Earlier this month I wrote that one of Al Bagnoli’s great attributes is that he always seems to adjust his team strategy to match the talent levels of his current roster. Sometimes that meant using a running QB set, sometimes that meant using a pro-style passing attack. Defensive units under Bagnoli were more consistent in their looks during the Bagnoli era, but we saw some radically different formations from the Quaker “D” from time to time.
But you don’t have to be a long-time Penn fan to know that the two priorities Bagnoli has always stressed for his teams have been a tough defense and a strong offensive line. As long as Penn had those two things, Bagnoli and his players always knew they had a good chance to win games, which they usually did.
Now making that a priority doesn’t make Bagnoli a genius, but the fact that he achieved it just about every one of his 23 years at Penn does.
So as we now are just five days away from the start of spring practice and the real beginning of the Bagnoli coaching era at Columbia, the real question is can he meet those priorities here?
Long term, I think the answer will be “yes.” But can he do it now?
As far as a tough defense is concerned, I think the chances are better. Led by seniors Niko Padilla and Toba Akinleye, I think the D-line is the strongest unit on the team. There’s talent in the linebacking crew as well and hard work should make the secondary good enough to not stand out as a weak link. I’ll be really surprised if the Columbia defense isn’t stronger than the Columbia offense in 2015.
Bolstering the offensive line and molding into a real strength is going to be a lot harder. For one thing, creating a solid offensive line is probably one of the hardest things to do in all sports. You need all five players on the line to be good enough individually and in synch to do even a passable job. Meanwhile, one really good WR or RB can make up for a lot of weaker links at the position. You get the picture.
Making matters even tougher for Bagnoli, Offensive Coordinator Mike Faragalli and Offensive Line Coach Jon McLauglin is the fact that the way the offensive line was managed under the Pete Mangurian regime was a case of gross malpractice. Player weights were messed with in a way no other coaching staff in the nation would ever do. The new coaching staff has a lot of damage to fix and it’s probably just as much mental as it is physical. But there’s reason to be optimistic here too. If we believe the previous coaches did such a bad job with this unit, new management might be more than half the battle.
I don’t know how much evidence of real improvement for the defense and the O-line we’ll be able to see at the two public scrimmages on April 19th and the 26th at 4pm. But I do think we’ll see some real joy and excitement on the field and in the stands.