season, and the Tigers have a bevy of options to throw to at receiver.
“We saw Isaiah Barnes ’17 emerge last year,” Surace said. “The last half of last year, if you double that, he’s an All-League player. That’s the way he played and he’s only built on that. Trevor Osborne ’17, he may be the best blocking receiver since I’ve been here and Connor Kelley ’14 was one heck of a blocking wide receiver. And he’s been making big plays. [James] Frusciante ’17 is very reliable. Then we have a group of guys right behind,” a group that includes Alex Parkinson ’19, Jesper Horsted ’19, Stephen Carlson ’19, and Reinaldo Maristany ’18.
The running back spot also is deep with its leading rusher, Rhattigan, back along with the emergence of Ivy track sprint champion Charlie Volker ’19 and AJ Glass ’17.
“We know we have some phenomenal backs and if we get them a little bit of space, they can make some really great things happen,” Sweigart said. “We’re really excited and we think some really great things can happen this year in the run game.”
Driving the offense will be Kanoff and Lovett. Kanoff is a more traditional throwing quarterback, while the do-everything Lovett returns after scoring nine rushing touchdowns, passing for three more, and catching 25 passes. Their experience has shown in sharper practices.
“They’re both starters,” Surace said. “They’re going to be on the field together, they’re going to be on the field separate. They’re football players. We’ll utilize them to their strengths in any given week.”
Nick Peabody ’18 gained a little experience last year, and the third quarterback could see some time as well. Three freshmen quarterback are waiting in the wings.
“We’re playing fast,” Surace said. “We’ve done some things to really speed ourselves up and get the tempo going on all three sides of the ball. I thought that part’s looked really good.”
Special teams, the final pieces to the puzzle, also are shaping up well, according to Surace. Princeton’s depth will help strengthen its special teams across all positions, and Tavish Rice ’20 is set to step in for placekicker Nolan Bieck ’16, who was a two-time All-Ivy first-team selection. All the pieces have come together for a Princeton team that is hungry to see its seniors bookend their careers with Ivy championships.
“I’m excited to see how we perform when the lights come on on the 17th,” Williams said. “I think we’re all looking forward to the season’s start.”