Saturday, September 11, 2010

Oh, Who Owns New York?

Hail the returning captain! Alex Gross

Columbia Lions Season Preview 2010

I have picked Columbia to come in third in the Ivies this season. For my detailed look at the rest of the league, click here.


I want to begin the overview of the 2010 Columbia Lions by talking about momentum.

Columbia finished the 2009 season with a pair of nice wins over Cornell and Brown.

The 28-14 win over the Bears in the finale was easily the best Lions game of the entire decade, filling the heads of Columbia fans with nice memories to last the whole off season.

Surely, the way the Lions ended 2009 should serve as strong momentum coming into 2010… right?

Well, that would be right if there was such a thing as season-to-season momentum in Ivy League football.

There isn’t.

With a 300-day off season, and no real red shirting, each Ivy season is a very unique emotional entity. Yes, about 75% of the players come back for most teams and the better programs develop their talent over time. But psychological momentum for a bunch of kids who see six months the way the rest of us see six years, is at a premium.

But if you do want to draw serious positives from the end of the Columbia season, focus more on the Cornell game than the Brown victory.

Why? Because the Cornell win was more of a comeback win, a gutsy win, a win that took physical and emotional fortitude. The kind of win that has eluded the Lions all too many times over the last few seasons.

The Lions jumped out to a big lead in Ithaca, only to find themselves trailing at halftime. Then a seeming go-ahead drive was killed by an ill-advised move by QB Sean Brackett at the end of a run that resulted in a fumble.

The coaches responded by pulling Brackett for M.A. Olawale, who was much more injured than the fans and the Big Red realized. With only his legs as workable weapons, M.A. brought the team back and held the lead thanks to the defense creating turnover after turnover.

Yes, Cornell was really a lousy team last season. But the Lions ability to come back and grab that one on the road was a great statement that Columbia fans must hope the returning veterans can remember.

It seems like the team remembered it a week later when trailing heavily-favored Brown by a 7-0 score, the Lions rallied and took control of the game in the second quarter. Beating the Bears was indeed more impressive than the victory over the Big Red, but the seeds for that win were planted the week before.

But again, it’s a stretch to believe this team, or any team, could still be riding that emotionally confident high 42 weeks later.

What remains is what I believe is Columbia’s best pool of talent and experience in many years.

No, the defense isn’t as dominant and deep as the 8-2 “Wiley-Wilfork” squad from 1996. But it is filled with All Ivy starting players on all three lines with experienced backups as well.

No, the offense isn’t as potent as the early-1980’s John Witkowski-led teams. But it is led by the speediest, most exciting, and overall best equipped QB in the Ivies along with the deepest and most talented running backs corps at CU since a still-healthy Greg Abbruzzese and Solomon Johnson shared the tailback duties in 1988.

There is one very, very important caveat to this talent factor: recovering injuries.

Some of the most important Lions must stay healthy and avoid re-aggravating recent injuries for Columbia to even have a chance to reach its full potential this year. Alex Gross, Owen Fraser, and to a lesser extent Calvin Otis, and Matt Moretto could make or break the season for the Lions based on their ability to play and play at full speed each week.

And players like Brackett and Andrew Kennedy, who stayed healthy last season, need to keep it that way in 2010.

But talent, injuries, and bad weather aside, the theme for this season on Morningside Heights and Inwood is ownership.

Who “owns” this team now? That’s the question, and it’s as easy to answer as it is important.

There are three people who have had more to do with this team’s development than anybody else over the last five years.

The first is obviously Head Coach Norries Wilson. This will be his fifth season at the helm and that means these are all his players, his coaches, his program. ‘Nuff said.

Second, is the one key assistant coach who has been in his crucial spot since Wilson took over, and that’s offensive coordinator Vinny Marino.

The offense made some important strides last season and must continue to do so this year for the Lions to take the next step in the Ivies. But more important than all that, is the emotional tone Marino sets for this team. He plays a huge role in this area… not just on offense.

And finally, there’s Athletic Director Dianne Murphy. Fairly or not, her tenure will be mostly judged by the success of the football program. Coach Wilson was her first big hire, and he must be getting good support from her and the department to amass the playing talent he has and get the obvious physical improvements to the football facilities since 2005. Under Murphy, fundraising for athletics has increased markedly, despite year three of the current economic downturn.

But now it’s time to start recording winning seasons.

The 2010 season is mostly in the hands of these three people. They own it. And if the Lions make the most of their talent at hand, they will own New York.

The young Sean Brackett has the Lion offense in his hands... and feet (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)


Columbia emerged as one of the best running teams in the Ivies last season thanks to two great running QB’s and the best overall offensive line the Lions have had in two decades.

But one of those QB’s and 3/5 of that offensive line are now gone to graduation.

The good news is Brackett is just a sophomore now. He's fast as ever, strong-armed, dangerous as ever with the option, and seemingly better at deciding where to throw the football and avoiding unnecessary hits.

I recently learned that Brackett does not wear #10 out of deference to the great Fran Tarkenton, who made that number famous for QB’s a very long time ago. BUT he would be wise to emulate the great scrambler’s style of play. Tarkenton rarely took hits at all despite running for his life half the time.

The offensive line offers a bit of a mixed picture. Bob Hauschildt could be a 1st Team All Ivy player as he enters his junior year. He and returning 1st Team All Ivy Jeff Adams at left tackle will make the left side of the Lion O-Lion a virtual brick wall.

Returning senior Ian Quirk should have the right guard slot locked down.

But the right tackle and center positions are more of an X factor right now. Strong play by whomever gets the nod at those slots is going to be crucial.

The talent at running back is incredibly deep. Seniors Zack Kourouma and Leon Ivery had the two longest runs from scrimmage in the entire Ivy League last season. Sophomore Nick Gerst, with his explosive speed is progressing nicely. And don’t forget freshman Marcorus Garrett and what he is bringing to the table with speed and elusiveness. Throw in Brackett’s flawless execution of the option last season and you have the makings of an unstoppable running attack at Wien Stadium this fall.

Columbia doesn’t need a 1,000 yard rusher in 2010, but 2-3 guys with 600 yards or more is doable.

And it is probably necessary.

That's because another obvious issue with the Columbia offense is the loss of WR Austin Knowlin, also to graduation. But the #1 all-time Lion receiver doesn’t have to be replaced, as much as the Lion attack needs to adjust to using different weapons.

Those weapons are at least plentiful in number as Columbia sports no less than 13 wide receivers on the roster. They’re led by retuning senior Mike Stephens, who has added size to his overall weapons with some serious time in the weight room.

Andrew Kennedy hauls one in (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Stephens will need one or two of the other 12 guys to step up as a reliable option at WR, but the pressure will be off the split ends if tight end Andrew Kennedy continues his progression to the top of the Ivies at his position.

Kennedy’s rare speed and knack for getting open resulted in some spectacular TD’s last year, but if he can start averaging 5-6 receptions per game and be a go-to-guy on third downs more often that should be enough for this offense to take the next step. Meanwhile, freshman TE Chris Mooney is looking like a great backup to Kennedy this season.

Over and above the personnel, Columbia must improve its results in the red zone this season. The Lions need more touchdowns in the tight moments of every game, period. And that’s where Coach Marino comes in the most.

His teams are talented; He has recruited well.

Now he needs to squeeze that extra element of confidence and swagger out of his troops. That can be hard to do; a lot of college players even on BCS teams mistake craziness and recklessness with healthy swagger.

With so much riding on the health of players like Brackett, Columbia doesn’t need crazy. It needs rational exuberance coupled with the knowledge that every screw-up won’t be met with the kind of riot act you might hear from a Bill Parcells. Ivy players are different.


New defensive coordinator Denauld Brown needs to bring this unit back from an injury-scarred 2009 campaign. The two best defensive players overall, Fraser and Gross, were gone before half the season was over. The result was a less reliable Lion “D”, especially against the run, than Columbia enjoyed in 2008.

Fraser is back and looks like he is ready to play. Gross could be playing even better right now. Keeping them healthy is a big key.

But as mentioned earlier, the health of players like Moretto and Otis are also important. Moretto could complete the Lion linebacking corps if he is ready to play at the level of his healthy freshman season in 2007. Otis missed much of 2009 at the primary cornerback position and his experience could be a game-changer in 2010.

But the biggest concern has to be the overall defensive line, not only because of Fraser’s health but also because of the graduation of Lou Miller. Lou led the Ivies in sacks in 2008 and 2009, and Columbia has to prove it can pressure opposing QB’s without him. Josh Smith seems to be the best returning defensive end, and sophomore Will Paterson looked good last season, but it would seem like the Lions will step back in this area at least a little in 2010.

At defensive tackle, Fraser has a good counterpart in Chris Groth. But the depth at this position is the question. Could Columbia win a game against a quality opponent without one or both of them in the lineup? That seems like a stretch right now.

Depth does not seem like the problem in the secondary. Safety Adam Mehrer leads this talented crew along with Otis, Kalasi Huggins, Ross Morand, Augie Williams, and Neil Schuster. All of them have serious game experience with results. Throw in the new and super experienced secondary coach Jeff Gutekunst and you have all the makings of a squad that should be a tremendous strength for Columbia this season.

The linebacking crew also looks good overall. Gross and Moretto are back, as are Marc Holloway and Nick Mistretta. Evan Miller returns after a decent trial by fire after Gross’ injury last season. Depth is kind of a mystery here after that, so we’ll have to check the first two-deep to see who is playing where. But it’s hard to think of this unit as a liability if Gross stays healthy and Holloway or Mistretta are more consistent this season.

Special Teams

Everyone knows the Lions need to improve the placekicking situation, and I assume the competition for the starting slots is still raging in training camp. But Columbia is certainly not hurting for bodies in this area with the pickup of two great-looking freshmen in Luke Eddy and Tyler Feely. They or returning veterans Dean Perfetti and Greg Guttas seem like a good bet to improve things overall in this area.

Punting looks solid. It was actually for most of 2009.

Another concern is replacing Knowlin at kick and punt returner. That seems like it will be a mystery until we hear from coaches or see a two-deep. Stay tuned.

Best Overall Strength

On paper it’s the secondary, but the multiple weapons Brackett presents should have more of an impact on each game.

Biggest Overall Weakness

You have to look past personnel here and say it’s still that “killer instinct” thing. The results of the Cornell game seem to show this could be changing, but the Lions need to start relaxing and just executing when it counts in the close games.

Key Early Game to Watch

The most important game of the year is probably the Penn game in week 5, but that’s too late in the year to call it “early.”

The Princeton game is usually crucial, but the Tigers seem pretty wounded this time around. A win there would not be as impressive or as telling as it would have been two or three years ago.

I think the game against Towson in week two may be a bigger indicator than what one might think on first glance.

The Towson Tigers have an elusive running QB like most Ivy teams currently feature. They also have a battle-tested club that’s already faced a massive challenge by taking on a Big 10 team on the road. And next week, Towson will play the FCS defending champs Villanova also on the road.

A win in that game and you know the Lions have what it takes to beat anyone in the Ivies. A loss, and perhaps they don’t have the focus they need for the long haul.

Speaking of the long haul, the Lions have a very rough schedule this year as they have to face Penn, Harvard and Brown all on the road.

Does Columbia have what it takes to break into that upper echelon Harvard and Penn currently dominate?

If this were just a question of talent, I'd say yes.

But I think this program and its fans need to see this team start to take ownership of close games and all the inevitably adversity just a little more this year.


It’s a close race between two men. Both of them are all-time Columbia record holders at their positions.

Running back Johnathan Reese vs. Wide Receiver Austin Knowlin.

It’s a tough call, but I have to go with Reese. Anyone who saw him play know how he dominated games on his own at times. His 200 season alone is probably enough to put him over the top.

Knowlin was exciting, game-changing, and a warrior when it comes to playing in every game for four straight years.

But Reese is your Columbia Lion of the decade.


At Sat Sep 11, 04:01:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent report Jake. And please accept my best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.

At Sat Sep 11, 04:07:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great write-up, Jake. You covered it all with perhaps one exception and maybe I missed it and, if so, I apologize to you. As I see it, the one really extra important thing is that Columbia plays its first four games at home. What that means is that every single healthy player on the Columbia roster will be dressed to play on the Columbia sidelines through games one thru four. That's much better, in my opinion, then having away games to start the season where only the travelling squad makes the trip. Go Lions!

At Sat Sep 11, 04:26:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger DOC said...

Kudos Jake for a nice synopsis of what we get to look forward to this year. Your points about momentum and killer instinct are also well taken.
The difference between the upper third of the league and the rest may well depend on attitude in the face of adversity. We know the talent is there- can we take it to the next level?

At Sat Sep 11, 04:31:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, Jake, Nor Cal Preps. Com just reported that Columbia Basketball has made an offer to a talented 6'3" point guard from the San Francisco Area named Noah Springwater, who played on the U.S. 16 and under team that won a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games.

At Sat Sep 11, 06:14:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jake for a superb analysis. The crucial question issue I have is : How good are our backup QB's, and can they fill in and still keep us high in the standings as you predict--or does everything rest on the shoulders of Brackett? I agree he is extremely talented, but he did only play a few games, and-- perish the thought-- he is very suspectible to getting injured, given he is a scrambler. Every team will go after him right away. Olawale was a bull, and even he got knocked out. Regrettably it happens with all QB's, just look at the NFL. So if Brackett goes down early, do we just throw up our hands and call it a day, or do we have real confidence that we can shoulder on without him. (Sorry to be such a downer, but I think it is worth understanding).

At Sat Sep 11, 07:38:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

player of the decade .....crap jake. lou millers old man puts in a vote for............hell, lou miller

At Sat Sep 11, 08:17:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

live blog on Sat., 3 ET


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