Football Set to Begin Practice for 2008 Season
Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics/Gene Boyars

NEW YORK – With the start of the 2008 season exactly one month away (Sept. 20 at home vs. Fordham), the Columbia football team will begin practice tomorrow, Thursday, August 21.

The preseason Ivy League media poll placed the Lions eighth but those who traditionally follow Ivy League football know that preseason rankings often are rearranged at season's end. The team's 2008 outlook follows:

The Big Picture

With a difficult 2007 season long behind them, the Lions look to 2008 with steady optimism. Columbia boasts a mix of young talent on both sides of the ball, including experienced players who saw significant time as first-years or sophomores. The Lions are loaded with depth at positions such as running back, wide receiver and the secondary but are lacking an experienced veteran at quarterback. Columbia should continue to grow in 2008 under third-year head coach Norries Wilson, the Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football, and how quickly that growth occurs could be the key to a successful season.

Offensive Line

Columbia returns three starters from a year ago but lost Mike Partain at center. The bookends, seniors Mike Brune (left tackle) and Ralph DeBernardo (right tackle), are back with plenty of experience; both will be entering their third years as starters. Junior John Seiler returns for his second season as the starter at left guard while classmate Evan Sanford is the projected starter at center, replacing Partain. The right guard spot is also up for grabs with junior Brandon Veldman and a host of underclassmen likely in the mix.

Coach Wilson: "Among our returners, Ralph DeBernardo had a good spring. As with any player, he still has some learning to do, but I look for him to have a good year and be someone we can rely on. Mike Brune has some things to work out technically, but he has the physical tools to be a good player in this league. Evan Sanford has lots of drive and had a decent spring, not a great spring, but a decent spring. He has a lot of “want to” and he works hard. We also have some big, physical players newcomers joining us who have ability and potential."

Tight Ends

Sophomore Andrew Kennedy had an impressive first season in a Columbia uniform. Kennedy played in all 10 games and made nine catches for 72 yards. The Lions lost Jamal Russell to graduation, but the depth is there with sophomore Clif Pope and first-year Rafael Lopez expected to compete for time, along with senior Cody Steele.

Coach Wilson: "Andrew Kennedy is the best of the group. He is strong and physical but can move well down the field. Clif Pope had a good spring, has good hands and can possess the ball. Cody Steele battles hard and should be able to help us on special teams. Rafael Lopez has ability; we need to get some weight on him."

Wide Receivers

Columbia returns a talented, youthful group with first team All-Ivy League selection Austin Knowlin alongside junior Taylor Joseph and sophomore Nico Gutierrez, Columbia’s top three leading receivers a season ago. The depth is there also with junior Josh A. Williams and sophomore Mike Stephens in the hunt for playing time.

Coach Wilson: "Austin Knowlin had a very good year last year and expects to continue progressing. Nico Gutierrez can be one of the better receivers in this league and Mike Stephens has a lot of ability. Taylor Joseph established himself as a quality starter last year and works his tail off. Guys like Tony Knox and Tyler Duffy can help us out and I think we have some incoming players with some ability."

Quarterbacks

Perhaps Columbia’s biggest question mark will be behind center after the graduation of three-year starter Craig Hormann. Junior Shane Kelly was the only other Lion to see time behind center in 2007, as he threw for 178 yards and a touchdown in the second half of the game at Cornell. Fellow junior M.A. Olawale also is in the hunt for the starting role. Olawale, a mobile quarterback who saw action in four games in 2006, threw for 101 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 82 yards in Columbia’s spring game.

Coach Wilson: "Shane Kelly did a lot of good things in the spring. He has been here all summer working his butt off. Olawale has to continue to increase his learning curve. He’s changing his body, he’s done a good job in the weight room and he’s been coming in and watching film on his own, trying to make himself a better player. Paul Havas had a decent year with the JV team last year. Jerry Bell is an incoming first-year who there has been a lot of talk about. He does a lot of good things on film and is a great kid from a great family. As with all first-years, we’ll have to wait to see when he gets here."

Running Back

Columbia returns a two-man attack in the backfield this fall with senior Jordan Davis and Ray Rangel expected to handle the bulk of the work. Davis averaged nearly five yards a carry last season while Rangel became a force as the season went on, running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield. Pete Stoll returns as the Lions’ primary fullback and is equally adept at carrying the ball and catching it out wide.

Coach Wilson:
"This is probably our deepest position with Rangel and Davis and a host of others. Zack Kourouma had a pretty good fall and Leon Ivery fights hard going from tackle to tackle. Gary Mesko and Nate Lenz will help us at fullback. We’re excited Nico Papas is coming here and he should be in this mix."

Linebackers

Solid talent returns for Columbia in 2008 with senior Drew Quinn and 2007 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Alex Gross. Senior Corey Cameron also should play a key role despite missing the spring. The Lions also expect solid contribution from Josh D. Williams. The Lions expect a solid sophomore season from Matt Moretto, who played in all 10 games as a first-year, and was sixth on the team in tackles. Senior Clark Koury, one of the team’s leaders, also is in the mix for playing time, as are junior Vaughn Hodges and sophomore Derek Lipscomb. The Lions have a number of incoming players at the position, including Evan Miller, Nick Mistretta and Will Claunch.

Coach Wilson:
"We’re looking for Drew Quinn to get fully healthy; he was hobbled a lot last year. Alex Gross always carries a good attitude and a workman-like mentality. We also have a number of guys who will help us on special teams, like Greg Fontela, Vaughn Hodges and Marc Holloway. Moretto just goes out there and plays and Clark Koury is a great team guy. Hodges and Lipscomb are both “glass half-full” guys who have the ability to contribute."

Defensive Backs

Although the Lions lost a pair of cornerbacks in former captain JoJo Smith and playmaker Eugene Edwards, there is a solid core returning in the secondary. Junior Andy Shalbrack has had a solid first two years, and has a nose for the football. Juniors Drew Abeyta and Kirk Weller will contend to be major contributors at safety, while sophomores Calvin Otis and Adam Mehrer gained significant experience at cornerback and free safety respectively, during impressive first seasons. Jared Morine also looks to build on his success last season. Other sophomores who have the potential to have an impact are Daniel Myers and Augie Williams. The Lions have a number of incoming players at the position that will fight for time and push to challenge the returners.

Coach Wilson:
"Andy Shalbrack is a steady player who we want to improve on his sophomore year. Calvin Otis might be the best player in the secondary right now and Dan Myers could fill a spot at safety; he’s a solid tackler. Augie Williams could be a good strong safety too. Even after coming off surgery, Adam Mehrer is in position to be a starter at free safety."

Defensive Line

Columbia is looking to shore up its defensive line with senior standout Phillip Mitchell as an anchor. An aggressive pass-rusher, Mitchell had five sacks before moving to the interior midway through last year. Senior Conor Joyce and junior Matt Bashaw also return for their second season as starters. The Lions look for Lou Miller and Javier Garza to have breakout seasons.

Coach Wilson: "Conor Joyce had a good spring and Brian England has the ability to help out along the line. We’d like Phil Mitchell to be more of a pass rusher but if he can help us more on the inside, he’ll play there. Mack Loughrey and Bruce Fleming have good ability and we have some players coming in who should be able to help us out."

Special Teams

The Lions return All-Ivy League punter Jon Rocholl, who averaged 41.5 yards per punt in 2007, just shy of Columbia’s single-season mark. Also Columbia’s field goal specialist, Rocholl holds the school record for career field goals. Senior Mike Siebold and sophomores Joe Stormont and Will Mazur may take the kickoff duties away from Rocholl. The team lost its pair of snappers to graduation in Josh Webster and Thomas Weldon.

Coach Wilson: "Chris Nugai is now the special teams coordinator and we hope to do better in the return game. We hope to have one of the kickers take the kicking duties away from Rocholl so he can concentrate on punting."

First-Years

Thirty-five newcomers will join Columbia Football when preseason camp begins in late August, Norries Wilson, The Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football, announced. Seventeen states are represented in the Lions’ Class of 2012, including four from New York. Three players each hail from Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio, and six states are home to two Lion newcomers. Seven of the class are defensive backs, six are defensive linemen, five are offensive linemen, four are linebackers, four are fullbacks or running backs, five are wide receivers, two are quarterbacks and two are tight ends.

Coach Wilson: "
I am very happy with the students that we have recruited to our program. Time will tell whether or not this is a good class or not. The coaching staff did a great job in targeting this class and the support staff of the athletic department was very helpful in securing the commitments of these students."