The calendar says this is the second year of the Al Bagnoli era at Columbia. But it still feels much more like we’re still in year one.
And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing.
It’s good for two reasons. First, it proves that there are still a lot of things getting fixed about the program as a whole. It’s kind of like getting your house remodeled and a good deal of the workmen are still there. Second, and this is very important, the still “newish” feel of everything around the program should go a long way toward eliminating the almost inevitable second year letdown teams often suffer when they come under new coaching regimes. Even the 19-20 year-olds on the team, who usually see two years as an eternity compared to those of us in our 40’s and 50’s, are still looking at this stage of the Bagnoli era as being something very new. And of course with about 40 or so freshmen now on the roster, the largest single section of the team really is in year one.
But emotional highs and lows aside, Columbia generally has several good reasons to believe it can improve on last year’s 2-8 record. The bigger question is whether the Lions have a chance to jump into the ranks of teams that can truly break into the top echelon of the Ivy League right now.
Bagnoli delivered early on the hope to make Columbia a more relevant team right away. The Lions were competitive in all but one game last season and they enjoyed a gargantuan leap statistically over their numbers in 2014 and 2013. And yet they still didn’t really overreach out of the gate as they were unusually unlucky not to have finished 2015 with at least two more wins. In that sense, perhaps 2016 will be more about matching 2015’s rightful total of four wins rather than making a quantum leap into title contention.
The team itself is reminiscent of the Oakland Raider teams of the 1970s and early 80s that were filled with traded players, rejects, and some guys the rest of the league was literally afraid to be around.
Despite that, the Raiders had the best record in the NFL during that period and won three Super Bowls behind guys other teams passed or gave up on like Jim Plunkett, Ted Hendricks, Lyle Alzado, and Mark Haynes.
Consider LB and team captain Chris Conway. He and his twin brother Jackson Conway were committed to Yale until the Elis suddenly were forced to fire Head Coach Tom Williams over a resume scandal. The brothers saw their commitments shockingly rescinded by new Head Coach Tony Reno and they were forced to go to Duke. They both transferred to Columbia last year and both made a significant impact right away. They also meted out what they hope is just the first half of a measure of revenge by participating in the 17-7 Lion win over Yale at the Bowl last season. Chris was especially potent in that game with several sacks and tackles for a loss.
Consider promising freshman LB Levi McQuinn. He started 2015 as an Air Force commit and even reported to Colorado Springs to begin training camp. But when it turned out his knee wasn't completely recovered from a high school injury, he left the academy and had to spend all of last season back home. Like the Al Davis of old, Columbia took a shot on him and it looks like he will pay dividends sometime soon.
But when it comes for waiting for those dividends from the journeyman players and everyone else, one thing is for sure: Columbia fans and alumni are still in very much of a patient mode either way. The Bagnoli honeymoon is still very much alive.
Every truly good team begins with a good offensive line. Columbia usually doesn’t have anything close to a good offensive line and you can basically use that fact as a guide to explain the program’s general futility for the last 50+ years. But this year’s starting front five and key backups doesn’t just look good by Columbia standards, it’s very good by the standards of the entire league. Four starters with talent return in NFL prospect LT Kendall Pace, LG Charlie Flores, RG Nathan Gibbs, and RT Bewley Wales. The starting Center is likely to be promising sophomore Tyler Shonewolf, who was one of the first players brought in by the Bagnoli coaching staff late in the process last year. Ben Robbins and Michael McGrath are good backups and freshman Joseph Scowden is going to get playing time sooner rather than later. He’s going to be a star.
There’s a lot you can do with a good offensive line, and the evidence suggests the Columbia coaches are going to take this fancy new vehicle out for a serious spin with an up tempo offense, screen passes, and confidently running the ball by committee. And of course you can throw the ball deep, which was something the Lions did so rarely last season it’s not clear it was even in the playbook. But that brings us to another strength for Columbia, and that’s the QB position. Considering all the upheaval last year and the very late arrival on the scene by transfer Skyler Mornhinweg, the new Lion starting signal caller did pretty well. And even though #2 QB Anders Hill wasn’t new to the team last year, he was thrust into serious playing time for the first time as a collegian. And he too did better than many could have expected. The fact that Columbia returns both of these QB’s this season with a lot more work and time to get more comfortable behind them is an unusual asset for the Lions and especially unique in a season where almost every other team in the Ivies is going through big changes at that position. Mornhinweg and Hill may not be a pair of 1st Team All Ivy passers, but they are more than good enough to lead Columbia and challenge the best opponents. This is something Columbia has lacked for at least four years since Sean Brackett ‘13 graduated.
It may seem crazy to consider the Lion wide receiving corps to be a positive after last year’s generally anemic performance. But on a relative scale, it’s a near certainty this unit will be a lot better this season. The top two receivers from last year, Scooter Hollis and Cameron Dunn, are coming back. But one sophomore and two freshmen look like they’re going to radically shake up the group, starting with spectacular freshman Josh Wainwright. Fellow freshman Christian Everett has been impressive so far as well, and short, speedy, and soft-handed sophomore Tre Gabriel is going to get into the mix this season too. The Tight Ends are also much more likely to see more receptions this season led by underrated senior John Hunton. Considering the new personnel and the pace of the new offensive scheme, it’s really not a stretch to expect Columbia to almost double its passing totals from last year.
By contrast, the running game put up surprisingly strong numbers in 2015 that will be harder to match or exceed. But with the offensive line strength in front of them, the several backs hoping to replace All Ivy graduate Cameron Molina have at least a shot to do it. Coming into camp, senior Alan Watson was clearly the leader on the depth chart, but it appears he may now have been eclipsed by junior Chris Schroer and freshmen Tanner Thomas and Lynnard Rose. I say "appears” because the actual two deep at running back has to be the biggest preseason mystery still surrounding the team. But the very good news is that with this offensive line, anyone carrying the rock for the Lions will have every chance to let his talents shine. And if each of these backs has different ways of attacking a defense, the O-line should be able to give the coaches the option of mixing and matching those weapons to confuse opposing defenses. The best guess is that Bagnoli, who favored two running back offenses in his last decade or so at Penn, will settle on two players to alternate at tailback to run behind the excellent blocking fullback Jackson Conway. Last year, Bagnoli just didn’t seem to have enough talent to make Molina share those running duties in any serious way. This year, he just might.
Overall, even with the loss of Molina, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Lions offense won’t be noticeably better than it was in 2015. It could even be very good.
Chris Conway zeroes in on a QB
The Lions defense wasn’t just good last year, it was at times dominant. And if it was obvious that the defense was going to be just as good this season, there would be reason enough to get positively giddy about Columbia’s overall chances.
But the problem is we don’t know that, even though almost every key linebacker and defensive back is returning. That’s because four essential players on the defensive line graduated and it’s hard to overstate just how much they all contributed to Columbia’s 2015 defensive success. Gone are Chad Washington, Toba Akinleye, Niko Padilla, and Hunter Little. They may not have racked up a ton of sacks consistently, but they pressured passers and kept the opposing rushing stats exceedingly low. One key starter from the D-line last year, underrated junior Dominic Perkovic, is back along with fellow promising junior DT Lord Hyeamang. But it’s hard to believe the new starters at the defensive end positions and all the backups will be as good as the crew from last season… at least not yet. The starting ends should be junior Connor Heeb and sophomore Mike Hinton. Heeb looked very good in the spring game and Hinton is loaded with talent, but they both might need another year to really break out. The backups at the DE and DT positions offer some promise. Freshman DT Arman Samouk has been impressive in camp and the enigma that is junior Alexander Holme could really contribute at DE. So could fellow junior DE’s Ian Tyler and Liam Talty. Getting back to the DT slot, expect slimmed down, (in a good way), Cole McDonough to see some time on the field as well. But the Lions will need to figure out the best combination here and fast.
The situation is rosier at linebacker, where Columbia returns all three starters from a stunningly strong unit last season. Senior transfer Christian Conway was the only new player introduced into the mix, while seniors Keith Brady and Gianmarco Rea had breakout seasons. Of course, one question some are asking is whether the CU linebackers in 2015 were only made to look good because the D-line in front of them was so talented? It’s not the worst question to ask, but anyone who saw how well the three starters really got after the ball carriers last year would not doubt this unit all that much. The added good news is freshman Jalen Williams is turning some serious heads and may even crack the starting lineup this year. His fellow freshman Levi McQuinn looks strong and key 2015 backup Cal Falkenhayn is set to make some noise as a sophomore. This is a very talented and deep unit. The only bad news is it looks like the Lions have permanently lost the very good Hagen Patterson to injury.
The secondary also appears like it will be a bright spot, if it can remain injury free. Senior CB Jared Katz underwent one of the most impressive transformations in 2015 after a brazen challenge from the coaches to get tougher in his play. Now, he’s getting a look from NFL scouts. Junior CB Cameron Roane made some serious noise last season before succumbing to injury. Returning senior starter Brock Kenyon at safety is a big strong hitter who has all the tools. The one question is who will step up at that other safety position, but it looks like junior Landon Baty is going to get the nod for now. With two shutdown corners on the field, the Lion safeties will have to be ready for more action and opportunities.
Defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro did a phenomenal job last season and it’s good he’s still around for year two. He probably has the most pressure on him to maintain that level of excellence despite the graduation losses up front, but at least his continued presence provides the stability the new starters need to succeed.
Like the wide receiving corps, it’s hard to envision a scenario where this unit won’t be better than it was in 2015. For one thing, the Lions waved the white flag on just about every punt return as then-freshman Jacob Young was instructed to call for a fair catch every time. Secondly, placekicker/punter Cameron Nizialek was basically thrown into the primary FG and PAT duties without enough preparation. Consequently, Nizialek got better as the season wore on and he got the needed experience. His punting, on the other hand, was excellent all year long as was the situational directional punting of Matthew Panton, who also returns.
Speaking of returns, it looks like the Lions will get an upgrade on that score with either the spectacular and speedy Wainwright getting the primary punt returning duties or perhaps Rose as well. Watson is likely to return as the primary kickoff returner, where he showed some excellent flashes last season. Of course with the Ivy League moving kickoffs up to the 40-yard line, it’s not clear how many kickoff return opportunities will remain. Both kickoff specialists Noah Zrgrablich and Chris Alleyne will have to boost their average kickoff distances to ensure the Lions won’t have to worry about long returns this season.
With four of the seven Ivy opponents coming to play at Wien Stadium this year, the 2016 schedule looks generally favorable compared to last year. Vulnerable opponents like Yale and Cornell are home games this year, along with a potentially vulnerable Princeton squad. The road visits to powerhouses Penn and Harvard look like killers, while having to travel to vulnerable Brown at the end of the season makes that game just that much harder. A big test will be Homecoming against Dartmouth, a team Columbia nearly shocked in Hanover last season despite the Big Green’s 9-1 co-championship season.
Your excitement about the 2016 Lions is justified, depending on your expectations.
For those who expect this team to post a winning record and vie for the Ivy title right now, that seems like an unfair stretch for the most part.
But for those who hope for a doubling of the Lions’ 2015 win total to four and/or the emergence of exciting new stars on both sides of the ball, there’s definitely justification for that.
And for those of us who after several decades of watching Columbia football now just enjoy watching Bagnoli coach this team the right way, everything about the upcoming season is basically guaranteed joy.