Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Reading the Tea Leaves

Rabid football fans are always starving for information during training camp. In recent years, Columbia fans have been reduced to visiting the CU website 3-4 times a day hoping for stories or even counting the names on the football roster to see who's still on the team.

This year, we were lucky to get a quick overview of what's going on in camp on the website just one week after it began, (see the story here: Training Camp News).

There's not a lot of great information here, but I think it's clear that Craig Hormann and Jordan Davis will be the starters at QB and tailback respectively. I liked the optimism being expressed about the offensive line, even though mere words may not mean anything here.

I'd like to see Hormann build on what he accomplished in 2005. He kept his stats respectable, and I was especially impressed with his low INT total. He needs to find a way to improve this season by setting and meeting some realistic goals. If I were Coach Wilson, I'd like to see Hormann throw for at least 2,000 yards and 12 TD's with 10 or fewer interceptions. But I think there's a chance he could do much better than that with a decent O-line and running game to back him up. Hormann's arm strength is good and he's one of just two experienced starters, (along with Brown's Joe DiGiacomo), in the Ivies this season. This will be the year we find out if Hormann will become more of a John Witkowski or a Jeff McCall. Witkowski was Columbia's best QB since Sid Luckman, as he took off with outstanding junior and senior seasons. Jeff McCall looked promising after he got considerable playing time as a sophomore, but he never developed into anything more than an average QB and he also never shook his disturbing tendency to throw interceptions that were returned for TD's

As for Davis, he needs to justify getting at least 15 carries a game and get close to at least four yards a carry. Basically, Davis can be proud if he walks away from this season with 600+ yards and at least five TD's.

Getting back to the article on the CU website, there was an acknowledgement that the Lions are looking pretty thin at linebacker with the defections of Daylamani and Behrens. This is either going to be a great opportunity for a few freshmen go-getters or the key to another season of Columbia giving up 200+ yards rushing per game on defense. Stopping the run, or at least beginning to cut down on the bleeding on the ground, is the key to the Lions defense this season.

There are a lot of names mentioned in the paragraph about wide receivers, but despite some nice words about Nick DeGasperis later on in the piece, he is not mentioned as a potential starter at inside or outside slot. That may mean he will be returning kicks or contributing some other way, but I'd love to see his obvious enthusiasm for the game get rewarded with some real catches and touchdowns in 2006.

Of course, the loss of players like Ben Bernstein and Drew Behrens, (they appear to have quit), since the start of camp is discouraging. The Columbia roster is down to 85 players, but at this time last pre-season we were down to 76. There's no way to know yet if the most recent losses are a hint of overall player dissatisfaction and dejection as they were last year, or just normal attrition. If Coach Wilson didn't already know what a tough job he has ahead of him, he's probably getting an idea know.

Until the Columbia Spectator returns from its summer break, we may not get much more information than this, so let's be grateful for what we have.

This Saturday, the Lions will take on the Harvard Crimson in a closed scrimmage at Wien Stadium. Perhaps some information about it will trickle out, but fans might spend the day better tracking the fortunes of Columbia's future opponents Fordham, Georgetown, and Iona, who will all be playing their regular season openers that day.

Just 18 days until kickoff!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

2006 Ivy League Football Predictions

Predicted Final Standings

1. Brown 8-2 (6-1)
2T. Penn 7-3 (5-2)
2T. Harvard 7-3 (5-2)
4T. Cornell 6-4 (4-3)
4T. Yale 4-6 (4-3)
6. Princeton 4-6 (3-4)
7. Columbia 3-7 (1-6)
8. Dartmouth 2-8 (0-7)


This Ivy League football season has to be one of the hardest to predict in several years. The dominant teams of the past decade, namely Harvard and Penn, took a step back last season and found themselves out of the top spots for the first time since 2000. They both will contend again this season, and the odds seem to favor another 1-2 finish for the Crimson and the Quakers, but there are so many questions about both squads, it's anything but a sure thing.

And there are a lot of questions about the future of the league in general. Attendance continues to fall and interest seems to be flagging in other areas as well. A project to get all or most of the football games available live Online may help boost popularity, but it could also further erode attendance. Many hard-core Ivy football fans live in fear of some kind of further downgrade for the league, one that they also fear the not-so-atheletics-friendly school administrations may quietly cheer.

On the field, the biggest question other than who will win the title has to be: Where are all the quarterbacks? There is really no Ivy starting QB with "All-Ivy" written all over him this season, which could mean any number of things from a low-scoring type of year to the start of a great opportunity for the incoming freshmen and other underclassmen signal-callers. Someone will probably emerge from the shadows and rack up big stats, possibly from one of the five teams who will be forced to go with brand new starting quarterbacks this fall.

The other big mystery is whether Harvard's Bushnell Cup favorite Clifton Dawson will live up to the ridiculous expectations for his senior season. There's little doubt that Dawson will be a star again this year, but he's going to have to shoulder the biggest load of his career with a green QB for at least half the season in Cambridge.

But every team in the Ivies is facing tougher questions than usual. Defending champion Brown is no exception. The Bears are returning a lot of starters, but the most important starter, all-world running back Nick Hartigan is lost to graduation. Can Brown stay strong without him?

Last year's surprise team Princeton, which ended up tied for second, has also lost its entire offensive line and frequent hero Jay McCareins to graduation. Were last season's strong running stats and decent quarterbacking numbers simply due to the front five? And will the Tigers find someone who can single-handedly win games for them like McCareins did?

Rising power Cornell certainly has the enthusiasm and confidence to contend for the title as they did in 2005, but can they do it without stars like offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, (now an Oakland Raider), and the graduated QB Ryan Kuhn who ran for more than a thousand yards in 2005?

Yale brings back a talented offensive line and a great wide receiving corps, but star quarterback Jeff Mroz has graduated.

That brings us back to Harvard and Penn. The Crimson are the sportswriters' choice to win the league this year, but they will be without suspended now former team captain Matthew Thomas all season and the also suspended quarterback Liam O'Hagan for half the season. Can Harvard overcome their physical absence and the emotional letdown?

And while Penn returns tons of all-Ivy players from last season, the Quakers will have to start a new quarterback and they are coming off a rare losing season.

However, there is some clarity when we discuss who will occupy the cellar. There is really no chance either Columbia or Dartmouth will contend for the top spot this season. Dartmouth barely got one Ivy win last season, (it was at home versus Columbia, of course), and it too has lost its 2005 starting quarterback because of a suspension. Columbia is coming off what was, even for them, a disastrous season and is trying to rebuild yet again with new Coach Norries Wilson. The Big Green and the Lions will almost certainly finish 7th and 8th again this year. Columbia gets to host the game against Dartmouth this season, so that should give them a slight edge for the "coveted" 7th place spot.


Dartmouth looks like a last place team this year for a lot of reasons. The biggest one is the loss of would-be sophomore Josh Cohen for academic reasons. Cohen was just a freshman last season but he showed some flashes of brilliance and had a lot of upside potential. The running game is bleak. It does not seem possible that a team could average fewer running yards per game than Columbia did in 2005, but the Big Green did just that with just 40.0 yards per contest compared to the Lions' 46.4. The good news is their "top" rushers from last year are back in Jason Bash and Ikechi Ogbonna who both carried the ball fewer than 100 times in 2005. There is some hope that 2004 standout Chad Gaudet could return after missing the rest of last season after his first carry in 2005, but it's probably a bit of a long shot that he'll come back AND be very effective. Top receiver Ryan Fuselier is back, but his 9.8 yards per catch in 2005 are not scaring anyone. The offensive line gave up a whopping 54 sacks last year, 21 more than second-worst Columbia. The O-line starters are coming back this season and they should be better this year with experience, but this is still a massive weakness. The Big Green defense had its moments last year, looking surprisingly good in losses to Brown and Cornell but the loss of Anthony Gargiulo and Josh Dooley to graduation is going to hurt. Defensive back Steve Jensen's graduation will hurt both the secondary and the special teams as he handled most of the kick returns last year. The best case scenario for Dartmouth would be for someone to step up at QB in time for the Columbia game in week 6 and the defense to improve a bit over last season. But that's about as good as can be expected, and it's a stretch.

PREDICTION: 8TH (0-7 Ivy, 1-9 overall)

(Columbia is predicted to finish 7th; 1-6 in the Ivies and 3-7 overall. For a detailed preview of the Columbia season scroll down to the post from August 11th).

So that leaves the rest of the league, and there's a realistic chance any of the six remaining teams could win the crown.

But Princeton looks like the shakiest of the potential title contenders this year. The Tigers surprised a lot of people last year with a 7-3 record, highlighted by big wins on the road versus Harvard and Penn. But almost all of Princeton's greatest strengths of 2005 have been whittled away by graduation. McCareins single-handedly won two games for the Tigers last season, and the also-graduated Justin Stull and John Dekker headlined what turned out to be one of the best defensive units in the Ivies. But the biggest loss is the offensive line. All the starters on what was a sterling unit have graduated and it's really not clear if the solid years turned in by Princeton ball carriers Rob Toresco and Cleo Kirkland weren't mostly due to the excellent blocking and mismatches the Tigers enjoyed up front. Quarterback Jeff Terrell wasn't exactly a world-beater last season, and he benefited a lot from that now-departed O-line that gave up just 12 sacks in 2005. One of Princeton's best kickers ever, Derek Javarone, has also moved on. The good news is the Tigers have a wonderful schedule this season, with key games against Harvard, Brown and Penn at home. And Princeton is returning enough skill players on offense that will be dangerous if they can prove they're able to excel with the new offensive line. If the new O-line gels and someone in the Tiger secondary comes close to filling McCareins' shoes, this team could win it all. But that seems like a lot to ask, especially with head coach Roger Hughes, who still hasn't convinced his many critics that he's up to this job.

PREDICTION: 6TH (3-4 Ivy, 4-6 overall)

This could be Yale Coach Jack Siedlecki's last chance to save his job in New Haven where alumni anger seems to be boiling over after five straight losses to Harvard and no finishes higher than third since the Bulldogs won a shared title with Brown in 1999. Unfortunately for Siedlecki, Yale will have to play this season with a brand new QB. While lots of teams in the Ivies will have new signal-callers, Yale will miss its graduating quarterback the most. Jeff Mroz proved that patience was a virtue in 2005, as he waited for his turn to start a complete season and made the most of it. Mroz passed for 22 touchdowns and almost 2,500 yards on the year. The good news is the entire offensive line that gave up just 11 sacks last season is coming back and Yale truly has a strong corps of receivers including Ashley Wright, who led the league in receiving yards and TD's in 2005. Wright is also a talented punter, who stuck 11 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season. Chandler Henley, who was lost all last year to injury, will be back after putting up some big numbers in 2004. But without a seasoned QB, all this talent at WR and on the O-line could end up being something like having a good clean-up hitter on a baseball team but no one in front of him who gets on base. The running backs look solid with sophomore Mike McLoed looking to improve on a great first season where he rushed for 689 yards and six touchdowns. He'll have help from senior Jordan Spence . The defense is returning a strong-looking defensive line that has some good experience, but is coming off a season where it gave up more than 150-yards on the ground per game and recorded just 15 sacks. The secondary was totally decimated by graduation, with all four starters now gone. That's disturbing for a defensive squad that generated 16 interceptions last year. Yale does not have a very reliable placekicker. Another weakness is the fact that the Bulldogs face Harvard, Brown, and Cornell on the road. The Elis face an uphill battle this year unless the new QB is sharp and Mike McLoed approaches or surpasses a 1,000-yard season. The defense is going to have to defend the run better or it's going to be a long season in New Haven.

PREDICTION: Tied for 4TH (4-3 Ivy, 4-6 overall)

If teams could win the Ivy title on spirit and good coaching alone, Cornell would be an easy choice for the championship. In his first two seasons in Ithaca, Coach Jim Knowles has squeezed the most out of this team and instilled a "never say die" attitude. But Cornell is going to have to start a brand new quarterback this year and all they have on their roster are a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. The graduated QB Ryan Kuhn was not a great passer, but he was a punishing runner putting up 1,003 yards and 12 running TD's in his senior season. His replacement could end up replacing his arm, but not his legs. An even bigger loss to graduation is Kevin Boothe the all-Ivy offensive lineman who was drafted early by the Oakland Raiders. The good news is junior Luke Siwula is back and will look to add to his 1,086-yard season. But the big question is how much of Kuhn's and Siwula's numbers were due to Boothe? The rest of the starting O-line is coming back, and that's good news for a squad that paved the way for a whopping 248.6 yards per game on the ground last year and gave up just 17 sacks. The wide receiving corps is almost totally unknown and untested. The defense looks pretty strong as most of the defensive line returns and that's a unit that gave up just 883 yards rushing all of last season. The linebackers will be a mostly young and untested group, but the secondary looks good. A big problem for the Big Red is they have to face both Harvard and Brown on the road. It's possible the fired-up way Cornell plays its games will get them to the top of the heap, but with a new QB at the helm and a bunch of untested receivers, this is all probably too much to put on Siwula and the defense's shoulders. But another fourth place finish looks like it's in their reach.

PREDICTION Tied for 4TH (4-3 Ivy, 6-4 overall)

Harvard was the Ivy media's preseason pick to win the title. But that was BEFORE Coach Tim Murphy suspended starting QB Liam O'Hagan for the first half of the season. O'Hagan didn't get a huge amount of attention last season but he had a very strong season, completing 60% of his passes and averaging a solid 200 yards per game. O'Hagan would have come into 2006 as the best or second-best returning Ivy quarterback. That means junior Chris Pizzotti will take the signal-calling duties, and he's as untested as can be. An even bigger emotional loss for the Crimson is the loss of former captain Matt Thomas for the entire season, also due to suspension. Thomas was the team's leading tackler last year, and losing a team leader because of an arrest off-the-field is usually pretty devastating for a college team. A lot of the leadership responsibilities on the field will be on senior tailback Clifton Dawson's shoulders. Dawson had another fabulous year in 2005, and this year he should break Ed Marinaro's long-held record for career Ivy rushing yards, (of course, Marinaro accomplished his feat in just three seasons, while Dawson will have four). Dawson may be slowed somewhat by the loss of three starters from a Harvard offensive line that paved the way for 182 rushing yards per game. But the losses on the O-line will probably be a bigger distraction for the new QB than the seasoned Dawson. Another strength is senior WR Corey Mazza who missed most of last season due to injury, but figures to return to his 2004 all-Ivy form. Even without Thomas, the defense looks pretty good up front thanks to all-Ivy lineman Michael Berg and new captain Ryan Tully at linebacker. The secondary is not as strong, coming off a year where the unit gave up almost 220 yards passing per game. But this is not really a tremendous weakness, and another year of experience should make these players a bit better. There's no doubt Harvard still has the talent to win it all but the loss of Thomas and O'Hagan will hurt this team dearly, especially early in the season. And the big showdown with Brown in Providence is the second game of the season. The Crimson may not be 100% ready offensively by then, and a loss to the Bears could hold this team back. Look for this squad to start a bit slow, and then finish strong.

PREDICTION: Tied for 2ND, (5-2 Ivy, 7-3 overall)

Don't be fooled by Penn's losing season in the league last year and its 5-5 overall record. This was a team that looked as good as any squad in the Ivies until its offense gave out and the Quakers lost their last four games. This is still a team run by the best coach in the Ivies in Al Bagnoli, and now he has a bad season to motivate him to do even better in 2006. Much was made of the effect back-up senior Kyle Ambrogi's suicide had on the team last year but in fact, Penn's starting QB Pat McDermott was the biggest problem as he completed only 52% of his passes and had as many interceptions as he did TD passes, (12). McDermott is gone to graduation, and that means the Quakers will at least get a chance at a fresh start behind center with Bryan Walker, who got into a decent amount of games as a backup. Running back Joe Sandberg, who is a good all-around scoring weapon, will anchor the offense this season along with an experienced if unspectacular group of wide receivers. The offensive line is solid, returning a couple of all-Ivy starters on a unit that produced 125 rushing yards per game and only gave up 10 sacks. All of that should help Walker grow into the starting job. The defensive front looks strong, after giving up just 2.8 yards per carry in 2005. But the secondary is a little inexperienced and last season's more seasoned starters gave up almost 200 yards a game and grabbed just eight interceptions. Penn is picking a good year to have a weakness against the pass, as so many Ivy schools have new quarterbacks this season. Penn's kicker Derek Zoch is pretty reliable from 39 yards out and closer, but he's not a long-range game winner. Penn has a few too many holes to cruise to the top as it has in past years. But with coach Bagnoli, you can never count out Pennsylvania.

PREDICTION: Tied for 2ND (5-2 Ivy, 7-3 overall)

So that leaves defending champ Brown. Usually, the loss of an All-World back like Nick Hartigan would count a team out for at least a year. But Bears Coach Phil Estes has a long history of using the pass well, and Brown still managed to flash some passing brilliance despite Hartigan's rushing dominance in recent years and the running talent of Michael Malan in the years before that, (has everyone forgotten Sean Morey?). Returning QB Joe DiGiacomo is not a world-beater, but he stands as the default best returning quarterback in the league because of Liam O'Hagan's suspension. Some of DiGiacomo's stats from last year are very impressive, especially his 16 TD passes and just eight interceptions. More troubling was his low 52.4% completion percentage and mere 180 yards passing per game average. But Brown just didn't need to pass too much last year and one could argue that DiGiacomo got about as much out of the air as the Bears could ask for. The really good news is most of the offensive line that gave up just FIVE sacks all season is back . Star wide receiver Lonnie Hill will also return, and look for him to try to make up for some lost opportunities he suffered during Hartigan's dominance. Defensively, Brown will look to build around senior all-Ivy linebacker Zak DeOssie. There are a decent number of returning players on the rest of the defense, but the Bears gave up a lot of points last year for a league champion and the 169 rushing yards given up per game was troubling. If Brown really is going to use the pass more, the defense will have to do a better job of holding opposing teams during longer stretches of time. Some of this defensive unit looks up to that challenge, but other parts of it don't. A key factor pushing the Bears over the top this season could be the strong special teams. Steve Morgan was the best plackicker in the Ivies last year and he's back. All the Brown kick-returners are dangerous. A big challenge for Brown this year will be staying hungry enough to repeat and the early tilt against Harvard, the only team to beat the Bears last year and in overtime no less, should serve as a good enough motivator.

PREDICTION: 1ST (6-1 Ivy, 8-2 overall)

Friday, August 18, 2006

New Look, New Team, New Attitude?

For the second time in 4 years, Columbia is redesigning its helmets and uniforms. Here's what the helmet will look like: Helmets. And this is a sketch of the new uniforms: Uniforms.

I'm not exactly loving the new helmet. It is an improvement over the last one which had a logo that was too small to see from the stands or even the sidelines. I actually wish they reverse things and make the helmet blue with a big white "C." I also wish they would switch back to the old "pouncing lion" decal Columbia used in the 1970's. (For a detailed look at all the Ivy helmets over the years, check out the "Helmet Project" Website here: Historic Helmets). Of course, if Columbia went back to that Lion logo, they probably would be sued by the Detroit Lions for copyright infringement. CU would have a good case, sighting the fact that they had used the logo before, but I'm not a lawyer either, so don't listen to me.

The uniforms are basically a Columbia version of the uniforms Dartmouth rolled out last season. I'm willing to bet they were designed by the same person. It's a style being used by a number of Division I-A programs as well. I think they are an improvement over the old ones, but I'll have to wait until I see them on the field.

At first, the Columbia Website said the white uniforms would be the home jerseys while the blue unis would be the road jerseys. I have to think that was a mistake, as that would probably cause mass confusion in the league as Columbia's visiting teams would have to remember to bring home jerseys whenever they visit Wien Stadium. Now the site says "one uniform is white and the other is light blue." So, I think the light blue one will end up being the home look and the white one will be the road uniform... just the way everyone's been doing it in college football for 100 years or more.

The New Look Reverse Jinx?

There's something funny about teams that change their looks, they very often have a great season the first year with that new look. In the NFL, the 1997 Denver Broncos are the most extreme example, winning the Super Bowl just after ditching the old orange uniforms and helmets. The 1997 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a breakthrough year with the new look that season, as did the 1981 Cincinnati Bengals. Going back to an old look was also beneficial for the 1998 N.Y. Jets and the 2000 N.Y. Giants.

As usual, for Columbia, what works for other teams hasn't quite worked out so well for them. But there have been some happy exceptions. The 1971 team was the first to don the pouncing Lion helmet logo and that squad went 6-3 and finished second in the Ivies after eight straight losing seasons. The 2003 team changed uniforms and helmets and posted its best season in five years, before crashing and burning in 2004 and 2005. I'm grasping at straws, but I like the idea of changing the look once in awhile in hopes of shaking things up on the field.

The rest of the Ivy League has mixed results when going to new looks. Going in alphabetical order, let's start with Brown. Brown has changed its helmet logo more often than any other team over the last 15 years or so. But the switch to a silver helmet with the school crest as a logo in 1994 was an omen for the Bears 7-3 season and second place finish in the Ivies, (it was also Brown's first winning season since 1987).

Cornell's switch to a red helmet with a white "C" in 1967 did not change their fortunes as much as the arrival of Ed Marinaro, who helped them win a share of the title in 1971. The 1977 switch to a no-decal red helmet did nothing to bring Cornell out of the cellar it also occupied in 1976. But the 1978 Cornell Big Red switched to a new helmet look with a full "Cornell" in a curved white stripe across the side and they recorded their first winning season since 1972. The 1983 switch to a more block-lettered "C" that the Big Red have used ever since did not make a splash at first as Cornell went from a poor 4-6 in 1982 to an even poorer 3-6-1 in 1983.

Dartmouth's switch to a new helmet in 1987 did nothing right away to change the flagging fortunes the team had been suffering through since sharing the Ivy title in 1981 and 1982, but three years later the Big Green shared the title with Cornell and then won the title outright in 1991. The switch back to the old look with the "D" in the front of the helmet in 1999 has been just one part of an extremely long dry spell fot Dartmouth where the Big Green have yet to record a winning season.

Harvard won its very first share of the Ivy title in 1961 after throwing more crimson onto the top of their helmets. The won another share of the title in 1974 after switching to a special helmet commemorating the 100th anniversary of its first "real" football game in 1874. (The Crimson were deriding the 1869 game played played between Rutgers and Princeton which Harvard claimed was more like soccer). Harvard jumped from 4th to yet another share of the title in 1982 after switching to the thin-block "H" in the white oval. But the current Harvard helmet, which burst onto the scene in 1994, didn't usher in success until three years later when the Crimson won the title outright in 1997.

Penn's two-tone "P" helmet didn't change their long history of bad luck in its first season of 1981, but it took off after that as the Quakers shared the title in 1982 and 1983 before winning the title outright in 1984, 1985, and 1986. Penn went from 2-8 in 1991 to 8-2 and co-Ivy champions in 1992 when they switched to the script "Penn" logo. They won another outright title in 2003 with the block lettered "Penn" logo.

Princeton's fortunes actuall changed for the worse when they went from co-champions in 1969 to middle of the pack in 1970-72 after they switched to the tiger stripe helmet in 1970. They stayed in the middle of the pack from 1975 to 1977 when they switched to the pouncing tiger and when they went with a no-decal orange helmet in 1978. The "football carrying" tiger decal of 1979-83 vaulted Princeton into a second place tie in its first year and good years in 1980 and 1981, but 1982 and 1983 were losing years in Old Nassau. Princeton went back to that no-decal orange helmet from 1984 to 1997 was a part of nine winning seasons, an outright title in 1995 and shared titles in 1989 and 1992. The switch back to the old winged helmet decal of the 1930's in 1998 has only been a part of two winning seasons since.

Yale went from last to fourth and a 6-3 record in 1963 when they switched to the "Y" logo they've basically been using ever since, with a few changes here and there. But the Elis did have winning seasons in 1973 and 1974 when they added a football in the middle of the "Y" after a losing campaign in 1972.

So there you have it. For the most part, changing looks has been good luck even for the tradition-bound Ivy League. This all probably means nothing. But it's always fun to speculate.

On a more important note, Training camp begins on August 21st... just three days away.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

2006 Season Outlook

Training Camp Begins: August 21st

Season Opener at Home versus Fordham: September 16th, 12:30pm


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.


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.


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.

A real 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.