Improved Defensive Backfield Will Be Key Component Of Football Success
This is part three of a seven-part preview series on the 2012 Princeton football season. Thanks to Andrew Pearson for the video clips, as well as Dan Loney (the voice of Princeton football) and Jay Greenberg (PrincetonFootballTigers.com) for their insights.
Sophomore Khamal Brown is coming off a full season of experience and has looked terrific early in fall camp. Classmates Mike Zeuli and Jimmy von Thron look ready to star at the safety spots, though senior Mandela Sheaffer is preparing for a breakout season.
And there is a cast of potential starters at the second cornerback position, including a sprint-standout freshman and a pair of improved returners.
How does it all add up? Only time will tell, but after struggling mightily in 2011, there should be greater stability in the defensive backfield this season.
Brown may only be a sophomore, but he is one of the most experienced players in the group, and he expects to have an even greater presence this season. He was thrown into the fire last season and did reasonably well, especially against the run. His 51 tackles was the most by any underclassman, and his 34 solo stops was the second-most on the team.
Where Brown hopes to be stronger is in the pass game, where he recorded only one pass breakup and no interceptions last season. The Ivy League figures to be pass-happy once again, and Brown will be facing the top receivers on a weekly basis; he'll get a great test in Week 1 against Lehigh All-America Ryan Spadola.
The opposite corner position, along with middle linebacker, may be the biggest defensive starting spot up for grabs. Junior Trocon Davis saw limited time last season and made eight tackles, but he has been in the starting mix throughout preseason. Sophomore Jakobi Johnson has also impressed, as has freshman Jonathan Hill. A projected top Ivy League sprinter, Hill came in as a running back, but the coaching staff quickly switched him across the ball when they saw his skills at the position.
Sheaffer has been a two-year starter at strong safety, and he has been a consistent player on the field. Head coach Bob Surace and positional coach Jim Salgado have preached the need for big plays from Sheaffer, and he will need to take more chances on the field this season. Sheaffer has been a strong force in the run game and finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles last season.
Both von Thron and Zeuli have looked good in the preseason. von Thron could win the starting spot at free safety after gaining experience towards the end of the 2011 season, especially in the finale at Dartmouth. Zeuli suffered an injury towards the end of last season, but he had already shown what a physical force he could be on the field. Zeuli could be the kind of punishing hitter that makes receivers think twice before going over the middle.
Freshman Matt Arends has also made an early impression in camp, and he could find some time in the rotation.