Shalbrack wore Des Werthman's #49 last season... a good omen (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Okay, I want to take a break from spotlighting the incoming freshmen for just a bit and make sure I don't short-change the stars of Columbia's very encouraging 2006 season.
In a year when so many freshmen made an impact on the Lions, I thought none of them was as important as Andy Shalbrack out of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia, (you just have to love it more when we grab someone from under Penn's nose).
Shalbrack, (#6) closes in on a ball carrier during his HS days at St. Joseph's (CREDIT: Ted Sillary.com)
Shalbrack cracked the starting lineup right out of the gate, starting in the opener against Fordham and notching 3 tackles and forced Ram QB T.J. Jordan to cough up the ball and his helmet in a bone-jarring hit that led to the Lions first score of 2006. Columbia rolled, 37-7.
Shalbrack celebrates after his helmet-jarring forced fumble against Fordham (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
But Andy was just warming up. In just his second varsity game, Shalbrack led the team with 11 tackles, including a crucial 1/2 sack with Tad Crawford that helped the Lions hold off Georgetown in the 23-21 victory. A few days later, he was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week.
Shalbrack was one of the bright spots in Columbia's 19-6 loss to Princeton at Homecoming. He had just one tackle, but it was for a 3-yard loss and he also grabbed his first interception of the season and ran it back 13 yards. Shalbrack would finish the season with an Ivy League leading five pickoffs.
In the 24-0 shutout of Iona in week four, Shalbrack put in another strong performance with 6 tackles, including one and a half for a loss and another half sack.
A week later Columbia was shut out at Penn, 16-0, but Shalbrack made his presence felt with 7 tackles, two pass break-ups, and his second interception of the season, which he returned for 22 yards. I named him a Columbia game MVP for the first time.
The week 6 20-7 loss to Dartmouth was extremely frustrating, but Shalbrack helped set up our only score with an interception and 11-yard return that eventually led to the M.A. Olawale TD. I was actually at field level when Shalbrack made that interception and for some reason I was focusing on him that entire play. It was clear that Shalbrack read Dartmouth QB Mike Fritz's eyes the entire way, and it was almost like he picked it off before it was even thrown. He also had seven tackles and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week for the second time.
The following week was a quiet one, as Shalbrack notched just one tackle and a pass break-up in the 21-3 loss at Yale. But he led the team in tackles with 12 the following week in the final loss of the season at Harvard.
Shalbrack had six tackles in the breakthrough 21-14 win over Cornell, but his finished his with a bang in the 22-21 comeback win over Brown.
I love looking at this picture (CREDIT: Columbia University Marching Band)
In that game, Shalbrack picked off Brown Qb Joe DiGiacomo late in the first half and returned it 10 yards to the Brown 21. Then, he made a crucial 3rd quarter interception at the Columbia goal line to end a long Brown drive.
Shalbrack finished the season with a remarkable 55 tackles, (5 for a loss), 5 interceptions, four passes broken up and one full sack and a forced fumble. All as a FRESHMAN, and his strong play was a major catalyst in a defense that reduced its points allowed total by more than 50% from 2005.
And to top it all off, Shalbrack intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the spring game last month.
It appears the Columbia coaches will shift him back into the defensive backfield instead of playing him at spur linebacker like they did last season. He's also probably going to take a new number, #6 from his high school days, possibly freeing up Des Werthman-lookalike Justin Masorti to grab that #49 for 2007.
There are a lot of reasons why Columbia fans should be optimistic about the future, and the fact that Shalbrack should be around for another three seasons is one of the biggest.