Columbia Football Preview 2007
*DISCLAIMER: All opinions, prognostications, evaluations, and palpitations below are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of Columbia University, the Athletic Department, the City of New York, or my wife.
The Lions are battle-hardened for 2007
The early 60's were good times for New York City. The Mets were bringing back National League baseball to the Polo Grounds, Mayor Wagner was still considered a young man, and the horrors of rising crime, crumbling infrastructure and other bureaucratic problems were still a little further off on the horizon.
It was also a good time for Columbia football. First there was the exciting 1961 Ivy championship season. Then a younger and scrappier 1962 Lions team led by emerging sophomore quarterback Archie Roberts eked out a 5-4-1 record, (4-3 Ivy), to post the school's first back-to-back winning seasons since the three-year streak of 1945-47.
The wheels started to come off a little more in 1963, but the Lions put together two wins to finish the season and go 4-4-1 overall. The 2-4-1 Ivy record was ominous, and it would be eight years before Columbia would post another non-losing record, but no one could have known that at the time.
Fast forward 44 years and now we see a Columbia team that has an excellent chance to be the first squad to post consecutive non-losing seasons since then. But if winning football has been an elusive goal for the Lions over the years, consistent winning football has been even more difficult to attain despite some very good opportunities.
Columbia's first good chance came after the 6-3 1971 season. Many expected the Lions to win the Ivy League, but the team could do no better than 3-5-1 and 2-4-1 in the league. Columbia's next winning season wouldn't come for another 23 years when the 1994 squad went 5-4-1. But the 1995 couldn't repeat as soon as star QB Mike Cavanaugh went down with an injury at Princeton. They finished 3-6-1.
The following year, Columbia posted its memorable 8-2 season, but with the graduation of key stars Marcellus Wiley and Rory Wilfork, no one really expected great things from the 1997 team. The resulting 3-7 record was the beginning of a nine-year stretch of losing records that finally ended with the 5-5 season last year. And now the Lions have another rare chance to be strong in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1963.
That 44 year monkey is on the backs of a still very young team that, thankfully, seemed oblivious to Columbia's long string of losing seasons and otherwise difficult past. And despite a tougher schedule and some other new challenges, this group of young Lions will indeed break that 44-year streak just as their predecessors ended that 44-game losing streak in 1988.
Of course it will not be easy, but the players have a lot more help than so many other Columbia teams that came before them. Most importantly, they have a head coach in Norries Wilson who has already exceeded expectations in his short time on Morningside Heights. Wilson is motivating the players in a way not seen at Columbia since the legendary Lou Little inspired and frightened stars and scrubs alike at Baker Field. Wilson is asking for, and getting, a new level of commitment from his players that translates into year-round physical and mental preparation.
Wilson's best move may have been bringing in long-time friend Lou Ferrari to coach the defense, and his mastery of the 3-5-3 alignment helped the Lions cut their points allowed from 2005 by more than half, easily the most impressive statistic of the year.
But it goes beyond just the coaching staff. Columbia Athletic Director Dianne Murphy has shaken up a balkanized administration and finally has the ships sailing in the right direction at Dodge Hall. The fact that just about every employee in the department is literally afraid to let Murphy down, (and you can now include me in that group), speaks volumes about just how much things have changed.
And yet, not everything is perfect in Columbia-land. Even as the Lions fortunes improved last season, attendance did not see a measurable rise. Anti-athlete tomes appeared in more than one campus publication. And alumni interest and support for the sports teams still lags well behind the rest of the league.
More than any other team, the football squad has the opportunity to make all of those problems shrink or even go away if they can post a winning season and make an eventual run to the Ivy League title.
Never before has Columbia had so much young talent on its roster. Last season no less than 15 freshmen and sophomores made significant contributions to the team. The challenge will be not only to keep those young players motivated, but also to get them to improve at the same level you expect all underclassmen to achieve. The good news is no one on the squad seems even remotely satisfied with what they accomplished in 2006, and that bodes well for a group that will have to improve even to repeat at 5-5.
Senior Mike Partain has come along way from his high school days
It all starts with the offensive line, which is easily the most important single unit on any football team. But for Columbia, and really all the Ivy League teams, creating talented offensive lines has clearly been the biggest challenge in recent years. I attribute this to the fact that it just takes longer for offensive linemen to make the physical and mental leap from the high school to the college level. And since underclassmen outnumber upperclassmen on every Ivy squad, simple math tells you that veteran players at every position are a commodity to begin with.
But the Columbia offensive line looks better than it has in three years, with three returning starters and much-improved depth overall.
Senior center Mike Partain is one of those very rare four-year members of Columbia's offensive line. If he continues improving as much as he has over the past two seasons, he has a shot at All-Ivy recognition.
Another big leader is junior right tackle Ralph DeBernardo, who has taken on a leadership role and should come back bigger and stronger than the 277-pounds he was listed at last season.
The other talented veteran returnee is junior left tackle Mike Brune. All you need to know about a left tackle, (provided you're dealing with a right-handed QB), is how many sacks a team has allowed. Columbia gave up just 16 sacks last year, down from 33 in 2005. A lot of that is because of Brune and his hard work to learn the position after shifting over from the defensive side at the beginning of last season.
But the guard positions are giving Coach Wilson some sleepless nights. Sophomore John Seiler and junior Nathan Walcker seem to have the inside track to the starting spots. But backup center Evan Sanford might be able to help out and Ed Salter and Brandon "Moose" Veldman, could be wildcards too. Salter sat out 2006 with an injury, but Coach Wilson seems to be impressed with his strength, a rare commodity on this team. Veldman needs to continue trading fat for muscle as he tries to get more out of what was a 300-pound frame last year.
A number of returning players and an impressive total of eight freshman offensive linemen may battle for back-up spots, but I don't expect anyone other the guys mentioned above to start on the line this season.
However, the overall depth at this position is a victory by itself. The best chance Columbia's existing linemen have for improvement is the increased competition they'll face from the newcomers and maturing sophomores.
Overall, I expect this unit to be much improved despite the holes that need to be filled at guard. Of course, there's a long way to go for a team that averaged just 67.8 rushing yards a game.
The Lions need Craig Hormann to get healthy quick (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
Craig Hormann is the great example of a longterm investment. From the moment he took the field as a freshman in the Cornell game in 2004, Hormann's arm strength and overall athleticism has been evident.
In 2005, he was thrown onto the frying pan that was Bob Shoop's final season as head coach. He shared the starting job with senior captain Joe Winters, but at season's end he had the most snaps and throws under his belt. It was a disastrous 2-8 season, but Hormann showed signs of brilliance as he frequently hooked up with senior deep threat receiver Brandon Bowser and started to show an uncanny ability to avoid throwing the interception.
That ability took center stage in 2006 as Hormann got better week after week. When the 2006 campaign ended, he had thrown just six interceptions, (only one of them on 3rd down), and proven a keen ability to come through in the clutch.
The flip side of all of that was his paltry total of just seven TD passes, and a weak ability to scramble for positive yardage as a runner. But Columbia's coaches hoped that an improved overall running game for 2007 would allow Hormann to focus on what he does best: passing.
Then the news leaked out in December that Craig had torn his ACL. Three years of hard work and patience looked like they may be going down the drain. But Hormann's rehab has reportedly been going better than expected, and while he is not the projected opening night starter as of today, that could change by the end of the month. At some point during the early part of the season, it is almost certain that Hormann will be back under center and he has an excellent chance at making a run at first team All-Ivy honors.
Either way, Columbia will have to be ready to start someone else at QB. Last season, then-freshman M.A. Olawale showed such quickness and athleticism in a relief appearance against Dartmouth, that many thought he should get the starting job the following week at Yale. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and Hormann finished out the season strong. Nevertheless, Olawale was exciting to watch, and most Columbia fans crave getting him back on the field in some capacity as much as possible in 2007.
One would think Olawale has the inside track to starting in Hormann's absence, but based on his play in the spring game, his passing abilities are still more than a little volatile. Everything Hormann brings to the table as far as sure-handed, no interception football is concerned, would probably be lost on Olawale... at least at first. But if Olawale can improve his throwing and keep his running instincts, he would give opposing defenses fits time after time. And having a sophomore gain valuable experience the year BEFORE your starting QB graduates is extremely valuable. The potential upside here is almost infinite.
A wildcard was thrown into the pile later in the spring when it was announced that Shane Kelly had transferred from Temple and would be eligible to join the Lions by training camp. Kelly is officially a sophomore and has reportedly been working very hard to learn the Columbia offensive schemes this summer. He's expected to mount a strong challenge for the #2/#1 spot, but he remains a truly unknown quantity.
The other two true QB's coming to camp are freshman Paul Havas and Corey Clare. Havas brings an unusual amount of maturity to the team as he is actually from Canada and completed two post-grad years at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire. The New England preps haven't really been good enough to produce true Ivy stars in recent years, but Havas played all-star football in the higher-level Canadian high school tournaments as well. Clare is coming from a good football program in Florida and may be ready to play if he bulks up just a bit.
Overall, Columbia seems to have something very unusual at the QB position: depth. While losing Hormann for even one game will be a tough pill to swallow this season, the fact that there seem to be more than one or two viable "plan B" options is a welcome change.
Will Jordan Davis still be the #1 tailback by season's end? (CREDIT: Columbia Spectator)
Again, the most important key to Columbia's 2007 is an improved running game. There was some improvement in 2006, as the average rushing total per game went up to about 67 yards a game from 46 yards per game in 2005. But let's be honest, both of those numbers are "abysmal," in the words of Coach Wilson himself.
Not all of that is junior tailback Jordan Davis' fault. While Davis has carried the ball more than any other Lion since 2005, he hasn't really had much blocking support most of the time. He did put up some decent numbers against lighter competition early last season against Fordham and Georgetown, but it wasn't until fullback Pete Stoll got into the lineup in the final two games that Davis showed some clutch running against Ivy rivals.
Davis' magic number in 2006 was 60. In games where he rushed for 60 yards or more, Columbia won, (with the exception of the Brown game where he ran for 59 yards). When he fell below that mark, the Lions fell too. But more important, and harmful last season were two key fumbles Davis coughed up that directly led devastating opponent scores. The first came in the early going at Penn in week four, and the second came on the first play from scrimmage in the Dartmouth game a week later.
On the brighter side, Davis showed some good abilities as a pass receiver coming out of the backfield. But what every team needs is a big tough back who can get the tough yards when you need them, and other than a super-clutch first down run against Brown in the final drive of that game, Davis was not that guy in 2006.
Coach Wilson believes sophomore Ray Rangel and incoming freshman Leon Ivery have the best chance to push Davis out of the starting spot. Rangel's talents seem to be centered around his speed and ability to make things happen along the sidelines.
Ivery will have to prove he can overcome painful bone spur injuries that kept him from going to Division IA programs like Stanford and Berkeley. Ivery's high school stats are eye-popping, but my sources say his high school conference goes through stages of higher and lower quality and it's not clear if he was facing top-notch competition.
But Ivery isn't the only freshman back with some good numbers behind him. Zack Kourouma was an impressive runner in a strong high school conference in Massachusetts, and while Augie Williams is now listed as a strong safety, he put up some good numbers in a competitive high school conference in San Diego.
But just like the QB position, the bottom line is Columbia seems to have excellent depth at the tailback slot. That should make everyone work harder in training camp, regular season practice, and of course in actual games.
Coach Wilson believes getting more out of the fullback position is essential this year. He'd like to eventually be able to run out of the "I" formation to capitalize on more blocking and more running schemes. But for now, he doesn't seem to think the current crop of fullbacks is quite up to the job.
That might come as a surprise to fans who thought sophomore Pete Stoll emerged as an excellent blocking threat in the final two games last season. The aspiring doctor helped lead the way for several of Jordan Davis' key gains in those two wins over Cornell and Brown. One would think that Stoll still has the inside track to not only start at fullback this season, but make an impact.
Another player who could emerge at fullback is junior Gary Mesko. Coach Wilson seems to be impressed by his effort, and Mesko was a highly-touted recruit when he came to Columbia in 2005.
The other returning fullbacks on the roster are seniors Austin Stevenson and Thomas Weldon. Both are hard workers, but Weldon might have a better shot to get on the field at this point.
Only one incoming freshman has been placed on the roster as a fullback, and that's Nathan Lenz from Clearwater, FL. He's coming from a good high school conference, but he'll have to add to his 205-pound frame to move up the depth chart.
Austin Knowlin must go from Rookie of the Year to All-Ivy (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
Columbia relied heavily on the short passing game last season, as the running game faltered and the long bomb just didn't make much of an appearance.
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2006, and there were a lot at Baker Field, was the exciting play of then-freshman Austin Knowlin. Knowlin quickly became the "go-to guy" in the passing game and was rewarded for his efforts and impressive stats with the 2006 Ivy League Rookie of the Year award. But Coach Wilson is pushing Knowlin to keep improving and make an even bigger impact in 2007. One area Knowlin may want to focus on is his post-catch acceleration. A number of times last season, it looked like he was going to take short passes and break them for big gainers, but he was caught a little early by a tackler.
But the other main targets, Nick DeGasperis and Adrian Demko have graduated, and now one of the hottest competitions in training camp will be for that #2 starting wide receiver spot. And once again, there seems to be a decent amount of depth at this position.
After last season, I would have bet that sophomore Taylor Joseph had the best shot at becoming the "other" starter. But the coaches have been talking up sophomore Derek Jancisin as a tough. physical target and Coach Wilson seems much higher on senior Tim Paulin than he was last season.
A dark horse among the veterans is sophomore Josh A. Williams. Williams got into a number of games last year as a kick returner, but he was not totally healthy. He may make some real strides in training camp.
Three incoming freshmen are wide receivers, the most compelling being Nico Gutierez who was a legitimate Division IA prospect before injuring himself senior year. But Gutierez seems pretty healthy as he competed in track this past spring, so he could be a major steal. Mike Stephens comes from a super high school conference in Texas, but he's still mostly an unknown quality.
This is another deep unit, with 12 receivers on the roster. Just how effective it will be depends mostly on two factors: how much Knowlin draws coverage away from everyone else, and who starts at quarterback if Hormann is out for a significant part of the season.
The crowd of defenders Knowlin started to attract in the latter stages of last season played a big role in some of the key catches DeGasperis made, especially in the Brown game. Knowlin not only needs to keep that up, but catch a decent number of passes in traffic to avoid getting neutralized by double and triple coverage.
If Hormann is out for more than a game or two, the unit might suffer as his backup will most likely rely on bigger tight end targets and running the ball himself rather than throwing to receivers and risking interceptions.
But generally, this is another area of strength and depth that should be improved over last season.
There's not so much doubt about the the two starting spots at tight end for 2007. Coach Wilson is almost definitely going with senior Jamal Russell and junior Troy Evangelist. Both are expected to be excellent pass receivers, but they need to help the running game more with better blocking.
Russell showed flashes of brilliance in 2006, but also disappointed with a few key drops. Evangelist battled injury, and a general lack of strength that Coach Wilson believes Troy is now working on well. Evangelist was one of the bigger stars of the spring game, and he emerged as a tough-to-tackle and reliable target in the air. Russell has great speed for a tight end and is starting to look like he can make it pay off.
They'll be backed up by junior Cody Steele and two very promising freshmen, Clif Pope and Andrew Kennedy. Kennedy has been put on the roster at tight end, despite starring mostly as a defensive lineman in high school, where he had 15 sacks in his senior season. So don't be surprised if he ends up playing another position.
But this unit belongs to Russell and Evangelist right now, and in addition to needing to improve their blocking, they may need to "pick up" a new QB by providing a "safer" and bigger target in the passing game. I have no doubt that these two men will do just that.
Some of the optimism about here about the Lion offense has to do with simple math. At team that averaged just 15 points a game, (and a very big portion of those points came off of defensive TD's and scores set up by the defense), is almost guaranteed to get better over time. I realize there's no guarantee of that, but the improved performances by the offense as the season progressed in 2006 provided a very good sign.
Much depends on when Hormann can come back and how effective he'll be when he does. But based on his recovery so far and work in the weight room, there's good reason for optimism there as well. And Columbia is good enough to win its first two games of the season even without Hormann at the helm.
But the real key is the running game, and that seems almost guaranteed to improve as well. The offensive line is staffed by more quality veterans, and the competition for the starting tailback slot will produce good results. I don't know if we can epxect 100 yards or more on the ground this season, but 90-95 yards is within reach. Had Columbia put up 90 yards rushing per game last year, the Lions probably would have gone 7-3 or 8-2.
Austin Knowlin's continued improvement should make the passing game more exciting in 2007. But someone else needs to emerge as a legitimate target, whether Knowlin draws coverage away from him or not.
Will Columbia's offense become a scoring juggernaut this year? Probably not, but it will put more points on the board and control the football longer which will not only lead to more points, but also help out the already very talented defense in a significant way.
Drew Quinn intercepting his first collegiate pass against Penn, 2005 (CREDIT: Daily Pennsylvanian)
Last year's total turnaround for the Columbia defense was a "stat man's special." The Lions cut their points allowed total by more than half, scored six defensive touchdowns, had a +10 turnover ratio, and gave up fewer than four yards per rush and only 10 yards per pass. This without much help from an offense that rarely scored on its own and lost the time of possession battle by three-and-a-half minutes per game.
Much of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Lou Ferrari, who not only had the vision to go with the innovative 3-5-3 defense, but the ability to teach the system to an extremely young group of players in record time.
The youth of the defensive squad, both last year and continuing this year, cannot be overemphasized. But instead of a weakness, it appears to be a strength for a unit that thrives on quickness and a steep learning curve.
Now, for the defense to improve or even remain at the 2006 level, those freshmen and sophomores will have to get better and assume greater responsibilities as sophomores and juniors.
The biggest challenge will be replacing Columbia's literal "up the middle" strengths, as nose tackle Todd Abrams, middle linebacker Adam Brekke, and free safety Tad Crawford are all lost to graduation. The other major loss is defensive tackle Darren Schmidt, who came out of nowhere as a senior to lead the team in sacks, all while maintaining a perfect GPA.
The depth that Columbia now enjoys at almost every offensive position is not the case on the defensive line. Schmidt and Abrams will need to be replaced by a short list of potential right ends and nose tackles, both positions where you cannot realistically expect much help from even the most talented freshmen.
But the good news is the man who is probably Columbia's most talented lineman is back. Junior left end Phillip Mitchell created a lot of the opportunities Abrams and Schmidt cashed in on in 2006, and he should be drawing double-teams... and plowing through them... throughout 2007 as well.
Competition for the nose tackle job appears to be a two-man race between sophomore Mack Loughrey and junior Eli Waltz. Both are a little undersized for the position, but quick and light in the same way Schmidt was last season. Loughrey had a strong showing in the spring game.
At right end, junior Conor Joyce had a standout performance in the spring game as well but sophomore Matt Bashaw actually got on the field more during the 2006 and made an impact with some big tackles, including a key sack in the win over Cornell.
Another returning player with a shot to man the line is junior Troy McHenry, who could make an impact if he can finally get healthy. Javier Garza is a backup.
Each of the five incoming frosh defensive linemen look extremely promising. Leading the list is Brian England who fought off strong offers from Brown to come to CU. Bruce Fleming, Matt Stotler, and Michael Egley, all look like they may break in sooner rather than later as well.
The defensive line will go as far as Phil Mitchell takes it. If he can draw the double and triple teams and still be effective, the new starters at the other two positions will thrive. Of course, a lot of the slack will also be picked up by the five linebackers behind them, who worked extremely well bolstering the front three and the secondary last season. But if Joyce, Bashaw, Loughrey or Waltz emerge as impact players, the sky's the limit for the defense and the whole team.
Justin Masorti played fast and hit hard as a freshman (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
In the 3-5-3 alignment, you'd better be deep at linebacker. Not only do you have five of them on the field at all times, but they're shifting and moving so much before the snap, they're going to need plenty of backup. That's exactly what Columbia got last year, despite the loss of some veterans to graduation, injury, and one guy who just quit.
Two starters, 2006 team MVP Adam Brekke and Justin Nunez, are the only real losses from this stellar unit. Ready to take Brekke's place as the leader is junior team captain Drew Quinn. Quinn showed himself to be a superb tackler and pass-defender last season and being named a team captain as a junior means a lot. The linebacking corps is so essential to this team that it's absolutely imperative that some of the on-the-field leadership comes from this unit. Quinn provides that.
Austin Knowlin may have won the Rookie of the Year award, but I thought spur linebacker/strong safety Andy Shalbrack was really the best freshman in the Ivies. Shalbrack played mostly like a safety, but in this alignment he was asked to defend the run more frequently... and he did by making big hit after big hit to go along with his league-leading five interceptions. His touchdown-drive-stopping pickoff in the Brown game was one of the forgotten highlights of that dramatic win. He looked even stronger and faster in the spring game with an interception return for a touchdown.
The continued development of sophomore Justin Masorti is a big reason to feel confident the linebacking crew will not lose a step. Masorti made numerous big plays last year as a freshman, and there's something about him that reminds long-time Lion fans of Des Werthman '93. If he starts defending the pass as well as he did the run in 2006, he's going to be an All-Ivy lock.
Another freshman who made an impact was sophomore Lou Miller. Miller traded starting time with Masorti, but remained a factor all season long. He comes from the same excellent high school program, (Saint Xavier in Cincinnati), where Drew Quinn came from. I'll be surprised if Miller doesn't grab a starting spot this season.
Another big boost comes from the return of senior Bayo Aregbe. Aregbe made some nice plays in the 2005 season, but he was injured in 2006 and left the team. He looked good in spring practice and he could have a big year.
The key veteran backups are junior Corey Cameron and sophomore Vaughn Hodges, both of whom played well in the spring game.
But I do expect to see some freshmen linebackers get on the field this season, because so many of them seem to be very talented and there's a need to build a large rotation of players here. My top freshman linebacker pick right now is Marc Holloway from West Philadelphia Catholic. And I also think we may see a lot of Alex Gross and Derek Lipscomb.
But once again, we have a major part of the Lion team with loads of talent and depth going into 2007. Something no long-time Columbia fan is even closed to being used to.
JoJo Smith is the little engine that can (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
Ever since a particularly bad outing at Lafayette in 2003, Columbia's pass defense has been a strength for this team through thick and thin. 2006 was no exception as this unit lead the Ivies in pass defense, giving up just 150 yards per game, and picking off a league-leading 15 passes. The second place team in this category, Princeton, wasn't even close, giving up more than 185 yards per game through the air.
This season, the secondary will have to prove it can remain effective despite two key losses. Tad Crawford, who acted as the last line of defense on the pass and the run for most of his four-year career, is gone to graduation. And the super-talented Chad Musgrove left school in the middle of last season. It's not 100% clear whether Musgrove will or won't be back at any time in the future, but the secondary will have to step up without him.
The surprise new leader of this group is 5"7 senior cornerJoJo Smith, who started 2006 as a backup and begins 2007 as a team captain. Smith makes up for his size with blazing speed and hard hitting. Columbia's opponents will be foolish if they think they can take advantage of him.
The other starting corner is senior Eugene Edwards, who was often in the right place at the right time last season, and will just have to learn to take more advantage of his strength and speed.
But that leaves Crawford's free safety spot open. Right now, the coaches seem impressed with senior Brandon Buckley, and have penciled him in as the starter. He'll get pushed a bit by sophomore Drew Abeyta, who comes from a competitive high school conference in the L.A. area.
But I think the secondary may be another place where we see some significant freshman impact. Calvin Otis may be the top prospect in the class of 2011, and I would be surprised if he doesn't see the field this season. Craig Hamilton and Adam Mehrer also look like exceptional players.
While depth doesn't appear to be an issue in the defensive backfield, the unit still has to be an area of concern for 2007. But the extra help the secondary gets from stars like Shalbrack and the other hard-working spurs in the linebacking corps takes a lot of the pressure off. Repeating as the league-leaders may be too much to ask, but effectiveness is not.
Can the defense be as good as the unit that gave up just 16.3 points per game and created so many turnovers in 2006? It certainly can, and it could be better with the continued maturation of last year's freshmen stars.
But hopefully, it won't have to be as good as it was in the first place. If the offense puts more points on the board and improves time of possession, the defense won't need to move mountains week after week. More team balance would make these Lions a lot more fearsome.
John Rocholl could be the All-Ivy kicker and Punter(CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)
Columbia returns an All-Ivy candidate at kicker and punter in junior Jon Rocholl. Rocholl battled some consistency issues on field goals last season, but has generally been a very strong kicker, especially from 35 yards out and further. His punting has just been getting better and better. As Adam Brekke said last season: "the defense loves Jon Rocholl." And they should.
With kickoffs getting pushed back to the 30-yard line this season, I expect to see some experimenting here. Michael Siebold may get a shot as the regular kick-off specialist, and incoming freshman Joe Stormont has lots of talent. In any event, the kicking game should be an area of strength for the Lions.
The big question is whether Columbia can get more out of its return game and stuff opposing returns better than it did in 2006.
Nothing seemed to work last season when it came to trying to create a real kickoff return threat. There is some talk of giving Austin Knowlin the job, but it may be a little too risky injury-wise. We'll have to wait to see how this shakes down in training camp, but I don't expect to see an super overnight shift in effectiveness here.
Punt returns were handled by the graduated Crawford, who traded big-return capabilities for sure-handedness. This too remains a big question mark for 2007.
Overall, the special teams are still strong. It's just that all the strength seems to be coming from the kickers and none from the returners. The upside here is tremendous, and I do expect to see some progress. But I'm not sure we'll see enough progress from the returners to make an impact on offense.
Expect the Lions to celebrate more in 2007 (CREDIT: Columbia Spectator)
THE SEASON: GAME-BY-GAME
Even if Hormann isn't ready to go by week one or two, Columbia is still strong enough to beat Fordham and Marist. Nothing against those two teams, but Fordham is still in rebuilding mode on offense, and Marist is just not up to Ivy League competition.
With or without Hormann, the week 3 and four matches at Princeton and Lafayette will be extremely tough, and the week five homecoming game again Penn may also be a tall order. But I think the Lions can almost run the rest of the table with the exception of the week 7 game at home against Yale.
Bottom line, I think this Lions team can go 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Ivies to grab a spot in the "1st division" at fourth place.
Some of my optimism is based on the intangibles like the renewed spirit and enthusiasm shown by the players and the coaches this offseason... but not much. In general, this is about personnel and the huge jump in talent and depth the team now enjoys compared to last season and almost every season since 1963.
The onus is on the fans, particularly the alumni in the New York City area, to buy season tickets, get out there, and cheer this team on. For young players like these Lions, having their enthusiasm reinforced by more fan support will be a major plus. So let me put any doubts you might have to rest; if you're wondering whether it's worth the trip to Wien Stadium this year, I guarantee you it will be.
See you in five weeks.