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By David Porter | Ten months ago, the Penn football team underwent a crash course in grief management, played out in public every Saturday afternoon before thousands of spectators. Coach Al Bagnoli is well aware that the 5-5 season will be remembered more for the tragic death of running back Kyle Ambrogi on October 10th [“Sports,” Nov/Dec 2005] than for what the Quakers did on the field; but the latter is what football coaches can control. Bagnoli has been one of the Ivy League’s best during his years at Penn, which made it especially jarring to see some of that control slip away as the season wound down. This year one of his primary challenges is to repair his team’s bruised spirit so that the rest falls into place. So far, the transformation seems to be taking hold.

“It looks like we’ve regained the focus and regained the excitement about football,” Bagnoli said recently. “We lost some of that last season. There’s a passion and a love and a work ethic that got muted a little bit with that tragedy. It seemed like it was back in spring practice, but it remains to be seen whether we can carry it over into the regular season. So far, though, I’ve been pleased with that aspect.”

Penn’s strengths in recent years have been its interior defense, its kicking game, and its quarterbacking. The first two areas again figure to be up to par this season, but Bagnoli doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that the quarterback position is in a state of flux. Junior Bryan Walker is the more experienced of the two players vying for the starting nod, having been an emergency starter near the end of the 2004 season and then appearing in six games last fall. But there is a sense that sophomore Robert Irvin may be the one who eventually draws comparisons to past Quaker greats Mike Mitchell W’03, Gavin Hoffman W’01, and Mark DeRosa W’97. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 215 pounds, and with a strong arm, the Davidson, North Carolina, resident has the physical tools to make an immediate impact.

“We’re optimistic that if he really gets comfortable, we have the ability to work with him in the scheme of the offense, and we have a chance to have a pretty productive quarterback,” Bagnoli said. “From a standpoint of our offense being quarterback-driven, that’s going to be important. We feel cautiously optimistic that a quarterback can step up and make some plays, play at a level he’s capable of playing. It doesn’t have to be at a Mike Mitchell level. But we have a shot to be able to be good.”

Whoever takes the snaps will be able to hand the ball off to senior Joe Sandberg, last year’s leading ground-gainer (886 all-purpose yards) who was a second-team All-Ivy selection. The receiving corps is led by senior Matt Carre, who tied for the team lead in catches with 29 and scored a team-high six touchdowns. According to Bagnoli, at least one of five freshman wide receivers from a class he called “as good a group as we’ve ever had here” could step into a starting position. Tight end is a deep and talented position led by honorable mention All-Ivy selection senior Chris Mizell (17 catches, three touchdowns last season), and that gives Bagnoli the freedom to employ two-tight end sets or even line up a tight end in the backfield.

Kicker Derek Zoch returns for his junior year, giving the Quakers their three leading scorers from last season (Carre and Sandberg are the others) and four of the top six.

Even taking into account some of the explosive offenses Bagnoli has put together in years past, defense has been the Quakers’ mainstay year in and year out. Though the 2006 team will miss first-team All-Ivy linebacker Ric San Doval W’06, its undisputed leader, it is nevertheless stocked with talent. Linemen Jim Malizia (senior) and Naheem Harris (junior) and linebacker Kory Gedin (senior) combined for 12 1/2 sacks last season, with Malizia leading the Ivy League with six. All three received All-Ivy mention. The hope is that the front seven will be able to control the line of scrimmage and take some of the pressure off a fairly young group in the secondary that is led by senior Scotty Williams, an all-Ivy honorable mention, at safety. Williams and fellow senior Sean Estrada, offensive lineman, will serve as co-captains, after both receiving “overwhelming” support from their teammates, according to Bagnoli.

One player may provide inspiration for the Quakers just by his presence. Junior Greg Ambrogi, Kyle’s brother, is projected to get plenty of playing time in the secondary and also return punts and kicks, an area where he excelled last season.

“He’s doing as well as can be expected,” Bagnoli said. “Obviously it’s the most difficult situation a parent or brother could imagine. They have a close family. He had a good spring, and he’s projected to be a starter. He’s a very talented kid, and obviously we’re all pulling for him.”

Don’t expect Penn’s opponents to pull for the Quakers this season, particularly in an Ivy League that has become increasingly competitive in the last few years. Last season five Ivy teams finished with records above .500. Bagnoli knows as well as anyone that even if his team’s psyche remains intact, it will still take a Herculean effort to bring the program back up to its accustomed position of prominence in the league. For now, it is one play, one practice, one week at a time.

“We can’t get out of talking about the 2005 season without mentioning such a dramatic event,” he said. “Nobody can answer the question of what effect it had, but you don’t go from being 5-1 to not being able to get out of your own way, overnight. Right now we’re just trying to put it behind us, pay our respects and move forward. It looks like we’re headed in that direction.”

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

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