Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Columbia Lions Football 2015: Now the Fun Starts


In 1983, the title of the New York Mets yearbook and the yearlong marketing slogan was, "Now the Fun Starts." 

The message was pretty clear: the team did not expect to win a championship that season, but it was starting to put together the elements of a future contender. More importantly, the steady and depressing decline of the team that began in 1977 was finally over. 

"Now the Fun Starts" would be a good way to depict what fans can and should expect from the Columbia Lions this season. With a legendary and vigorous Al Bagnoli taking over as head coach, and the brilliant and ambitious new athletic director Peter Pilling providing him with knowledgeable and effective administrative support, the depressing decline of Columbia Football is over. 

Even before the season officially starts in three days, we've already seen numerous positive changes that far outweigh the typical makeover a program gets with every coaching change. Readers of this blog have learned of all these changes as they've occurred, but the key changes have been the improved weight and strength results, the addition of three key transfer players, and 180-degree change in the football program's attitude and relationship with the fans, alumni, and the rest of the student body. The one thing that embodies all these positive changes is the decision to hold some Friday run-through practices right on South Lawn. That was a move that was a result of listening to the long-time fans, realizing the presence of the team needed to be elevated for the existing students, and - most importantly - rejecting the entrenched "no can do" response to these ideas we've heard from administrators at Columbia for 50 years. 

But it's the on-the-field changes that mean the most and we'll remember the most. And while I do not expect this year's Lions team to contend for the Ivy League title, I do expect the game day experience to be fun again as Columbia becomes more competitive and shows some areas of exciting strength. 

That means the losing streak will end this season. Even the games Columbia loses will not be as excruciating to watch. New stars on both sides of the ball will emerge. And the building blocks for a true contender will become very evidence by the end of the season. 

Let the fun begin. 


Mornhinweg will take the helm

Defense wins championships, but great offensive skill players are what pack the stands and get fans excited. They bring the fun. The last two seasons of Columbia football have really been devoid of a top of the line offensive skill player. So who will bring the fun in 2015?

Of course, you can't have any fun or even boring effectiveness on offense without the hard work getting done on the offensive line. And the offensive line has been a key problem for Columbia for a very long time. The best news is that the insane policy of keeping the O-line lighter is long gone with the old coaching staff. Another piece of good news is the new coach for this unit is Jon McLaughlin, who comes into this season with a more solid Ivy experience and success at this kind of job than the Lions have ever had at this position. But there are still some real challenges. The biggest challenge is at Center, where Columbia's decision to shift the very talented Charlie Flores to that position has been thwarted by an injury that will likely keep him out for much or all of the season. The newly installed read option offense should help relieve some of the damage from that weakness, but it's a major concern. It looks like Marshall Markham will now be on the spot at Center and the other starters will be Kendall Pace at LT, Billy Lawrence at RT, and Nathan Gibbs and Bewley Wales at the guards. I think the O-line play will be better this year, but with the injuries, I don't think it will be a strength. The best news is the coaches have installed an offense that recognizes this and doesn't rely on a bunch of undersized kids to pull off a miracle.

That new read option attack will accentuate the talents of the top two QB's, Florida junior transfer Skyler Mornhinweg and sophomore Anders Hill. I strongly believe Mornhinweg will be the starting QB, but I also expect Bagnoli to stick to his tradition of using a second QB for about 20%-30% of every game to mix things up and reduce the odds of injury to the top signal caller. And both of these QB's are really fun to watch because they roll out well, generally throw well, and truly run well. Mornhinweg is simply throwing the ball more accurately and that's why he'll be the starter, but there will be no letdown when Hill comes in thanks to his added bulk and slightly better speed.

The closest thing to a fun player to watch on offense since 2013 has been senior co-captain RB Cameron Molina, who found a way to step it up a notch last season despite another 0-10 record. Molina's combined talents as a runner and a receiver are his best calling card and I expect him to improve even more this season playing that duel role in the new offense. Junior Alan Watson is showing good speed and will be a good second option at tailback.

Another fun player to watch will be Duke transfer FB Jackson Conway. Conway is a very big player by Ivy standards and it looks like the offense will look to throw the ball to him with some regularity in addition to relying on him for blocking and possibly some running. The improving sophomore Leander Cutler is out for the year with an ACL injury, necessitating a position change for the returning Mark Cieslak from LB to FB to back Conway up.

The wide receiving corps is a lot harder to get a read on from my vantage point, but I do expect one or two receivers to break out as "fun" players to watch this season. Right now, there's a chance those players will both be freshmen. One is Tre Gabriel, who was a late addition to the class and happens to be the first player purely recruited and brought into the program by the Bagnoli staff. Gabriel is very short, but very fast and possesses the best hands many of us have ever seen at CU. The other newcomer is Brandon Krcilek, who isn't a speed demon but has a unique knack for getting open. So now, the challenge is to the large crop of older players at this position to prove they deserve to start over these exciting new guys. Senior Scooter Hollis is likely to start at one WR spot, so he has the best chance to represent the older players. I'm still very high on the talents of sophomore Marcus Briscoe, and juniors Cameron Dunn, Denzel Hill, and Toure Douglas. Senior Andrew Dobitsch is also a potential starter. Don't be surprised if any of those upperclassmen break out. The bottom line is Associate Head Coach/Receivers Coach Mark Fabish has a lot of personnel to shuffle through here, but he certainly knows what it takes to make it at this position in the Ivies. His last few seasons at Penn in this same job were marred by key injuries to top players, so at least he has more players to work with as he has 14 players at the position on the roster.

A really fun position to watch in football when you have the right guy is Tight End. Senior Co-Captain Nick Durham has been mostly a blocking weapon during his career, but expect him to get some more touches this season. Junior John Hunton also has a chance to make an impact this year as more of a receiver. This is a position crying out for an explosive receiving upgrade ever since the great Andrew Kennedy '11 graduated after the 2010 season and the talented Hamilton Garner '14 was inexplicably taken out of the offensive attack by the previous regime.

Getting back to the fun, this newly released video featuring Offensive Coordinator Mike Faragalli and Molina doesn't really give us too many details, but it has an undertone of fun written all over it.


Niko Padilla's intensity will pay off more noticeably this season

Look no further than the front of the defense for the fun, the excitement, and the heart of the 2015 Lions. This defensive line, first identified as the strength of the team by Bagnoli in his introductory news conference, is the real deal. Seniors dominate the story, with senior Niko Padilla the most enduring standout at DT. Padilla has been the best overall player on this team for a few years running and he should finally get the chance to prove it with a 1st Team All Ivy year. His intensity in games and at practice is evident for everyone to see, but this season that intensity will be less a response to hopeless defeats and more about success. I'm predicting that for him because he has an abundance of help this season. His fellow senior Toba Akinleye has improved every year he's been with the team and he returns now as the team's defending total tackles leader. Returning 5th year senior Chad Washington has played so well and with so much enthusiasm that he was elected co-captain by a team where most of the personnel never actually played a game with him on the field. Padilla, Washington and Akinleye should provide plenty of excitement and fun this season.

But there's a lot of talented depth to compliment those three biggest D-line stars. I'm a big fan of sophomore Lord Hyeamang, who is positively huge after his off season workout regimen. 5th year senior Hunter Little can make an impact. Senior JD Hurt is bigger, battle tested, and ready. A good number of the other sophomores and juniors are healthy and ready to go. It's going to be flat out fun to watch this unit go to work sacking QB's and stuffing runs. And the improved play here will make the rest of the defense look a lot better.

That's a good thing because, to begin with, there are some real questions at linebacker. Juniors Gianmarco Rea and Keith Brady, along with senior Max Keefe are all back and healthy. It's great to have three returning starters at LB, but they will all need to step up their games to bolster that defensive line. If the linebackers aren't up to the challenge, opposing teams will kill the Lions with screens, draws and lots of underneath throws. Sophomores Hagen Patterson and Ian Tyler may be ready to make an impact, but this is a unit that really has almost as many question marks as the offensive line. The "fun factor" here will come with the emergence of any kind of a top player at this position.

UPDATE: The just-released two-deeps show transfer Christian Conway not only moving to linebacker, but starting at one of the three linebacker slots. 

The secondary is pretty much in the same boat. But the return of some players who were out a lot last year because of injury or off the team entirely should help. Senior Travis Reim was a lot of fun to watch as a freshman thrown into the fire of the starting lineup. It hasn't been all that much fun for him since, but he's poised for a great push in his final season. Senior Trevor Bell is another exciting player to watch and he quietly improved last season in every aspect of his game. It also looks like Bell will be the primary kick returner this season, where he can be explosive. Junior Brock Kenyon is a talented player who makes things happen. It seems most likely that the above three players will be the starters for 2015. The "fun" factor could come from a "new/old" face.

The new/old face is Brandon Blackshear, a very talented player from Oregon who left the team after the 2012 season.

The best news for the secondary is the defensive line should make attacking them a lot harder for opposing QB's this fall. The bad news is that this unit still seems rusty and susceptible to getting burned from time to time. There's nothing fun about getting toasted for a long pass play, but there's also nothing that seems to get the crowd more excited than an INT. This is a group that has feast or famine potential in that way.

Special Teams

Bell is a solid kick returner and again, I think he will continue in that role and may also take the primary punt return duties this year as well. But I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing some new names in these roles very soon.

I thought Cameron Nizialek did a good job as the punter last year and see no reason to replace him.

Place kicker is another story. Sophomore Noah Zgrablich has been very reliable on extra points and showed some boom this summer on his kickoffs. But the field goal kicking situation still seems dire. Zgrablich was just 2-6 on FG's last season and his long was just 37 yards. Freshman Chris Alleyne does not seem to be the answer here either. Perhaps this is why another freshman, Fernando Pasqual-Marquez, has walked on to the team.

A lot of the good work and fun from the rest of the team will spoil quickly if Columbia continues to be unable to hit 30-yard field goals. Improvement here is a real priority.

The Schedule

The final piece to this "fun puzzle" is the schedule. Columbia needs to end the current losing streak and show some real life as early as possible to create some positive buzz for the fan base and potential fan base in the student body.

There's good news on that front because I think the first five games of the season present more winnable game opportunities than the second half of the 10 game slate. I think the week 2 home opener against Georgetown is a must win, period. The games against Princeton, Wagner and Homecoming against Penn are also not beyond the realm of possible wins.

The second half, with road games against Dartmouth and Yale and home contest against Harvard, looks tougher. The road game in week nine against Cornell seems like the best chance for an Ivy all season long, but this is a team that hasn't won a road game at all since 2009... against Cornell.

But win or lose, I'm looking forward to the two night home games against Wagner and Brown. And anyone who doesn't see the inherent drama of Al Bagnoli going up against his old Penn team on Homecoming just isn't getting it.

Let the fun begin.


Scott R. Nelson said...

Is there an offshore line for the Fordham game this weekend? I am commissioner of a friendly CFB pool, and I'd like to put that game in my pool. Thanks, Scott (GSAS 2000)

I remain, very truly yours, Richard Szathmary said...

Pilling may indeed be a "brilliant" AD, We'll certainly see this coming year. But the departure of women's basketball coach Stephanie Glance raises many questions and is certainly inauspicious. Women's hoops is definitely a sport that coulduse some rejuvenation at Columbia; Glance was supposed to provide it.

Anyone also know if Maodo Lo is back in school ad sway from that distracting national team-Eurobasket thing yet?

Jake said...

Fordham is favored by 40 points. Under/Over is 59

oldlion said...

Lo is back. So is Rosie. Likewise Mullins.

alawicius said...

40 points?? C'mon, Jake, you're joking, right?


Jake said...

I wish I were.

DOC said...

I think you nailed it Jake when you discuss fun being associated with being competitive. Last two years very disheartening for our athletes.
Most stuck it out- we hope that the bounce back effect of being in games will lead to even greater success. I am concerned about the O-Line.If we cant sustain drives our Defense will become gassed late in contests.

Roar Lion said...

Very good preview. Let's hope we're a lot better than the bookmakers think. We're certainly bigger and older than we've been the past two years. Lots of seniors in key positions -- generally older players are stronger. I'm an optimist, I think we're going to surprise people. I just hope someone can catch the ball.

josh gershfield said...

It might be too early but we must start thinking about possible transfers for next year in the defensive backfield and skill position groups. Here are some possible athleticy and most importantly academic fits: 1. Dan Beilinson TE Duke(backup tight end with little playing time Junior majoring in biochemical engineering. He could graduate and then transfer to Columbia as a graduate student). He is a big target and was a very good recruit out of high school.
2. Ryan Gaertner CB Stanford: He hasn't played at all so far in his career. He is an AP and Notional Society Scholar and on the student leadership council. He is obviously a great fit at an Ivy League school. Not to mention, he could graduate and transfer to CU as a grad. student. He is also a good athlete for he was an high school sprinter.