Princeton football coach Bob Surace ’90 took his son A.J. to the Farmview Fields batting cages in the summer of 2015, but midway through batting practice they got distracted.
“There’s some guys playing on the field,” Surace recalled. “There’s a guy cranking out home run after home run after home run — into the trees, into the soccer fields, like Tim Tebow at batting practice. I’m not really paying attention, but then A.J. says, ‘I think that’s John Lovett.’ He must have hit balls 400 feet to that soccer field.”
It had been more than four years since Lovett, one of Surace’s quarterbacks, had played organized baseball. The takeaway? He seems to do everything well.
On the football field, the Tigers have asked Lovett to show a little of everything, even things he never did at DeMatha Catholic before coming to Princeton.
“Whatever way you can get on the field and show your athletic ability in whatever role that may be,” Lovett said, “that’s what we’re all doing when we come to college.”
Football: Princeton vs. Harvard
1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, at Princeton Stadium
Surace has even seen Lovett practicing long-snaps at the end of a preseason practice but jokes that he would lose his job if he let the quarterback do that in games. It’s one of the only things Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry don’t ask of Lovett.
As Princeton heads into a showdown of Ivy League unbeatens with Harvard, Lovett is second on the Tigers behind Chad Kanoff ’17 with 220 passing yards and ahead of Kanoff in completion percentage and quarterback efficiency. They also shared time on the field last year.
“To be able to have experience from last season playing varsity games and to be here all summer working with the team, working hard and working together and getting a comfortability factor, that’s a real big factor into helping us have a successful season,” Lovett said.
Lovett is third on the team in rushing yards with 216, and equal to leading rusher Joe Rhattigan ’17 in yards per carry.
“In high school, I was entirely a thrower,” Lovett said. “I hardly ran at all. I always knew I had good athletic ability and I believed in myself that way. Whatever the coaches asked me to do I was willing to do.”
Lovett also is tied for fourth on the team in receptions with 11 for 106 yards, even after catching just one pass in the Tigers’ 31-7 win over Brown that pushed them to 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the Ivy League. (Harvard also is 4-1 overall and 2-0 in Ivy games.)
“Just like guys like Quinn [Epperly ’14], Roman [Wilson ’14] and Seth [DeValve ’16], who could do multiple things on the football field, the expectation was he could really be what he is, an outstanding player,” Surace said. “He could be one of the better ones to ever play at Princeton.”
Lovett has thrown four touchdowns, and his 10 rushing touchdowns lead the league and put him on pace to break the Princeton program mark of 19 set by Keith Elias ’94.
“I just came in here with an open mind and hungry mentality,” Lovett said. “Whenever my number is called, whatever position or responsibility I’m given, I’m going to do that 100 percent. Whether that’s running the ball or throwing the ball or catching, blocking, I’m going to go out there and do it as best I can for my team.”
Princeton liked Lovett for their system from the outset of the recruiting process. His size and athleticism reminded Surace of Epperly, the record-setting quarterback of Princeton’s 2013 Ivy champion team, and even some of his make-up was strangely similar. Epperly was a left-handed quarterback who kicked with his right foot. Lovett is a right-handed thrower, but he uses his left to eat, write, and kick.
Lovett was 205 pounds when he came to Princeton and ran 4.6 seconds for the 40-yard dash. He’s filled out to 225 pounds to become a punishing runner with a nose for the end zone while remaining a highly accurate passer.
“You knew there was this athleticism that is quite rare,” Surace said. “The thing about John is he’s a blue-collar, tough, tough-minded kid, and he just screams ‘winner.’ You felt there’s not much he can’t do once he gets involved and starts learning the offense.”
Lovett was on pace to get on the field as a freshman. He’d come in well versed in passing, shown a toughness as a runner, and Perry discovered his pass-catching ability too while working with players who weren’t on special teams. Lovett started playing a series or two for Princeton’s JV team, dominated in his short stints for them, and then joined varsity practices immediately after he was pulled out of the JV games.
“Not a lot of kids get an opportunity to play varsity as a freshman,” Lovett said. “To be able to get any type of competition against an opponent with your teammates felt great and to go out there and play football was something that was very valuable.”
Lovett would have had the chance to play that year when Epperly was injured, but Lovett suffered a stress fracture of his own in his foot and was lost for the season. He was healthy by the spring and by the next fall was sharing quarterback duties with Kanoff — and showing a bit of everything.
“It just allows us to be so creative,” Surace said. “It really makes us so hard to defend. You have to defend all 11 guys.
“It’s not like you’re just running a Wildcat. We can still run our passing game, we can still do anything from the dropback. It limits what teams can do in the middle of the field.”
Lovett earned first-team All-Ivy League honors last year despite missing most of the final month. The Tigers put him on the field as a decoy in the season finale against Dartmouth, but they missed him.
“It was really apparent last year in the last three games of the year when he wasn’t able to play, that it’s taking a guy off the field that’s we believe is an elite player,” Surace said.
Lovett has shaped up to be all that the Tigers anticipated. He is reading defenses better and making better decisions this year. He is on his way to eclipsing every one of his statistics from last year. And while Lovett is quietly confident in his abilities on the football field, he speaks humbly just of filling his role and helping the Tigers win.
“Whatever I’m doing,” Lovett said, “I love to compete.”
That goes for outside football as well, where he allows for a rare moment of bravado when he talks about the day he and his friends went to Farmview for that home run derby.
“I will say I took that victory,” Lovett said.