Returning veterans promise improvement in Penn’s prospects.
By Noel Hynd
Are you ready for some football?
I know I am. I should have one key on this word processor which, when
hit, prints out the phrase, “and the Ivy race should come down to the
final Saturday.” Once again, it should. And once again, pre-season wisdom
would indicate that Penn should be right in the equation for the championship,
with several key participants returning from last year’s squad.
The quarterback position was strong for the Quakers in 1999 as Northwestern transfer Gavin Hoffman ripped through the Quaker record books, setting single-season records for passing with 2,322 yards, completions (200) and attempts (336). Strangely enough, many observers thought Hoffman, now a junior, got off to a slow start early in the season, though this was primarily due to inexperienced receivers. This year, the receivers are experienced.
The tailback position was thought to be one of the hardest positions to fill on the team in 1999, but junior Kris Ryan dominated the Ivy League in rushing, finishing the year with 1,197 yards and becoming just the sixth back in Penn history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. This year, the combination of Ryan and senior Mike Verille—a Duke transfer who rushed for 179 yards on 46 carries and was a strong third-down back in 1999—should give Penn a solid and versatile backfield. At fullback, junior Adam Keslosky and sophomore Todd Okolovitch are the primary candidates for the starting position.
Penn lost two solid players to graduation at the tight-end position. However, senior Ben Zagorski had 26 catches for 243 yards last year, while sophomore Matt Michaleski possesses strong blocking abilities.
The receiving corps may be the most talented and deepest part of the Penn 2000 squad. Junior Rob Milanese broke into the lineup last season and caught 41 passes for 702 yards, the sixth-best single-season yardage total in Quaker history. Senior Doug O’Neill returns after missing the 1999 season with a knee injury. In 1998, he caught 42 passes for 506 yards and three TDs. Junior Colin Smith had a strong season last year, and other wideouts who emerged in 1999 were senior John Holahan and junior Erik Bolinder.
With the graduation of three starters, the offensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. However, junior Sam Gottesman returns after starting all 10 games at left guard and junior John Zepeda, who played a great deal last year, looks to have the left tackle spot sewn up.
The defense also lost several stalwarts to graduation, particularly up the middle, but brothers Ed and John Galan lead a talented group of upperclassmen at the defensive tackle positions. Ed, a senior, finished 1999 with 22 tackles (four for losses of 22 yards), while John, a junior, recorded 13 tackles and four sacks.
The defensive end positions have plenty of experience and will be bolstered by the return of several talented players from an injury-filled 1999 season. A knee injury forced senior Brian Person to the sidelines last year. A three-year starter, he is very athletic and should easily top his 1998 numbers, if healthy. Fellow senior Kevin Martin, who missed the entire 1999 season after injuring his ankle during the preseason, is a very physical player with a penchant for big plays.
The Quakers are deep and experienced at the linebacker positions, despite the graduation of unanimous first-team All-Ivy pick and emotional leader Jim Hisgen W’00. While Hisgen drew most of the raves, senior Dan Morris was not far behind, finishing second on the team with 59 tackles and recording one tackle for a loss and one pass deflection. Possibly the best freshman on the team last year was linebacker Travis Belden, the team’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
In the secondary, senior Joey Alofaituli will once again anchor one corner position. Sophomore Fred Plaza established himself as a solid nickel back and special teams player on the other side, recording 27 tackles, four pass breakups and one interception in 1999.
At strong-safety, junior Kunle Williams looks like the heir apparent to the graduated Eric Bunn EAS’00. In 1999, Williams tied for the team lead with four interceptions for 153 return yards and had a record-breaking performance against Princeton, when he returned two picks for scores. Senior Hasani White, third on the team with 53 tackles, returns to start at free safety.
The kicking game should again be a productive unit as senior Jason Feinberg returns after a strong season in which he converted 15-of-21 field goals and 26-of-28 extra points to earn second-team All-Ivy honors. He also ranked third nationally (Division I-AA) with 1.5 field goals per game.
With the majority of their skill players returning on offense and a strong mix of talent and experience on defense, the Quakers will be looking to improve from their 5-5 showing in 1999. Cornell, which was 5-2 in the league last year, would seem to be the pre-season favorite to win the championship, with Penn widely predicted as the runner-up. Penn’s final game of the year, however, is at Cornell on November 18. Think tundra and dress warmly. One way or another that game should have a bearing on the championship.
And a final note. This year, unlike any previous Ivy season, there are only seven teams eligible for the Ivy crown. Over the summer, an investigation by the Ivy League’s governing body concluded that a Brown University booster club arranged financial aid for two football players and promised it to eight recruits. As a penalty, while Brown will play games and be included in the league standings, the school is ineligible to win the league title. Should Brown—co-champion with Yale last year—finish with the best record in the league, the second-place team will be awarded the title.
Noel Hynd C’70 writes on sports for the Gazette.