Training Camp Begins:
August 21st Season Opener at Home versus Fordham:
September 16th, 12:30pmOverview
It's another season of change in Upper Manhattan as the Lions bring in new coach Norries Wilson
. Any change sounds good after a disastrous 2-8 2005 campaign that saw Columbia go 0-7 in the Ivy League, suffering 6 blowout losses in the process. In many ways, this was the worst season since the infamous 44-game losing streak of 1983-88, as Columbia lost a number of Ivy contests by wider margins than any defeat during The Streak.
And there was off the field turmoil as well. A mini players' revolt brought the Lion roster down to 76 bodies by opening night, and now ex-head coach Bob Shoop suffered an embarrassing domestic incident on the practice field during the season. Shoop probably should have been fired in the middle of the season, but at least he is gone now after showing so much promise in his first season and then crashing down to Earth in 2004 and 2005.
The Columbia roster is still a stark example of inexperience. But it's an improvement over last season, when the entire offensive line featured just ONE player with game experience. There's no doubt this will be another rough year on the field for the Lions, but there should be some chances for an aggressive squad to win more games and play competitively in their losses. Most importantly, it could be a season for the large number of underclassmen to improve and gain more experience on the way to becoming a veteran unit in the years to come.OFFENSE
The funny thing about the 2005 Lions is their offense wasn't entirely awful. Despite one of the worst running attacks of all time, Columbia was never shut out and the team showed some ability to move the ball early in a number of games. This is certainly not a strong unit, but they have some passing weapons and are starting this season from a place a little bit better than scratch.OFFENSIVE LINE
(Not including Tight Ends)
Coach Wilson was the architect of a potent offensive unit at UConn and one would think that will be his focus at Columbia. Wilson was a star offensive lineman for the University of Minnesota and that is clearly the unit where the Lions need the most help. None of this seems lost on Wilson, who has already shifted some players around to shore up the line and he's also talking the talk regarding how important the O-line is for everything else to work. It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that if there isn't real improvement on the offensive line, Coach Wilson may not be as effective a leader as Columbia needs him to be.
Senior Matt Barsamian
did yeoman work last season as the only front five player with any game experience coming into 2005. His teammates have rewarded him by electing him as one of the tri-captains on this year's squad, (is it just me, or does anyone else think of the bonfire scene in "Revenge of the Nerds" every time they hear the term "tri-captains?").
A nice surprise last season was the development of then-sophomore Mike Partain
at center. Partain suffered some injury troubles in the second half, but he still played in all ten games. You gotta love the pre-med majors who play NCAA sports, and Partain is one of them.
A very interesting development for 2006 is senior tri-captain Uche Osadebe
moving from the defensive line to offensive guard for his senior season. Osadebe wasn't exactly a Marcellus Wiley or Michael Quarshie on the D-line, but he was an honorable mention All-Ivy and proved he was a good athlete. Coach Wilson must have had a hard time convincing Osadebe to make the switch to a no-glory position like offensive guard, but Wilson did call him "a natural" for the slot. Who knows? Perhaps the switch could help Osadebe make it to the NFL. Oh, and he's ANOTHER pre-med major! How many schools can say they have not one but TWO pre-med starting offensive linemen? Daniel Palmer
, Caldor Orr
, and Ralph DeBernardo
round out the projected guys who will start or get a lot of playing time on the line. Palmer is described on the Columbia web site as the "strongest lineman on the team," whatever that means, (are we talking bench pressing, pure skill, or the ability to pancake an opposing player?), but he looks like he has good size and he got more playing time as last season wore on.
Orr and DeBernardo don't look like they have the size to really provide much protection for Lion QB's and running backs, but you never know. DeBernardo, at 258 lbs., got two starts last year as a freshman. Perhaps he bulked up over the spring and summer. (*UPDATE: DeBernardo is now up to 277 as of 8/23). Summary:
Overall, this unit looks 100% more promising than it did a year ago... on paper. The stats don't lie, Columbia gave up 33 sacks last season and ran for 464 yards... AS A TEAM. There is a long way to go here for sure. But at least the lack of game experience isn't as much of a huge factor as it was in 2005. Osadebe's development and the continued improvement of guys like Partain and Palmer are reasons for optimism. Columbia would certainly be happy to see some semblance of ball control this year.QUARTERBACKS
There seemed to be reason for excitment when Shoop named Craig Hormann
the starting quarterback for the team just a few days before the 2005 season opener at Fordham. Many Lions fans liked the idea of a sophomore with some raw talent getting a chance to learn with a young team. Then Shoop flip-flopped and decided to make Hormann share the starting job with the now-graduated Joe Winters. The move proved to be a distraction, but in the end Hormann got most of the snaps during the season. All in all, Hormann had a decent year considering the weak offensive line in front of him and the fact that he isn't a scrambling QB. His stats weren't too bad for a first-time sophomore starter. He completed 56% of his passes, threw for seven TD's and only had 8 interceptions despite playing in all ten games. He also threw for 5.69 yards per attempt, not terrible but not good either. (By the way, yards per attempt is the best way to judge the ability of a quarterback. Anything near or above 7 YPA is excellent). He has a strong arm and certainly looked like he was older than a sophomore most of the time. His 2005 "Year in Hell," should do him good this season as he faces new physical and emotional challenges.
So far, Coach Wilson hasn't named the starter. The only other candidate with a shot is sophomore Chris Allison
. The left-handed Allison is still an unknown quantity, but he was apparently impressive in the spring practice game and he was recruited by Rutgers, Louisville and Vanderbilt.
unknown quantity is freshman M.A. Olawale
. Olawale is a speedy athlete who got a lot of attention at the many high schools he attended in California. His many transfers as a high schooler could be a bad omen. BUT he's another pre-med, (or at this point, since classes haven't started, you have to call him a potential pre-med), so perhaps he was just misunderstood by his teammates and coaches. Olawale could become the Michael Vick of the Ivies, (minus the injuries, please!), but he could also end up playing another position, especially if he turns out to be a much better runner than a passer. At any rate, don't expect him to get too much playing time this year. Anything he contributes in 2006 would be a very nice surprise in Morningside Heights.
The other two QB's on the roster are also freshmen. Drew Brekke
is a notable name simply because he's the younger brother of senior tri-captain Adam Brekke
, but he doesn't appear like a blue-chipper at this point. Jason Pyles
is a completely unknown quantity right now... except that HE TOO is a prospective pre-med student. Summary:
Craig Hormann should probably be given the nod again, unless Allison blows everyone away in training camp. Wilson probably feels this way too, but perhaps he wants to encourage some competition in the pre-season practices. If Hormann continues to improve this season and gets a little more mobile, he could be in for a super senior season in 2007 as the most experienced QB in the Ivies. Obviously, a close eye needs to be kept on Allison and Olawale, especially if one or both of them turns out to be extremely talented. If that's the case, they'll need to be given playing time not only to make Columbia as competitive as possible, but also to keep them happy and free from any transfer thoughts.RUNNING BACKS
The Lions had a mostly non-existent running attack last season. The team rushed the ball just 253 times all season, netting a minuscule 464 yards, for an astoundingly awful 1.8 yards per carry. Oh, and they had one, that's ONE, rushing touchdown all season. This year's corps of ball carriers doesn't look extremely promising either. Of course with last year's offensive line, it would have been hard for Earl Campbell and Emmitt Smith to gain more than two yards a carry, so there's hope that with improvement up front at least one of the backs will emerge as competent.
Sophomore Jordan E. Davis
seems to have the inside track for the starting tailback position. Davis showed some flash in a few games last season in different roles. But the best play he made all year was a 35-yard kickoff return in the Duquesne game, (week 2). He also had the Lions lone rushing TD; a one-yard plunge against Lafayette in a rain-soaked game in week 4. He certainly got a lot of experience for a freshman. And the fact that he's back and ready to go after what must have been a rude awakening for a kid from North Carolina is promising. If he does win the starting job, it would be interesting to see what he can do with 15 carries a game or more.
Senior James Cobb
actually "led" the team in rushing last season, if you can call it that, with 281 yards on 76 carries. His biggest contribution was a 127 yard game against Yale, highlighted by a 50 yard gain in the third quarter. The problem on that run was he was CAUGHT FROM BEHIND and didn't score a TD. Still, he fought hard for yardage on every carry. He's another player who could be dangerous with a little better blocking in front of him.
The rest of the tailback candidates are freshmen Ray Rangel
from Anaheim, CA and Grant Jefferson
from Houston. Rangel seems like an excellent athlete, with good size and he should be able to take some hits as he is a former youth hockey star. But it would be a surprise if either he or Jefferson get into too many games this year.
The buzz out of the Columbia football offices this year is the team running game will feature mostly fullbacks this season. But it's not clear who's going to get the starting nod. Junior Thomas Weldon
is listed atop the depth chart at FB, but he was a tight end last year and he didn't have even one catch. Junior Austin Stevenson
, (a former walk-on), and sophomore Gary Mesko
are in the mix, but there's been a lot of talk about freshman Pete Stoll
from Lansdale, PA. Stoll's numbers and accolades from his years at North Penn high school are impressive. But you can't expect much from a frosh. Stoll is another prospective pre-med.SUMMARY:
The Lions trailed by huge margins in most of their games, and that took away from the running game... not that there was much left to take away. Columbia MUST get more out of its ground game this season. It's not clear if the real culprits in last year's pitiful showing were the offensive linemen or the runners themselves, but it was probably a lot of both. A little bit of improvement will go a long way in 2006. If the Lions get a fullback-oriented "run and shoot" kind of attack, they might have a little success here and there. Columbia's last great fullback was a guy named John Harper, who made a splash in 1995 and 1996 as a go-to guy. But a two-pronged running attack featuring a strong fullback and a fast tailback is always the better way to keep opposing defenses guessing and tired. In any case, don't expect Coach Wilson to run a conventional running attack with the horses Columbia has right now.RECEIVERS
(Including Tight Ends)
Young teams, from the high school level all the way up to the NFL, seem to rely on tight ends to get the ball down the field. And good receiving tight ends have been essential for successful Columbia teams. Wade Fletcher's 2003 season, and what he meant to the team that year, are hard to overestimate. Brian Bassett was similarly vital to the team in the early-to-mid 90's when Columbia enjoyed a resurgence. Not having a tight end go-to guy last season exacerbated problems for the Columbia offense that featured no running game or short-range passing attack. Fixing this problem will be essential for Columbia in 2006.
The man the Lions are asking to solve this problem is sophomore Troy Evangelist
. Evangelist was a highly-touted freshman last year, and he did get in a few games, including a start in the finale versus Brown. But he ended up with no catches for the season. Columbia's coaches say he really improved over the spring, and that's good because the Lions need him not only to be a good player but also a good leader this year. That's a lot to ask of a sophomore from Minnesota, but he's got as good a chance as anyone on this squad to step up.
Columbia is expected to go with a two-tight end set a lot of the time, and that means junior Jamal Russell
will probably see a lot of work. Russell had his moments last year finishing with 10 catches, including a nice grab to set up the only Columbia score in a 14-7 loss at Lafayette.
Columbia probably likes the idea of Evangelist and Russell providing a one-two punch at tight end and giving opposing teams fits trying to cover two tight ends on every play. In fact, that kind of a set up could be just what Columbia needs to shore up a thin running and passing attack. If these two guys can get it going, there could be a lot less pressure on the QB's, RB's and WR's all at once. Based on what we're hearing from the Columbia coaches, this is probably their big plan for 2006.
The wide receiver corps is filled with a lot of guys who have yet to really make an impact for the team. Last year's big target, Brandon Bowser, has graduated. Bowser was a great deep threat, who deserved to play on some better teams to prove what he could have done. That leaves senior Nick DeGasperis
as the de facto leading receiver for this season. DeGasperis is a scrappy player who has stopped doing double duty and no longer plays on the baseball team. But his numbers coming into the season aren't good enough to get excited about. He grabbed 24 balls for 271 yards and no touchdowns in 2005. His greatest ability this year might be as a short-range target 11 and 12 yards downfield, right in the spots where opposing defenders might be worrying about the tight ends.
Another returnee is senior Jim Besselman
. He's another possession type receiver, but he has real good size at 6-2 and he dropped his weight from 218 pounds to 210 pounds, which is also good. On a team with a speedy deep threat, Besselman could be a factor as the check-off guy down the middle. But Columbia doesn't have that kind of a weapon right now, so he ends up being one of too many guys with similar skills on this squad.
Add senior Adrian Demko
to that list. Demko was a pretty highly-touted prospect who came out of a dominant high school program in Indiana. So far he hasn't done much on the field, but he's something of a emotional team leader.
An X-factor in the receiving corps could be junior Tim Paulin
. Paulin has great speed. He only caught one pass last year, but if the Lions even try to develop a deep threat this season it could end up being Paulin.
Of course, the ultimate X-factor is the big number of freshmen wide receivers currently on the roster. There are a whopping seven newcomers this year and it's hard to believe any of them will be able to make an impact. But some of them should see some playing time on a unit that has no established star. SUMMARY:
The cupboard seems pretty bare for this unit right now. But the tight end situation is intriguing, as is the huge number of young bodies in the wide receiving corps. Hormann put up some decent numbers at QB with only one seasoned wide receiver last year, so he should be able to make something of this situation. One of this season's top goals must be for Hormann to find at least one medium or short range target to go to regularly.DEFENSE
This was the Jekyll and Hyde unit for Columbia last year... as long as you think of Dr. Jekyll as guy who took 5 days off per week. They were Dr. Jekyll against the pass, giving up just 1,833 yards in the air all season. But the run defense, a weakness for several years now, was worse than ever, and that made passing against Columbia less than an attractive option most of the time. The Lions gave up an average of 236 rushing yards per game and almost five yards per carry in 2005. And for the second year in a row, Tad Crawford
, a FREE SAFETY, led the team in tackles. It doesn't matter how good your free safety is, it's NEVER a good thing if someone in your secondary is your team's leading tackler. Nothing against Crawford, but Columbia needs to see a linebacker or a defensive tackle take the tackling title away from him this year.
Columbia can't come anywhere near repeating that performance and hope to compete for anything in 2006. And it appears bolstering the team against the run is the main reason behind Coach Wilson's decision to go with a 3-5-3 defensive alignment.
Using five linebackers who, theoretically, can react quickly to running or passing plays, could work. But how well will these very young players respond to the radical new system? If the Lions are lucky, they'll figure it out before opposing offenses. DEFENSIVE LINE
Senior Todd Abrams
is moving from linebacker to nose tackle this season and is being touted as the leader of the front three. Abrams had a pretty good year in 2005, starting in all 10 games, and getting two sacks. His mom is also the infamous "cowbell lady" who clangs that thing from the stands on almost every play, God bless her. Darren Schmidt
is expected to start on one side of Abrams at defensive end. Schmidt is Mr. Chameleon after playing in the secondary his sophomore year and he was a linebacker as a junior in '05. But he only got into three games last year and he too, will be under a lot of pressure. Sophomores Conor Joyce
, Corey Cameron
and senior Jeff Oke
will vie for that third spot in the front three. Coach Wilson seems to think highly of Joyce, but the big question is why Oke still hasn't progressed to the point where he's a shoo-in for the starting spot. Oke burst onto the scene with three sacks in the opener at Fordham, the last of which sealed the victory. But he only got one more sack all year despite playing mostly as a pass rushing specialist. Perhaps he was just too weak against the run, or maybe he got hurt, but it was disappointing to see him become a one-hit wonder as a junior.
The backups are led by sophomore Philip Mitchell
, who Coach Wilson seems to think very highly of, (and he's another pre-med). SUMMARY:
It would be hard for Columbia's defensive line to put in a worse year than they did in 2005, but there is a lot to worry about here. Abrams will certainly work hard, but there's no indication anyone in the Ivy League really fears him. Every team ran well against Columbia last season and Lion opponents will surely shove the ball down Columbia's throat until somebody stops them. The best case scenario is that Abrams stays tough and improves, Schmidt grows into his third new position in as many seasons, and Conor Joyce, Jeff Oke and Philip Mitchell make an impact. That seems like a lot to ask.LINEBACKERS
Senior tri-captain Adam Brekke will lead a unit that's being asked to carry the bulk of a big defensive load this year. Brekke has been impressive ever since he was forced to fill in for former Lion captain Chris Carey when Brekke was just a freshman in 2003. Brekke will be in the middle of a five linebacker set, with the interior three linebackers asked to play the position in the traditional way, while the two spur linebackers on the ends will be asked to drop into pass coverage more often.
Lost from this unit is Dan Daylamani and Drew Behrens, who have left the team. Daylamani made some great plays in 2005 and he will be missed. Sophomore Drew Quinn
appears to have the inside track to starting along with Brekke in that interior linebacker configuration, but the third man is still a mystery. Philip Mitchell had been considered a possible starter at linebacker, despite now being projected for the defensive line. He could still play a role in this group, however. Quinn made a bit of an impact last season but if Columbia is going to stop the run, he and the rest of these guys will all have to step it up.
Some help may come from highly-touted freshman Justin Masorti
from State College, PA. Masorti's dad played for Penn State's 1982 national championship team and he was MVP of his high school football and wrestling squads. If he can learn this system quickly, he might be a star.
The spur linebackers will be led by former walk-on Justin Nunez
. Justin is Columbia born and bred, with a long family connection to the school and the Morningside Heights neighborhood. His development as a real impact starter has been one of the few bright spots for the Lions over the last two years. Ben Schori
, who played his high school ball a stone's throw from Baker Field at Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx and Clark Koury
will battle for that other outside linebacker spot. SUMMARY:
These are the guys who will need to make it happen for CU in '06. The five starters will need to be fast, flexible and hit hard enough to make opponents think twice. The 3-5-3 is an experiment that these linebackers will either make look like a stroke of genius or a disaster pretty quickly.SECONDARY
For the last two seasons, this has been the strongest unit on the team. But standouts Prosper Nwokocha and Keenan Shaw have graduated and with all the weakness Columbia has shown against the run, you could argue that the players who remain in the secondary haven't really been tested.
Either way, free safety Tad Crawford
will be the leader against the pass. Tad has been a regular since his freshman year, the team's leading tackler since he was a sophomore, and he really deserves some glory in his senior year.
Another bright spot is junior cornerback Chad Musgrove
who made a nice impact as a sophomore last season despite the fact that he had a good excuse to be distracted. His entire town of Pass Christian, MS was basically destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Coach Wilson seems to be very high on Musgrove and he could be asked to play a bit on offense as well.Eugene Edwards
seems to have the inside track to starting at the other corner spot. He got into a few games last year and returned some kicks as well.
Junior JoJo Smith
is just 5"7 and 156 lbs. and he moves from tailback to cornerback. His size probably means he'll spend more time on special teams as a kick returner than in the secondary, but he has blistering speed. SUMMARY:
The 3-5-3 alignment will put this unit under the gun most of the time, so expect some heavy substitutions. That's troubling for Columbia, because other than Crawford, Edwards, Smith and backup Procter Hug
, everyone else in the defensive backfield is a freshman. Look for opposing teams to test the secondary early. If the starters play solidly and the spur linebackers help out like they should, things could work out pretty nicely. If not, Columbia could end up getting bombed more than a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in south Lebanon. SPECIAL TEAMS
Saving the best for last, this is the unit that Columbia has the most to be proud of. Sophomore Jon Rocholl
was a shoo-in for team MVP as a freshman last year after booting 11 of 15 field goal chances, tying a team record with seven in a row, and nailing two 47-yarders along the way. Almost all his field goals were long-range jobs, (he was 5-7 from 40-49 yards out), and he got better as the year went on. Oh, and was also a dynamite punter with two boots over 70 yards and an average of 36.7 per punt that doesn't really tell the whole story about how good he was. Even if he improves just slightly over the next three years, Rocholl has a great chance to make the NFL. He might even get drafted.
Kick coverage was pretty good for the Lions last year. The only big gainers came from a flubbed onside kick versus Penn and a punt return for a TD against Brown. Both of those returns made little difference in games that turned out to be routs.
The big question for 2006 is who will get the kick returning job? Nwokocha started out last year strong with a kickoff return for a TD versus Fordham that ended up being the difference in the game. But after that, most teams kicked away from him and the Lions didn't really have a major runback after that. The sure-handed Tad Crawford handled the punt returns, but he was there just to "not fumble." It's really not clear who will get the nod this time around, but this is a position Columbia can't overlook. With severe deficiencies on both sides of the line of scrimmage, a strong return game could help keep Columbia in a lot of games. It seems like the competition for the kick return jobs will be one of the more heated contests in training camp. Won-Lost Record Prediction
Columbia has about as favorable a schedule that it can hope for. Each of the first four games is at home, and three of them are among the most winnable of the year. But there's only so much lipstick you put on the pig, and the last six games look likely to end up as a 1-5 prospect for the Lions.
Those first four games are against Fordham, Georgetown, Princeton, and Iona. If Columbia doesn't beat everyone but Princeton in that opening month, this will probably not be a successful year for this team. Fordham is weaker than usual this year, and Georgetown is not strong. Iona is basically a Division III team.
Princeton absolutely creamed Columbia in Princeton last year, and while the Tigers don't look like they'll be as strong this season, it's not likely they'll fall far enough for the Lions to catch them.
Such is the case in the rest of the league games except for Dartmouth in week 6. The Big Green squeaked by Columbia last season in Hanover, and now they're forced to start a totally new QB this season. This is another must-win for Columbia.
Simply put, Columbia needs to win its three non-league games, beat Dartmouth and then record just one more win for this to be called a successful year. That would leave CU at 5-5 and 2-5 in the Ivy League. If the Lions finish this season with that record, everyone should be impressed.