NEW YORK – Any Lions fans who have been keeping an eye on the preseason countdown know that it has dipped below 30 days, and that it is just 18 days until Columbia scrimmages Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., September 7.
The Lions reported on Sunday, August 19 and practice for the 2007 Columbia Football campaign got underway the following morning with a conditioning test.
Earlier this month, Columbia was picked sixth in the Ivy League's preseason media poll, but those who follow the Ivy League know that those predictions often bear little resemblance to the final standings. The team's 2007 outlook follows:
The Big Picture
With 57 letterwinners and 15 starters returning from the 2006 team that posted Columbia’s best record in a decade, the Lions have piqued the interest of plenty of preseason prognosticators. Add one of the Lions’ largest – and most skilled – incoming group of newcomers ever, and some more ears perk up. However, several of the team’s top players were lost to graduation including the Ivy League’s top tackler of the last three years, the league’s 2006 sack and tackle-for-a-loss leader, and additional first and second team All-Ivy League honorees. At the very least, Columbia will be a fascinating team to watch develop under second-year Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football Norries Wilson.
Coach Wilson: “On paper it looks like we’re experienced because you’ve got three returning starters, but we have two young guards in there and we moved Mike Brune from guard to tackle. We have to get them to play as a unit and it may take some time for them to understand what we’re trying to get done. I have some concern there. We have some depth, but the source of the depth is young players.”
The Lions lost first team All-Ivy League left tackle honoree and captain Matt Barsamian to graduation, as well as left guards Daniel Palmer and captain Uche Osadebe. The good news is that at center, Mike Partain has started for two years and Ralph DeBernardo is already a seasoned veteran as a junior with a season-and-a-half as a starter at right tackle. Mike Brune moves to left tackle from right guard, where he was a starter in 2006. The Lions will have two new starters at the guard spots; pre-season, they are projected to be junior Nathan Walcker and sophomore John Seiler. The Lions’ rushing increased from 1.8 yards per carry in 2005 to 2.6 yards last season with the same running backs, but the line’s run-blocking will have to continue to improve.
Coach Wilson: “Last year, I said they could be the strength of the team and I still think that this year. We could get Jamal and Troy in there and be both a run and a pass threat. If they come in healthy and ready to go, I think those two guys could be the best two tight ends in the league.”
Troy Evangelist and Jamal Russell are skilled enough that opponents may see some two-tight end formations this fall. Evangelist possesses very good hands and the size of Lion great Wade Fletcher ’05CC. Russell features a receiver’s catching ability and has improved his size. Russell has made some of the team’s most acrobatic catches of the last three years.
Coach Wilson: “We could be good at receiver. We have at least five guys to put out there who could stretch the field and catch some balls. We have got to get them to be blockers in the run game, but I think we have a good receiving corps.”
The Lions graduated starters Nick DeGasperis and Adrian Demko, but return the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year from last season in Austin Knowlin. The team has another skilled sophomore in Taylor Joseph, and experience in senior TIm Paulin. Sophomore Josh A. Williams was off to a good start in 2006 before being hampered by injury. Sophomores could even further dominate this position as Derek Jancisin and Jason Pyles are expected to contribute.
Coach Wilson: “Should we get Craig back fully healthy, I’ll be very happy with where we are at quarterback. We have to get M.A. Olawale comfortable with throwing the ball and get him to understand he doesn’t need to win a game on his own. He has got a lot of ability. With Shane Kelly coming in, he throws the ball well and has decent quickness. With Cory Clare and Paul Havas coming in, there will be some competition for who is the backup and who is the number three.”
Senior quarterback Craig Hormann has two years of experience as a starter and a second team All-Ivy League honor under his belt. He also had an injury from which he has been rehabilitating since the winter. He has size (6-4, 234) and a powerful arm, and is poised to move deep into the Columbia all-time top-10 career lists in several categories. Sophomore M.A. Olawale is a mobile quarterback who saw time in four games as a first-year and will continue to improve with experience. Junior Shane Kelly, a transfer from Temple, is quicker than Hormann, but will have to prove his arm and poise can match the Lions’ senior captain.
Coach Wilson: “At tailback, I think Jordan Davis is going to have some healthy competition with Ray Rangel. And we have Leon Ivery coming in. Jordan is a not a big breakaway threat but more of a move-the-chains guy. Ray is not an iso-power back, he’s more of a toss sweep or outside zone guy. At fullback, it is a question mark right now. We could not run a two-back last year because we were not getting what we wanted from that spot. We have four guys who have the ability to step up the be ‘the guy,’ but none of them have done it consistently.”
The Lions hope to jump-start their run game, and several ball carriers could contribute. At tailback, junior Jordan Davis already has two years as a starter under his belt. Sophomore Ray Rangel had a strong spring and has proven he can be a threat as a receiver as well. First-year Leon Ivery averaged better than a first down per carry (10.2 yards) as a senior at Menlo School. At fullback, seniors Thomas Weldon and Austin Stevenson will compete with sophomore Pete Stoll, who earned the starting position in the latter half of the 2006 season. Coach Wilson is also pleased with the team-oriented play of Gary Mesko.
Coach Wilson: “This might be our deepest position on defense right now. We have to fill a void at nose tackle, but I think we are good on the outside with Phil Mitchell, Matt Bashaw and Conor Joyce. On the inside, we need someone to get behind Loughrey or beat him out.”
The Lions lose two of their starters to graduation – honorable mention All-Ivy Leaguer Darren Schmidt and nose tackle Todd Abrams – but return defensive end Phil Mitchell, who could prove one of the best in the league at that spot in 2007. The right defensive end will be a battle between sophomore Matt Bashaw and junior Conor Joyce. The undersized but very quick Mack Loughrey may assume duties as starting nose tackle, but could be pressed by junior Eli Waltz.
Coach Wilson: “We have got three spots and at least five guys who will vie for them. Everyone wants to play, so there is going to be some competition. It will be a battle.“
Columbia will miss the leadership – and 82 tackles – of Adam Brekke, who graduated, but this could be one of the strongest spots on the team for the Lions. Junior captain Drew Quinn should be on the left side, while sophomores Justin Masorti and Lou Miller will compete for the right; both had excellent first years in 2006. Junior Corey Cameron will compete with senior Bayo Aregbe, who had 58 tackles as a starter in 2005, but was out last season. Coach Wilson is also pleased with the spring season play of sophomores Vaughn Hodges and Josh D. Williams.
Coach Wilson: “There is a question mark on one side and I think Andy Shalbrack has pretty much solidified himself on the other side. Clark Koury might be that guy, or one of the defensive backs, like Grant Jefferson, might show that he is that guy.”
The team’s spurs, who function like strong safeties as much as outside linebackers, are led by sophomore Andy Shalbrack, who was one of several Lions with a legitimate claim for the rookie of the year in the conference in 2006. He had five interceptions on the left side, and should be backed by sophomore Kirk Weller or junior Tyler Duffy. Clark Koury is a leading candidate for the right side. Sophomore David Brekke, who moves from quarterback, could crack the two-deep on the right side.
Coach Wilson: “JoJo Smith and Eugene Edwards have done a good job at corner. There will be competition for the backup spots. At free safety, there will be a battle between Brandon Buckley and Drew Abeyta. Grant Jefferson played safety some this spring. I wouldn’t have a problem with any of the three being back there.”
At the corners, the team has two very steady players in seniors Eugene Edwards and captain JoJo Smith. Sophomores Ed Thomas and Grant Jefferson are likely backups; Jefferson is a versatile performer who may also contend at free safety, which is vacant after the graduation of first team All-Ivy League honoree Tad Crawford. Senior Brandon Buckley and sophomore Drew Abeyta are the favorites for the starter spot.
Coach Wilson: “A few of the incoming players may push Jon Rocholl for the kicking jobs and Mike Siebold had a good spring. Austin Knowlin and Tyler Duffy practiced receiving punts all year last year, so we think we have them ready to do that job for us. On kickoff returns, Tim Paulin may be back there for us. We are going to put someone there who can secure the ball for us so we don’t have any situations like last year.”
Jon Rocholl has twice earned honorable mention All-Ivy League as a punter, and has tied the school record for field goals made just midway through his college career. Mike Siebold ably backs up Rocholl, and has improved as a punter in addition to having an accurate leg for field goals. First-years Mike Antonakakis and Joe Stormont may allow the luxury of a punt specialist and placekicking specialist for the team. The team has two experienced snappers in seniors Josh Webster and Thomas Weldon.
Coach Wilson: “I think the coaching staff did a great job identifying students that were strong enough to succeed at Columbia and help us build a program. I do not think that the class is particularly strong at any one position. We attempted to address what we thought were needs in the program.”
Columbia welcomes the largest group of newcomers in recent history. Thirty-nine newcomers join the squad, including 31 recruits and eight walk-ons. Thirty-eight are first years and one is a junior transfer. They bring the Lions’ roster total to 100.