Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Welcome to Arms

Millie Olawale grabbed the helm during the Dartmouth game, but not for good

Well, I've avoided the QB "position preview" for spring practice as long as I could... and with good reason.

Nothing fires up the fans' passions more than the quarterback position,; two fans, three opinions.

After two years of Craig Hormann's rock solid ownership of the job, every week in 2008 became a question mark when it came to who was going to start at center.

I thought Shane Kelly started the season extremely well. Despite going 0-3 through the first three games, Kelly was putting up good passing numbers and running better than any starting QB since Steve Hunsberger '04.

Then after some tough outings against Lafayette and then at Penn, he seemed to be on thin ice. A lost fumble against Dartmouth late in the 3rd quarter led to the coaches putting in Millie Olawale and he energized the team to victory.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing from there. Olawale wasn't perfect in the next week's loss to Yale, and Kelly ended up leading the team through a significant portion of that game.

The week after that, both QB's had their troubles versus the fierce Harvard pass rush.

Olawale seemed to be back on top securely after leading the Lions to a win against Cornell in week 9, but an injury at the end of the first half against Brown kept him from finishing out the year on a strong note.

But seniors Kelly and Olawale are not alone. The sole returning junior QB, Paul Havas, who missed 2008 with an injury, is back. He's joined by rising sophomores Jerry Bell, who got a decent chunk of playing time in the Brown game, and Kevin Lenehan.

In one of his published spring practice notes, Head Coach Norries Wilson talked about how only two QB's were available, but I'm not sure if he meant available for that particular practice or for ALL of spring practice.

Either way, there should be a lot to watch for from the QB position at the April 18th spring game. Check it out and let your opinions fly!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sounding Off

Taylor Joseph says it all! (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Make sure you check out the GoColumbiaLions.com site for some great mini interviews with some of the top returning seniors as they begin spring practice.

They all seemed to be very excited about QB Millie Olawale, but he's not the only one they talked about. It's great to read between the lines and see how enthusiastic these players are. I think everyone will especially like the last line of the interview with WR Taylor Joseph.

Kudos to the folks in the athletic department for putting this together.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Tragedy for Joe Stormont

Josh Gunderson (CREDIT: Lake Elmo Leader)

Joe Stormont's close friend, hockey standout Josh Gunderson, has died under still questionable circumstances during a spring break trip in Mexico.

Stormont and Gunderson were co-captains of their high school hockey team. They also worked together at a summer job in Minnesota last year.

I'm not going to make any editorial comments other than to say that the death of a child is probably the greatest pain and horror this world can bring to a person.

Wake Up People!!!

The April 18th spring game has been changed from a matinee to an early bird special.

The new starting time is 9:30

I'm guessing, and I'm only guessing, that this may have something to do with the Columbia baseball double header scheduled for noon on the adjacent Hal Robertson Field at the Baker Athletics Complex.

Either way, now everyone who comes to the spring game should be able to catch Columbia football and a lot of Columbia baseball in one day.

Tony Natola

For Love of the Game

You're never too old to play the game you love.

Matt Sodl emailed me with the news that Tony Natola '88, is a star defensive and offensive lineman for the semipro Charlestown Townies of the Eastern Football league.

Natola was one of the 11 brave souls who stuck with the Columbia football program for four years and never picked up a varsity win.

His best season at CU was his senior year of 1987 when he collected 1.5 sacks.

I am going to contact Tony and see if he'll do an interview.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Special Mention

Joe Stormont gets ready to boot (Credit: Columbia Athletics)

In the past, the spring game has excluded a lot of special teams plays like kickoffs and punts.

But the Columbia coaches may want to make an exception this year because the man who has shouldered the kicking load for the past four seasons, Jon Rocholl, is graduating. His replacement candidates will need a lot of practice to fill his kicking shoes.

Rocholl was not perfect over the last four years, but his talent was very evident. He also ended his career on a very high note, nailing a key 47-yard FG in a tricky wind in his last home game in the win over Cornell. His punts were almost always excellent.

There are only two returning kickers on the Columbia roster with the tall order of having to replace Rocholl, and they're both rising juniors. Joe Stormont's claim to fame so far is a booming 47-yard game winning overtime field goal in a JV win last season against Bridgton Academy.

William Mazur walked onto to the team a year ago, and is listed as a kicker/punter.

Columbia's return game improved by leaps and bounds in 2008 when the coaches just let Austin Knowlin take all the punts and kickoffs. The highlights came in consecutive weeks against Harvard and Cornell where Knowlin scored TD's on punt returns of about 75 yards each. Mike Stephens had a few strong punt returns in 2008, including a big one against Lafayette.

When it came to coverage, the Lions did a better job as well in 2008. Rising sophomore AJ Maddox was a speed demon and rising junior Augie Williams always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

But again, the big question about special teams and the spring game is whether the coaches will opt for a regular game format with standard punts and kickoffs. In other words, fans hoping to get a real look at the returning special teamers may just have to wait another six months.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ground Gains

Ray Rangel had the most carries for the Lions in 2008 (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Want to see a dramatic, I mean really dramatic, statistic?

Try this one:

Columbia improved its total rushing yardage in 2008 by 122% over the previous year.

That's a startling stat and it's a tribute to the offensive line, the running backs, and running QB's.

The passing attack is very important, and receiver Austin Knowlin is the most exciting player on this team.

But the fact remains that to win in the game of football, you have to be able to run the ball and the Lions ran the ball a whole lot better last season than they have in many, many years.

Columbia's running attack was truly a team effort. No one back rushed for more than 392 yards and no one had more than 91 carries on the year.

And only one of the Columbia players who ran the ball in 2008 is lost to graduation: Jordan Davis.

The top rusher was rising senior QB Millie Olawale, who really only broke into the regular lineup midway through the season. He averaged an impressive 5.8 yards per carry and broke off the longest run of any Ivy league rusher last season with his 70-yard scamper for a TD at Brown in week 10.

Olawale's combines great speed and real strength, making him a real terror in the open field. I expect the QB's to have some kind of extra protection against sacks in the spring game, so Olawale may go really wild with that split second of added time as a cushion.

Returning senior QB Shane Kelly was also a frequent runner, putting up a 4.0 yards per carry on 71 carries. He and Olawale had three rushing TD's each.

Another returning senior is tailback Ray Rangel, who had the most carries of any back last season and showed a lot of improvement from the 2007 season.

Rising junior Zack Kourouma is also very much worth watching as he looked very good in limited duty last season. Kourouma had 84 yards on just 11 carries in 2008 and also showed real potential as a receiver. Kourouma's fellow rising junior halfback is Leon Ivery, who has worked hard on the JV squad these past two years.

The returning sophomores are David Chao and Donnie Miller, who, like Ivery, have not yet carried the ball in a varsity contest.

And for those of you who want more Austin Knowlin... remember that he acted as a ball carrier 17 times in 2008, gaining 61 net yards with a long of 16. There are more than a few ways to get his hands on the ball.

Fans may do well to focus also on all the returning fullbacks, where there's a lot of talent to go around.

Rising sophomores Nico Papas and Peter Holst-Grubbe were hampered by injuries for much of 2008, but both were highly-regarded coming into Columbia in September. Papas did get into some games on special teams.

Rising junior Nathan Lenz made a good contribution last season, getting 10 carries and showing some toughness on a few inside runs.

Pete Stoll remains a fan favorite and comes back for his senior season in 2009.

At this point, there's no way to tell what kind of offense Columbia will run in 2009. But there should be a good chance to at least assess the ball carrying talent on April 18th.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Getting Good Reception

Austin Knowlin leads the dozen returning Columbia receivers (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Being one of the 12 returning wide receivers on Columbia's roster these days must be akin to what it was like to be a realtor in 2008. After some boom times for throwing the ball, the "market" of passes drastically fell last season.

In other words, there were a lot fewer passes to go around.

How much fewer?

In 2007 Lion QB's, mostly Craig Hormann '08, threw the ball 421 times.

In 2008, Columbia passed the ball just 282 times, a 33% dropoff.

Passing yardage went from 2,686 in 2007 to 1,654 in 2008, a 38% decrease.

There were a lot of good reasons for these lower passing numbers, including the fact that Columbia completely revamped its offense, Millie Olawale and Shane Kelly ran the ball quite frequently, and the Lions weren't so far behind in so many games that they had to throw the ball as much.

If Columbia's offense stays as run-oriented as it was last season, the opportunities for wide receivers will seem relatively lean.

Be that as it may, you have to expect a lot of action for two-time All Ivy receiver Austin Knowlin in 2009. Knowlin and fellow senior Taylor Joseph led the receiving corps along with rising junior Mike Stephens, who made a nice splash in 2008 in several games. All three will be worth watching closely in the April 18th spring game.

Another returning junior in focus will be Nico Gutierrez, who fought hard to get back on the field after tearing his ACL for the second time in the 2007 finale. With the added time he's had to recover, it will be interesting to see if he can return to his freshman year form.

I'm also interested to see if returning senior Derek Jancisin will use his great size and reach to make the most of his final year in college.

Joining Jancisin, Joseph, and Knowlin are 4 other returning seniors, Josh A. Williams, Jason Pyles, Chase McCaleb, Tony Knox, making for an embarrassment of experienced riches at this position.

A sophomore to watch in the spring game will be James Burrell. Burrell took a postgrad year at Bridgton Academy, and most players from that school are more than ready to play college ball. Jonathan Roberts and Mark Muston round out the rising sophomore class.

Only four tight ends are on the returning veterans roster, led by rising junior Andrew Kennedy, who has made a number of impressive receptions over the past two seasons. If experience counts for anything, Kennedy has to be the most experienced junior tight end in the Ivies since they allowed freshman to play varsity in 1993. Kennedy scored the first TD of the 2008 season for Columbia, but never found the end zone again. His 23 catches put him fourth on the receptions list for last season.

Kennedy's fellow junior in the tight end corps is Cliff Pope, who seems to have good size for his position.

Rafeal Lopez and Tucker Cain are the two returning sophomores at tight end, and you do expect to see a decent amount of all four of these guys in the spring game if they are healthy.

Oh, and one more thing: even if the offense isn't exactly pass-happy, check to see how these receivers and tight ends do with their down the field blocking. That could be a key to the season.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview with Greg Abbruzzese!

The Abbruzzese clan today

Greg Abbruzzese '92 burst into the mindset of most Columbia fans one October day in 1988, when his standout running darn near brought the Lions a victory at Penn in an nationally televised game on ESPN.

But he and fellow tailback Solomon Johnson '92, had already made a huge impact as freshman on the 1987 frosh team that went 6-0 and brought so much hope at the same time the varsity was still mired in its record losing streak.

Sadly, injuries and some different offensive philosophies kept Abbruzzese and Johnson from shattering the Columbia record books. But for one shining varsity year, 1988, they made some real history.

A week after that close loss to Penn, the tandem made the most history of all as they led Columbia to a stunning 16-13 win over Princeton on Homecoming to end the 44-game losing skid.

Abbruzzese had 182 yards on 37 carries and Johnson scored the winning touchdown in the game that sent the student body into a frenzy.

The following season, both Abbruzzese and Johnson, (known as "Abba" and "Solo"), went down with injuries and things were never quite the same. But both stayed with the program, taking medical red shirt years, and continued to contribute through the 1991 season.

Greg is still a very strong supporter of Columbia athletics and a frequent correspondent of mine over the last few years. He graciously agreed to do the following interview for Roar Lions Roar!

Jake: Describe your high school football career and how you decided to come to Columbia.

Greg: I matriculated to Columbia from Phillips Exeter Academy. I was being recruited by West Point, Boston College and several other Ivies to play football and baseball. After meeting with Coach McElreavy, who was up at Exeter recruiting a few teammates, I played a few VHS tapes, (dating myself), for the coach and then he offered me a slot - providing that I commit on the spot. Naturally, I did ...

J: Obviously, the big story when you decided to come to Columbia was the fact that the Lions were in the midst of that long losing streak. Were you 100% aware of that when you signed on, or was it a secondary thought?

G: Yes, I was aware of the streak, however, that was completely a secondary thought. My education was a priority and football was a distant second.

J: Your freshman team went 6-0, describe what it was like playing for that squad while the varsity was 0-10.

G: I came from a very successful high school program, so our success with the freshman team was seamless. We were looking to bring the momentum from our freshman class to the varsity level during our sophomore year (at the time Freshman could not play on the varsity). Unfortunately, there were a few roadblocks, most notably, Harvard, Penn, Leigh and Lafayette. The "streak" never really affected me, or several other players. The streak was more media hype than something that was actually discussed among my teammates on a daily basis.

J: What was the feeling going into the 1988 season with the streak standing at 41 straight losses at that point?

G: Every year we were looking to improve, yet we had this albatross around our necks. During every interview, it was more of a story than the game at hand.

J: When did you know that you and Solomon Johnson were going to be the featured offensive weapons despite the fact you were both sophomores? Did you have a good healthy competition relationship with "Solo?"

G: Solo and I were (and still are) really good friends. We roomed together on the road and we roomed on campus together as well. We both brought different skill sets to the backfield. At camp (Blair Academy), we were fortunate enough to put together a few good scrimmages and things took off from there. Solomon and I were never jealous of the other's success.

J: The first two games of the '88 season were blowout losses, but then the team, and you in particular, had a breakout near win at Penn on national TV. What are your memories of that game?

G: Well, it was a nationally televised game, so everyone was really excited that their family and hometown could watch them play on TV. I was fortunate enough to have some successes in that game and we kept it close for most of the game. We were starting to be more cohesive as a unit, which built up a lot of momentum toward Princeton.

J: Obviously, the following week was the big streak-ending loss against Princeton. Describe your memories not only from that game but the week of practice leading up to it.

G: It was a Homecoming weekend, so naturally everyone on campus, and the team, was excited. The BIG event leading up to the game was the campus Lip Sync contest at "The Plex" (campus night spot), the Friday night before the game.

(*Editor's note: "The Plex" is no longer, as it was located in the basement of Ferris Booth Hall. While I made many, many mistakes at the also now-defunct West End bar, the only dumb thing I ever did at "The Plex" was enter a 70's dancing contest)

Solomon, Hector Carter, Floyd Ewing, and I performed "Candy Girl" by New Edition and won (my future wife, Laurel, with her Alpha Cho Omega team were runners-up, I must note). The majority of the team was at the event,(breaking curfew), awaiting the results. It was a great way to start the weekend. Princeton, on the other hand, had the Garrett brothers and they were picked to win the Ivies that year. We all wanted to perform well in front of the home crowd and we knew that being so close at Penn, we might have a chance.

J: After the game, you appeared on ABC-TV with Coach Mac, what was that like and what do you remember about the partying on campus the night of the win?

G: After winning the game, we were one of the big (sports) news feeds of the day/week. I was really happy for my teammates and all of the hard work we put in to achieve this goal. There were guys in the locker room crying tears of joy because they almost went all three years without a win. That evening was something that I will never forget... goal posts on Broadway, shutting down a few streets, people were happy for the players, the coaches and the University.

J: The team seemed to sleepwalk through a lot of the remainder of the '88 season, but there were some close games, especially the game at Dartmouth in week 8. Why do you think the team seemed to let down a bit after the Princeton win?

G: The Yale game, (away), was the next game after Princeton. We knew there would potentially be a letdown, but they came at us pretty hard. We just made too many mistakes that they capitalized on immediately after kickoff. The balance of the season was simply losing some key players to injuries, quarterback issues and some bad luck. Fortunately, we beat Brown, with Chris Della Pietra at the helm for the last game of the year and the seniors went out with a win!

J: You finished up the year on a big high note with a great blowout win over Brown where you ran all over the Bears. What do you remember from that game?

G: Yes, the line did a fantastic job and we really came together as a unit. I was fortunate to gain few yards, but was penalized for an end zone dance. I wasn’t sure if the penalty was for excessive celebration, or lack of rhythm? That, by far, was our best executed game as a team.

J: What was the team's psyche and what do you remember best about the events that led to Coach Mac's ouster at the end of the year?

G: You see, there were players that were loyal to Coach Mac, who were recruited by him; and then there were players who were recruited by Coach Garrett, who did not share the same fondness toward him. There were a lot of rumors and behind the scenes things going on that I was not privy to. The transition was difficult for everyone involved.

J: How optimistic were you about the 1989 season during the preceding spring and summer and how devastating was the injury that kept you out of the lineup that season?

G: I worked really hard in the off season to prepare for the new coach. The team had a new direction and we were all excited about the prospects going into that season. Unfortunately, I tore my ACL in pre-season and I decided to take a red shirt year. The injury put a great deal of things in perspective and I was really looking forward to the following year.

J: When you returned to the field in 1990, what was the biggest difference you noticed in the team and what was the biggest difference in the coaching styles of Coach Tellier and Coach Mac?

G: I was still around the program a great deal, so there was not much of a difference with regard to team chemistry or anything like that. The coaching philosophies of Coach Mac and Coach Tellier were, however, vastly different. Coach Mac ran the ball more, whereas Coach Tellier wanted to throw more. Consequently, we didn't necessarily see eye to eye on a few things. I'll leave it at that.

J: The 1991 season seemed to be marked by close loss after close loss, did you guys feel like there were an inordinate amount of bad breaks coming your way?

G: Yes, there was a great deal of bad luck, however, we were making progress by keeping the games close. To me, we were heading in the right direction and that was what was most important.

J: Like Bob Kent, you ended up marrying a CU cheerleader who, like Bob's wife Clare, became an accomplished career woman in her own right. Can you tell us about how you met Laurel?

G: I met Laurel Freshman year of school. She was a cheerleader and I was on the Freshman team. Laurel and I had a lot in common, she went to St. Paul's School and I attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Laurel loved Columbia so much that she earned her Doctorate there and is teaching in the PT program at the Med School campus on 168th street.

J: What did you do right after graduation and how has your career path gone?

G: Upon graduation, I moved to Atlanta with some friends from home. I knew that I always wanted to stay close to athletics and I eventually landed a job at Reebok, in their field marketing department. After a few years in Atlanta, I began working for New Balance in a similar capacity the New York metropolitan area, while going to grad school at NYU. Upon completion of my Masters Degree in Management I became a National Account Manager for New Balance. I left New Balance shortly after earning my degree and then I joined Converse as a Senior Director of National Account Sales, where I am now.

J: Tell us about your family today.

G: Laurel and I have three lovely children and live in Teaneck, NJ. My eldest daughter, Ms. Lydia, is 10 years old. She has a rare genetic condition called “cri du chat”. Basically, her condition is similar to that of a severe Downs Syndrome child. She goes to a Special Needs School, The Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, NJ, and is thriving there. Ms. Emily is 7 years old and is taking up dance like her mother,(they performed in a local production of the Nutcracker a few months ago). Ms. Chloe is 4 years old and enjoys soccer and dance as well, (she was a mouse in the same production of the Nutcracker).

J: Do you get to a fair amount of football games at Columbia nowadays? And what's your impression of the program overall?

G: I manage to get to 1-2 Columbia games a year. It becomes difficult to manage with all of the kid’s different schedules. Nevertheless, no matter where I am, I try and hear the games on the radio or on the net with you and Jerry Recco.

A lot of other fooball alums and I would like to see more progress. If you look at Harvard’s second team, for example, they would probably be ranked 3rd or 4th in the Ivies. It all comes down to getting even more athletes. We have some pieces of the puzzle, but depth is an issue at some key positions. I'd also like to see us get more transfers in the skill positions. NYC is a GREAT recruiting tool, combined with the best education in the country, we should be in contention for the Ivy title.

Secondary to None

Andy Shalbrack leads the Secondary (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Following all the returning defensive backs and safeties on the Columbia roster may be a tall order for fans at the spring game.

That's because no fewer than 19 of them! Only five of those 19 are rising seniors.

If you think that hefty number means all of Columbia's key starters and backups from 2008 are coming back for 2009, you're right.

For those of you who think getting the same personnel coming back may not be such a great thing, let me remind you that Columbia's pass defense statistics for 2008 were downright misleading.

Last season, Lion opponents averaged a hefty 224 yards passing per game, a 59.2% completion percentage, and an ugly 7.3 yards per pass attempt.

That was compared to just 170 passing yards per game in 2007, and a more decent 6.5 yards per attempt.

But the biggest reason for the weaker pass defense numbers was Columbia's improved defense against the run. Opposing teams were forced to pass a lot more against the Lions, and they also had to take bigger risks.

No one game proved that more than the homecoming loss to Princeton. Ivy League rushing champ Jordan Culbreath was held to just 61 yards rushing on 20 carries, forcing QB Brian Anderson to go long with some passes. Three of those bombs connected and they made the difference in the game.

Considering Columbia started a sophomore at one corner position, Calvin Otis, and a freshman at the other, Kalasi Huggins, the stats don't seem all that bad. And Otis and Huggins played very well and improved as the season went along. They got help from another speedy freshman in A.J. Maddox, who played in all 10 games, hard-hitting fellow frosh Ross Morand, who got into 6 games, and the "old man" of the corner position, rising senior Jared Morine, who played in 8 games.

The real veteran leadership came from rising senior safety Andy Shalbrack, who had another solid season defending the pass and the run. And I thought fellow safety Adam Mehrer, now a rising junior, had a standout sophomore year.

Unlike the linemen positions, age doesn't seem to be as big a factor in the secondary. But you can't count out the other rising seniors in this group, Drew Abeyta, who spent a lot of 2008 injured, Kirk Weller and David Brekke.

A rising junior I have a special eye on is Augie Williams, who has been making a real mark on special teams but has also played well in other situations. Another rising junior who had some good moments in 2008 was Daniel Myers. Rounding out the 2009 juniors are Craig Hamilton, Mike Murphy and Rex Cole.

The other rising sophomores are Neil Schuster, Kurt Williams, Chris Paruch, and Ryan Haslett.

Like I said, it's a crowded bunch and it'll be easy to get confused following all the players in the spring game.

But it's a strong unit overall, and one that I expect will be even better this coming season. The spring game should give us the first signs of that improvement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Down Low on the DL

Matt Bashaw is one of just two returning D-line seniors (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

The overall numbers posted by the D-line as a whole in 2008 were very encouraging, and backsliding to 2007 levels will be fatal.

The Lions went from giving up 2,311 rushing yards in 2007 to allowing just 1,043 in 2008, a 54.8% drop!

Columbia's defensive linemen recorded 16 sacks in 2008 compared to just 9 in 2007, a 77.7% gain!

And the D-linemen had 41.5 tackles for a loss compared to 24 in 2007, a 72.9% jump!

But the Lions will lose some key players from this unit to graduation.

The great Phil Mitchell, whose stats didn't always reflect his impact on this team, is moving on. So are unsung surprise player Javier Garza, and solid veterans Eli Waltz and Conor Joyce.

But coming back are starters Lou Miller and Owen Fraser, both of whom had breakout years in 2008.

Miller finished as a 1st Team All Ivy, leading the league in sacks and tackles for a loss. He was also my overall team MVP.

Fraser started all 10 games as a freshmen and made a huge impact with 28 total tackles with 4 and a half for a loss including a sack. I never saw the ballots, but Fraser had to be in the mix for Rookie of the Year.

Freshmen offensive linemen may be a rare site in varsity games, but Coach Norries Wilson and his staff have never hesitated putting frosh into the lineup on the defensive line at Columbia.

In 2006, then-freshman Matt Bashaw made a pretty good impact as a pass rushing specialist.

And in 2007, the now-departed Brian England helped shore up the middle of the line.

Fraser's impact in 2008 made it three years in a row.

Fraser will obviously be a top rising sophomore to watch at the spring game, but so is Chris Groth, who had a good freshman campaign with plenty of playing time.

I will also keep a keen eye on Bashaw, now a rising senior, who was hampered by injuries last season and missed a lot of playing time.

Bruce Fleming is a rising junior who has shown some promise and may get a chance to better showcase his talents this spring as well.

But the D-line vets are dominated in sheer numbers by the rising sophs. In addition to Groth and Fraser there's Karson Bodnovich, Ben Popeck, Shea Selsor, and J.D. Tyree, putting the total of soph d-linemen at six. Other than Fraser and Groth, I don't think fans can make a fair assessment about the other sophomores until at least the spring game is played.

The same goes for rising juniors Josh Smith and Matt Stotler.

Miller and Bashaw are the only returning seniors.

One or more of the five or six incoming freshmen defensive linemen may again get into the mix this season.

But with what I would say are two real starting slots up for grabs, (of course officially, ALL positions are up for grabs), spring practice is the time for the returning players to shine.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"8" Screening in Manhattan Tonight!

It's a Harvard event, but we can excuse that, as the Harvard Film Group hosts a special screening of "8: Ivy League Football and America" tonight at "The Tank" tonight at 8pm. Admission is $7.

You can read my review of the film here.

And you can order your own copy of the DVD if you like what you see tonight here.


Towing the Line UPDATE

Ed Argast (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Just after I finished my brief overview of the offensive line yesterday, Columbia officially announced the hiring of Ed Argast as the new offensive line coach.

I am very, very excited about this hire. Argast has a ton of experience in the Patriot League and his last two jobs were at the two schools that kick off Columbia's 2009 schedule, (Fordham and Central Connecticut).

I also like seeing someone over the age of 45 helping to round out our younger staff. Coaching staffs from college to the pros are really skewing younger these days, and I'm not sure why.

As the officials release says, Argast was the architect of Fordham's impressive offensive improvements on the way to grabbing the 2007 Patriot League title. Those numbers dropped down a bit last year, but the offense was still impressive overall.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Towing the Line

Jeff Adams is one of the rising sophs on the offensive line (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

There are some positions on a college football team where you just don't see a lot of freshman starters or even key backups.

The offensive line is tops on that list, and that means some of the rising sophomore and junior linemen deserve some special attention during this year's spring practice, (9 days to go).

Two starters from the O-line, Ralph DeBernardo and Mike Brune, are graduating but that leaves three starters, Evan Sanford, John Seiler and Ian Quirk, coming back. Will Lipovsky also got some valuable playing time too and a start or two in injury fill-in duty.

One of the sophomores I'll be trying to watch closely at the spring game, (April 18th, 1pm), is Jeff Adams. Adams looked good as a freshman last year in several practices and certainly has great size, 6'7" - 285 lbs., to get the job done.

But experience is worth a lot on the O-line, and we should also focus on rising juniors Dan Cohen, Prentis Robinson, Tim Skalak, Carl Constant and Bryan Kipp.

Rising senior Brandon Veldman didn't get as much playing time in 2008 as he did in 2007, but you can't forget anyone nicknamed "Moose!"

The bottom line is Columbia's offensive line improved by leaps and bounds in 2008.

The Lions averaged about 140 yards rushing per game last season compared to just 63 yards a game in 2007, (a 122% jump!).

They allowed just 16 sacks in 2008 compared to 28 in 2007, (a 43% drop!).

Columbia can't afford to backslide here and the good news is that it seems like the Lions have the personnel to keep the momentum.

Because the spring game will feature 10 offensive lineman starting on the combined units, it's a unique showcase for what Columbia has in store up front for 2009.

So whether you're focusing on Adams, Lipovsky, Bob Hauschildt, or any of the other "big uglies," be ready to watch in just 32 days!

Ivies Lose one to the Patriots

Speaking of offensive linemen, a red shirt sophomore offensive lineman at the University of Cincinnati with great academic credentials was reportedly looking to transfer to an Ivy school... but Blake McCroskey has ended up at Colgate.

I don't know which Ivy schools were on McCroskey's radar, but Colgate is picking up a player who would have fit in nicely on anyone's roster.

Good luck to Blake and congrats for having your academic and athletic priorities straight.

The Future is Now

Think happy thoughts for Corey Cameron (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

With 10 days to go until the beginning of spring practice, it's great to see Corey Cameron's name still on the Lion roster. Cameron applied for a 5th year of eligibility and I am going to just be optimistic and believe he's going to get it, (or got it already).

His continued presence in the linebacking corps should ease the loss of Drew Quinn a bit as Mr. Quinn graduates in May. Cameron was a revelation this past season with 63 total tackles including 5 and a half for a loss. He only had eight total tackles in four games in an injury-marred 2007.

He'll join fellow linebacker, 1st team All Ivy and the Ivy League's leading tackler for 2008, Alex Gross.

As for the other linebackers, it will be very encouraging if the promising Matt Moretto, who was lost in '08 to injury, participates in this spring practice and the spring game.

I thought rising sophomore Nick Mistretta had a good freshman year and I do expect him to make a strong run to get higher on the depth chart.

Of course, I don't make the depth charts, so everyone listed as a linebacker on the roster is still in the mix.

But any way you look at it, getting Cameron back after what was a breakout year would be a huge help.

Kelly's Climb

When I first wrote about Chip Kelly's eventual promotion to head coach at Oregon, I think everyone assumed it would be another year before that actually happened.

Well, the future is now as the former Columbia assistant coach is now officially at the helm in the duck pond.

Bracket Laughter

And just to toot my own horn a bit, today's Seattle Times quoted a recent joke of mine about the NCAA tournament. I didn't think it was my best joke, but I'll take it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Another Success Story

0-10? Not in court!

So many of the men who played on the winless Columbia teams of the mid-1980's have become successful in their post-football careers. And a lot of them have come to realize that their adversity at Columbia taught them some invaluable lessons.

Matt Sodl '88 is one of those people and apparently so is Thomas J. Ramsdell '89, who credits his tough Columbia football experience with giving him the extra push to succeed as an attorney despite the fact he played just one varsity season, (1986).

I think every lawyer who sees Ramsdell representing the other side should just give up and push for a quick settlement right away!

Will We Lose Fordham?

The Liberty Cup: Are its days numbered?

Fordham Head Coach Tom Masella has told a group of Ram supporters that Fordham intends to offer full athletic scholarships in football as early as the next recruiting year.

In addition to putting Fordham in a presumably much stronger recruiting position, such a move could force its ouster from the Patriot League. It could also spell the end of the annual Liberty Cup game between Columbia and Fordham that began in 2002, (the Fordham-Columbia rivalry was renewed as an annual game in 2000).

Some Columbia fans would argue that losing Fordham on the schedule wouldn't be much of a loss. If the Rams indeed improve on the field to a large degree because of the scholarships, the competitive aspect of the game might go the way the Dartmouth-U. New Hampshire has gone in recent years as UNH has become a dominant FCS team. All the Big Green faithful's hopes that playing such a strong team year after year would make their team stronger haven't really come true.

Others would say they don't enjoy trekking up to Fordham's Jack Coffey Field every other year since the stadium doesn't have "away" stands and the uncomfortable aluminum bleachers are... uncomfortable.

These arguments are compelling.

But unless Fordham becomes as strong or stronger as UNH, I would hate to see this series come to an end. I have three reasons:

1) The Liberty Cup is a classy event that acknowledges the victims of the 9/11 attacks in a way that's becoming too rare in sporting events. Never Forget.

2) Fordham is a good enough academic school that a decent number of its football recruits are eligible for Ivy play. Who knows what will happen when some of the more studious Ram prospects see that there's an Ivy option just a few miles away? I like the idea of keeping them in the loop.

3) Fordham's stadium may not be the comfiest, but it's the easiest road game ever! The players get to sleep in their own beds, and the bus ride to Jack Coffey is just about the same length as the trip to Wien Stadium. I know gas prices have fallen off a cliff, but I still like to save money.


The NCAA powers that be decided not to give Lou Miller an at-large bid to the national tournament despite his 3rd place finish at the EIWA tournament last weekend. It's a bit of a robbery, but it does give him a little more time to get ready for spring practice which begins two weeks from today.

We're all still impressed with Lou's fantastic season on the mat.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In other News...

Lou Miller stars in two sports (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Returning 1st Time All Ivy defensive lineman Lou Miller could get an at large bid for the NCAA Wrestling Tournament after placing an impressive 3rd overall at the EIWA tournament last weekend.

Miller finished 22-11 overall this season despite having a lot less prep time for wrestling because of football. One can only expect Lou to be even more ready for the 2009 football season and stronger too after this quick turnaround experience.

Remember, Miller was my defensive and overall team MVP for 2008 as he led the team and the Ivies in sacks and tackles for a loss. Any improvement over last season would make him a Columbia legend!

Basketball's Year

I'm still hurting from the buzzer-beating three that gave Penn the win over the Lions in basketball Saturday night. And it's also a little sad to see only one Lion, Jason Miller, get any recognition on the All Ivy team.

But I do want to emphasize the positives here: 1) The team was picked to finish 6th and came in tied for 4th. 2) With all the injured players, it's amazing the Lions did as well as they did. 3) It sounds cliche, but it really looks good for next year with players like Patrick Foley, Asenso Ampim, Noruwa Agho, and Brian Grimes coming back hopefully healthy.

The women's All Ivy team should be announced soon, and we certainly expect standout Lion sophomore Judie Lomax to be recognized prominently.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kicked Ball

Does this guy do driveways?

Remember the infamous 1982 "Snow Plow Game" where the Patriots beat the heavily-favored Dolphins with a late field goal on a snowy field cleared by a snow plow operator on prison work release?

The name of the con on the plow was Mark Henderson, but the kicker was John Smith. And it turns out John Smith probably owed his NFL career to the late Columbia Lions great basketball coach Jack Rohan '53.

Say what?

Well, it goes like this. Smith was a Brit who came over to the U.S. in the summer of 1972 to teach soccer at a camp in Pittsfield, MA. Also at the camp that summer was Rohan, who noticed Smith's kicking ability and encouraged him to try American football. He got a tryout with the Patriots not long after and was on the starting roster by the '74 season.

Some coaches just have a great eye for talented athletes, no matter what sport they actually coach. Jack Rohan was one of those coaches.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Option on the Option

Olawale scores vs. Dartmouth (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

A few days ago I wrote about the Ivy League's apparent shift back to running QB's. It's not the whole league by any stretch, but the trend is catching on.

Of course, no discussion of Ivy League football and running QB's in the modern era can exclude the name of Mike Cavanaugh '96. For all of the 1994 season and most of the 1995 campaign, Cavanaugh was at the helm of a potent Columbia offense that made historic strides and every possession so exciting.

The 1994 season saw Cavanaugh and a very talented passing QB named Jamie Schwalbe '95 sharing the QB duties. While the Lion defense was evolving into a strong force, (this was Marcellus Wiley and Rory Wilfork's breakout year as well), it was the shuttle offense Columbia used that season that kept them in games week after week.

The high point of the year was a two week stretch when the Lions first whipped Yale at the Yale Bowl 30-9, and then edged Princeton 17-10 at homecoming. Columbia was inconsistent during the final weeks of the season, but the week nine 38-33 win over Cornell when both Cavanaugh and Schwalbe played flawlessly, clinched the first winning season for the Lions since 1971.

After Schwalbe graduated and Wiley sat out the 1995 season, many predicted that Cavanaugh and Columbia would suffer a terrible year. But the Lions came out strong with a thrilling 28-24 win over Harvard to start the year and 24-14 win over Penn a few weeks later that ended what was then the longest winning streak in college football.

But a broken leg in the week seven loss to eventual Ivy champ Princeton ended Cavanaugh's career and Columbia's hopes for another winning season. Ironically, Cavanaugh injured himself on a passing play, not during one of his gutsy runs that made people worry so much about injury.

That history has to be on a lot of Lion fans' minds as we head into the 2009 season with a QB like Millie Olawale who is definitely the most talented runner from that position that we've seen since Cavanaugh. Olawale's injury in the Brown game has to make everyone who wants him to take all the snaps week after week to at least take pause. Another consideration is Austin Knowlin, who may have to fight harder to make an impact with a running QB rather than a down the field passer under center.

On the other hand, who can deny that the Lions offense seemed to come to life from the moment Olawale came into the Dartmouth game and helped seal that victory? And it does seem like the coaches are finding lots of new ways to get Knowlin's hands on the ball, whether it's with direct snaps, screen passes, shovel passes, and of course punt and kick returning.

So what would be your call if you were in charge of this offense?

1) Let Olawale take all the snaps, run like crazy and see if anyone can stop him?

2) Have Olawale and Shane Kelly, Jerry Bell, Paul Havas, or any of the other QB's use a shuttle system and resurrect the magic of 1994?

3) Some other option?

None of us is actually a coach, and still it's an agonizing decision. If I had to choose I'd say I'd like to try option #2 to see if it works, but then be ready to go back to option #1 if it doesn't. The problem with that is it takes a while for Ivy teams to get used to new systems and it might be very unfair to ditch a shuttle system before week 5 when things really settle in.

It's questions like these that should make the spring game even more interesting to watch this season than usual.

40 days to go...

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Fordham Brings Us Good News

Now all we have to do is win the game!

I don't want to write anything too frivolous in light of the sad Kirk Mullings news, but there are two interesting pieces of news to pass along concerning Columbia's schedule for next season.

On the same day that U2 made their campus famous by performing a free concert on Rose Hill, Fordham has released their 2009 schedule with game times included, and I think there are two pieces of very good news for CU fans.

1) The Columbia-Fordham game on Sept. 19th at Fordham will again be Columbia's season opener, but it will only be the Rams second game of the season. Usually, Fordham has two or three games under its collective belt before they take on the Lions. That added experience has always been seen as an advantage for Fordham.

2) The game will begin at 6pm under the lights. Since September 19th is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish fans will be able to get to this game without skipping out on synagogue services! Every little bit helps folks.

Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Kirk Mullings Funeral Plans

A number of Kirk's teammates have passed along the following information about services for him:

Kirk’s funeral will be held this Sunday, March 8th at 3pm in Mt. Vernon, NY:

Lee O Wood Funeral Home
23 East 2nd Street
Mount Vernon, NY 10550

A group of people will be meeting at 1:15 PM on Sunday in the middle of Grand Central Station (by the island) to take the 1:37 PM Metro North train to Mount Vernon East (Direction: New Haven) to attend the service.

Also, after talking with Kirk's family, close friends of his have organized a collection to help Kirk’s family cover the unexpected and exorbitant funeral costs. If you would like to contribute, please contact Erin at erinchristen@gmail.com, and ask for the mailing address.

Kirk was very much loved and will be dearly missed.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Remembering Kirk Mullings

Kirk Mullings Facebook Picture

Several of Kirk Mullings '05 former teammates have contacted me to tell me that this very young alumnus has passed away.

I don't have the details on the cause of death, but I remember Mullings well as a plugger of a player and a great student who gave his all to Columbia.

Kirk came to Columbia from Mount Vernon High School in Westchester County, New York where he was a star tight end. But he did not come to Morningside Heights to play football... at first.

He walked on to the team his sophomore year in 2002, encouraged by a number of existing team members who knew him. 2002 turned out to be Head Coach Ray Tellier's last season. When Coach Bob Shoop took over the next year, he converted Mullings to defensive tackle and he immediately became a key backup.

The 2003 season featured one of the best Lion teams of the last 20 years and Mullings made an impact with three tackles for a loss. He went down in week seven against Yale with a broken leg, but worked hard to come back for the 2004 season.

In that senior year, he had 27 total tackles including a sack.

Mullings was a History major Dean's List student and also a member of the parliamentary debate team. In the summers he worked as a resident advisor for the Columbia summer school program for high school students.

Kirk Mullings was just 27 years old.

I know all of our readers send their condolences to his family and friends.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Scrambling Back to the Run

This could be the makings of an All Ivy QB

There's an old joke about a Rabbi who is angered to see all his congregants sending their children to the local private Friends Academy instead of Hebrew school. When he's accused of fostering anti-Quaker sentiments he says: "How can I be anti-Quaker? Some of my best Jews are Friends!"

I'm reminded of that joke when I see a transformation in the QB position in the Ivy League these days. It's more of a retro movement back to running QB's, (one that I have advocated for years... the pro-style QB thing just doesn't work for every team), and it could lead to the following exchange similar to the joke above:

Ivy Fan: Hey coach, why was there only one 1,000-yard rusher in the Ivies again this year?

Coach: Well, we're running spread offenses nowadays. This is not your father's Ivy football.

Ivy Fan: So, are you against the run?

Coach: How can I be against the run, some of my best passers are runners!

In the past, when I urged more of an emphasis on running from the QB position, I was shot down by other fans who noted the increased chances for injuries. I realize that's a real concern, but after seeing 20+ years of Ivy games where QB after QB forces passes instead of taking advantage of huge open field running opportunities, I'm happy for this change.

I'm also happy because I think Columbia's M.A. Olawale is the best of all the running QB's in the league. Penn fans may argue for their new signal-caller Kiefer Garton, but I think Olawale's athleticism speaks for itself. He's extremely fast for his size, and his size helps him bounce off or over most initial tacklers. His excellent scrambling played a huge role in both Columbia wins last season.

And here's a trivia question: Who ran for the longest gain from scrimmage in Ivy League football in 2008?

Answer: M.A. Olawale, 70 yards for a TD against Brown in week 10.

I'm convinced Ivy coaches are making this shift back to running QB's after years of seeing the tailback/fullback system fall on hard times, especially in the recruiting process. The BCS programs are simply carrying more running backs on their rosters and the result is we're seeing:

1) Fewer superstar backs in the Ivies, (the 1,000-yard rushers are becoming a rarer find than at any time since the 10-game schedule went into effect in 1980, and

2) The dominance of those few backs who are good is huge, (the healthy Mike McLeod at Yale two years ago was really unstoppable).

Whether this shift will be short-lived or a long-running era is hard to predict, but I have always loved the idea of a running QB who can hurt you in two ways. It's not what I want to see in the NFL where 350 pound defenders run at you at the speed of light, but at the college football level, it's a good deal.

What's also interesting is how many Penn fans, the ones who were the most vocally in favor of pro-style quarterbacking and who scoffed at my "risky" call for more running, are now converting to the same idea thanks to the success Garton had at the end of the 2008 season. Garton or no Garton, the consistent failure of the pure passing QB Robert Irvin to return Penn to the championship race after three seasons of trying, should have convinced them long before the middle of 2008.

It will be interesting to see how well opposing teams adjust to Olawale's and Garton's running in the coming season. It seems like when Olawale is confident on the field, no one can really stop him.

But whether Columbia succeeds with this model or not, I think this kind of offense is more exciting to watch. It certainly gives all the players, especially the offensive linemen, a better workout on the field!

The Countdown

Speaking of workouts, we're 200 days from the 2009 season opener, but just 46 days from the spring game and 23 days from the start of spring practice. We have a 300 day offseason this year, so we're only a third of the way through the wait, but by the time the spring game is being played we'll be about half way finished.

Some of the big schools, like South Carolina, have already started spring practice, or I should say they were SUPPOSED to, but those big tough BCS boys got a little scared of the cold weather.

I don't think the Ivy League would give any school that canceled a spring practice day a make-up day unless the weather was much worse than this.

Stan Responds!

For those of you who missed it, former Spectator sportswriter Stanley Waldbaum made a great comment on yesterday's post and I am reprinting it below. Thanks, Stan!

Jake, I hardly deserve the honor of being mentioned on your blog, which I do read every day and enjoy immensely. Only the Columbia players and coaches deserve the publicity. However, I was very fortunate indeed to be the Sports Editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator in 1961 when Columbia won its only Ivy League Football Championship. That was a great football team, and I cherish the memories. However, nothing would make me happier than to see this year's Columbia Football Team, under Coach Wilson, emulate the success of the 1961 Championship Team and bring another Ivy League Title to Columbia.

All Best Wishes.

Stan Waldbaum '62, Spring Valley New York

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Stan Waldbaum Update

A loyal reader tells me that the Stanley Waldbaum who wrote the piece I profiled last week is indeed an attorney in Westchester County. He also tells me that Mr. Waldbaum remains a very solid Columbia sports fan and he is present at many football and basketball games every season.

I hope someone tells him that we appreciate his work, even after all these years.

Dartmouth's Next Prez has Football Experience

Big Green Man on Campus

Dartmouth has named Dr. Jim Young Kim as its next president. Among other things, Kim started at QB for his high school football team!