Ray Priore

Penn begins quest for 3rd straight Ivy League title with uncertainty at QB

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Penn Athletics

Penn begins quest for 3rd straight Ivy League title with uncertainty at QB

Looking for his third straight Ivy League championship in his third year as head coach, Ray Priore guides the Penn football team into a 2017 campaign filled with both sky-high expectations and uncertainty at the most important position on the field.

Ahead of the Quakers’ season-opener vs. Ohio Dominican on Saturday at Franklin Field (1 p.m., CSN), here’s a closer look at what to expect from Penn this season:

Offense
At wide receiver, there’s no one better in the Ivy League and few better in all of FCS football than Justin Watson, a star senior who ranks second in Penn history in career receptions (205) and receiving yards (2,694) and enters the season a preseason first team All-American and candidate for the Walter Payton Award.

The Quakers are also stacked at running back, where senior Tre Solomon returns after leading the Ivies in rushing yards (907) last season.

But nobody on Penn’s roster has taken a college snap following the graduation of Alek Torgersen, now with the Washington Redskins' practice squad. And after a hard-fought training camp quarterback competition, senior Will Fischer-Colbrie won the job over newcomers Nick Robinson and Ryan Glover.

“He’s the most experienced because he’s been in the system for a handful of years,” Priore said. “The two youngsters we brought in are doing phenomenal; they just have not picked up the system to where we like it going into Week 1.”

Priore said Robinson, a transfer from the University of Georgia, and Glover, a true freshman from Atlanta, may still get some reps, so look for them to possibly see the field against an Ohio Dominican team that the Quakers should beat handily.

In the meantime, Fischer-Colbrie will lean heavily on Solomon, a sturdy offensive line and a good receiving corps that includes juniors Christian Pearson, Steve Farrell and, of course, Watson.

“I think that we both know how good we can be and how much we can help our team and how good we can make the kids around us,” said Solomon of he and Watson. “And that’s what we try to do every day. We try to be as vocal as we possibly can, we try to lead by example all the time. I’m really excited to see what [Watson] does in his last year. It’s his finale, man. He’s been, in my opinion, the league’s MVP, or at least the offensive MVP, every year since he’s got here. And it’s just gonna be really exciting to see him in his senior year.”

Defense
The Quakers also boast a star playmaker on the other side of the football — Watson’s fellow co-captain Louis Vecchio. A big-time recruit who chose Penn over Stanford and other Pac-12 programs, Vecchio came into his own last season, earning first-team All-Ivy honors after leading the Quakers in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (10.5) and scoring a defensive touchdown in a huge home win over Harvard.

What does the senior defensive end think the defense has in store this season?

“We’re holding ourselves to a higher standard,” Vecchio said. “We’re looking to put in the work each day to make sure we live up to it. With a lot of vets coming back, we’re trying to raise the bar and it’ll show up on the field. We’re gonna be ready to play.”

In addition to Vecchio, the Quakers return seven other defensive starters, including linebacker Colton Moskal, a Syracuse transfer and last year’s leading tackler (89), and second team All-Ivy defensive back Sam Philippi.

But the unit must overcome the loss of cornerback Mason Williams, who led the Ivies in interceptions last year before transferring to Duke.

“I’m excited as ever and hopefully we can show the league where we deserve to be,” Vecchio said. “We want to go out on top.”

Special teams
Priore announced this week that junior Jack Soslow, a local native from Haverford School, won the placekicking job after serving as the kickoff specialist the last two seasons.

Senior Hunter Kelley returns at punter after leading the Ivies in punting average (42.7) last season.

Coaching
Priore could not have asked for a better start to his head coaching career, leading the Quakers to a piece of two straight league titles following two rare losing seasons under Al Bagnoli.

But Priore, a longtime Penn assistant under Bagnoli, has tried to forget all that as he prepared for a new season.

“I’ve been on the staff for 30 years and we’ve gone through some great times,” he said. “Sometimes you forget what gets you there and you just have to keep it revved up and keep it going. You try to keep the energy level up. There’s a process to everything.”

Player to watch
It’s worth a trip to Franklin Field play just to check out Watson, who may go down as one of the best football players in Ivy League history.

It will be interesting to see how he’ll fare catching passes from a new quarterback, but judging by how hard he worked in the offseason to reshape his body, his senior season may still be his best one yet.

“It’s always nice having Justin out there,” Priore said. “He’s so talented and such a humble kid. He’s the hardest-working kid on the field. He leads by example. If you need to get the ball into his hands, you can. He can make big plays happen.”

Watson may be good enough to not only play in the NFL but potentially even be an early-round draft pick. But after talking with Torgersen, he knows he can’t focus on that yet.

“His biggest thing is what’s gonna help me the most is winning a championship,” said Watson of his friend and former QB. “I really don’t want to leave the season with any regrets.”

Game to watch
Penn’s road to each of the last two titles went through Harvard as they upset the nationally ranked Crimson in a pair of thrillers.

Can the Quakers do it again when they travel to Harvard for the penultimate game of the season on Nov. 11 — a game sandwiched between big home games against rival Princeton and Cornell.

Prediction
This is a hard team to figure out. They have all the pieces, but a huge question mark at quarterback.

Although the Quakers want that outright crown, look for them to once again share the Ivy title after losing an early game and figuring things out down the stretch.

Penn football picked to finish 3rd in Ivy League as conference focuses on player safety

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USA Today Images

Penn football picked to finish 3rd in Ivy League as conference focuses on player safety

Preseason college football practices opened across the country in recent weeks to increased safety due to the elimination of multiple practices with contact during a single day - the two-a-days.

Such mentality fell into line with some of the measures previously taken by the Ivy League.

With their league at the forefront of trying to reduce concussions and keep student-athletes healthy, Ivy coaches reflected on some of the changes Tuesday during a preseason conference call to preview their upcoming season.

Princeton and Harvard were installed as the preseason co-favorites in a close media vote over Penn. Harvard coach Tim Murphy said the Quakers were too low considering they're a two-time defending Ivy champion, sharing the 2015 title with his Crimson and last year's title with Princeton.

The tie atop the poll was the first since 2008 and the third all-time. Yale was picked fourth followed by Dartmouth, Brown (one first-place vote), Columbia and Cornell.

Coaches lauded the level of play in the league, especially veteran coaches such as Murphy, Brown's Phil Estes and Columbia's Al Bagnoli. The rise could be impacted by the emphasis on keeping players healthy.

"Most guys 25 years or older, they had never had that mind-set back when we played. You did what you were coached to do and you taught what you learned when you were a player. Nothing had changed for a long period of time," said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, acknowledged as the league's chief driving force for implementing safety measures. "Certainly with technology and some of the concerns with compression head injury, TBI (traumatic brain injury), growing awareness, we can do things in a different fashion. What I'm finding right now is there's a greater receptivity."

The Ivy League formally eliminated "live" to-the-ground tackling in practices during the regular season last year, continuing to address safety measures alongside the Xs and Os. In addition, league members moved kickoffs to the 40-yard line and touchbacks to the 20-yard line in an effort to limit returns and the possibility of concussions from one of football's more dangerous plays. Two-a-days also had been scaled back in the preseason.

"I think that the rule changes that we made in the league have given us an opportunity to keep the players safe and also decrease the high collisions on special teams, especially on the kickoff game. It's really made the game better," Yale coach Tony Reno said.

Added Penn coach Ray Priore, "How you teach tackling has changed. We used to put the helmet on the ball to cause fumbles; now it's on the back hip in the rugby style. It's changed in that facet, how we as coaches have to re-look at the teaching of some of those mechanisms. I think some of the rules are spot-on with what we want to do without changing the integrity of the game."

The Ivy League has been reviewing concussions since 2010, moving from football to a number of other sports such as lacrosse, ice hockey, soccer, wrestling and rugby.

Safety measures go beyond concussions as well. Cornell coach David Archer notes the risk of knee and leg injuries are down because players aren't being driven to the ground in practice.

Dartmouth has been especially active, developing a robotic tackling dummy, called the Mobile Virtual Player (MVP), to simulate live tackling in an effective and realistic way. The product was unveiled in 2015, nearly five years after coach Teevens instituted a no-tackling policy in practice to keep more players healthy.

Said Priore: "You could see based on the lack of injuries that were reported at the end of the year that … being a successful football team is how healthy you can you stay. I think all these measures go into helping us stay healthy."

Key Ivy League games
Penn at Harvard (Nov. 11) - The last 10 Ivy League titles have included one or both of these powers. Expect the streak to continue in 2017.

Five More: Yale at Dartmouth (Oct. 7); Penn at Columbia (Oct. 14); Princeton at Harvard (Oct. 21); Princeton at Penn (Nov. 4); Harvard at Yale (Nov. 18).

Ivy League football preseason media poll
1. (tie) Princeton (6 first-place votes), 120 points

1. (tie) Harvard (5), 120

3. Penn (5), 110

4. Yale, 71

5. Dartmouth, 60

6. Brown (1), 57

7. Columbia, 38

8. Cornell, 36

For Penn football coach Ray Priore, it's always been family first

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Penn Athletics

For Penn football coach Ray Priore, it's always been family first

A year before Bob Benson arrived at Penn as the football team’s new defensive coordinator, his brother Tom temporarily lived a couple of blocks from Franklin Field at the old Penn Tower. Frank was very sick with throat cancer, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Bob said, was one of the only places in the world where he could possibly be saved.

As you can imagine, it was an impossibly trying time for the Benson family. But for the four weeks Tom lived at Penn Tower and was treated at HUP, some of their pain was eased by Penn football coach Ray Priore, who went to Tom’s room on the 16th floor often, packed up his dirty laundry, and brought it to the equipment room at Franklin Field to wash.

Tom ended up passing away not long after his arrival at Penn — but Bob Benson will never forget Priore’s heartfelt gesture to a dying man and his family.

“I just think it speaks volumes to Ray’s caring,” Benson said. “He’s a family guy … just a really kind man. When he offered me the job here, I took it in about 30 seconds.”

Few people know Priore as well as Benson, who worked with him on the coaching staff at the University of Albany when both were getting their start in the mid-1980s and rejoined him at Penn in 2015. And in those three decades in between, he’s seen Priore do so many other things that show how important his family and friends are, remarking that, above all else, “he cares about people.”

In many ways, that’s one of the biggest reasons why Priore has remained at Penn for 30 years, rising through the ranks until he eventually took over as head coach ahead of the 2015 season, when he promptly led the Quakers to a share of the Ivy League championship.

“I had opportunities to leave,” Priore said. “But the folks here at Penn, the alumni are phenomenal. And [thinking about] uprooting my family, I always said, ‘Football’s football — why do you need to go somewhere else? You can still chase a dream here.’ And coaching has been great here.”

Family has certainly always been a constant for Priore at Penn. His daughter Jenna, now a junior in the college, has been going to Quaker games since she was seven months old, serving as a water girl when she was younger and, more recently, as a special assistant to her father, bringing him his headset before every game and helping to run the program’s involvement with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which brought them 5-year-old team captain Vhito DeCapira, an inspiring young cancer patient.

And Priore’s older brother, Chuck, served with him on Penn’s staff from 1992 to 1999 with the two siblings commuting to work every day together from their homes in New Jersey and also sharing the joy of winning three Ivy League championships during that stretch.

So when you look at Priore’s decision to remain at Penn for so long through the lens of family, it makes perfect sense.

“Sometimes people change jobs just to change jobs,” said Chuck Priore, now the head coach at Stony Brook University. “He was comfortable, he enjoyed it, he had success and he continued to get better and took advantage of the opportunity right in house.”

For Ray Priore, having a brother who’s also a college football head coach has been a unique and rewarding experience. Every morning at around 5:30 a.m., when he’s driving across the Ben Franklin Bridge on the way to work and Chuck is riding on the elliptical, they have long chats on the phone about their respective programs. 

Of course by now, they’ve been talking about football for more than 40 years — one of the many sports that bound them from childhood into adulthood.

“Most of our family activities revolved around athletics,” Chuck said. “There really wasn’t summer vacations. It was summer baseball, winter hockey, fall football, spring baseball — that’s what we pretty much did as a family.”

Growing up in Long Island, their father was their first football coach in the local Pop Warner league. The two brothers were then part of the same football program at both Maria Regina High School and the University of Albany with Ray a freshman while Chuck was a senior. That made it easier for their dad and younger brother, Frank, to watch them both play. But even as the two eventually went their separate ways, their family members still found a way to go to almost every game. 

Last Saturday, for instance, their brother and father managed to go to Franklin Field to watch Penn beat Central Connecticut State 28-16 in the afternoon before driving down to Maryland to cheer on Stony Brook’s 27-20 win over Towson in the evening.

“You can’t get married in the fall in our family,” Ray said. “These are family events. The falls are very, very special.”

Because he’s so close to his family, leaving the comforts of New York to come to Penn in 1987 wasn’t easy. Priore was very young when he took the job as the Quakers’ assistant linebacker coach, moving to Philly and living next to Franklin Field on the top floor of the Dunning Coaches’ Center. He called it a “whole new world” and he never expected to stay at Penn as long as he did. 

But Priore grew to love the university and remained with the program even as his bosses changed, first working under Ed Zubrow and then Gary Steele and then finally Al Bagnoli, who returns to Franklin Field for the first time as a visiting coach for Saturday's game vs. Columbia (3 p.m.).

And he learned different things from each one — particularly organization from Zubrow, defensive strategy from Steele and how to effectively delegate responsibility from Bagnoli. Of course, when he finally landed his “dream job” as head coach, he put his own spin on the position, using his determination and family focus to galvanize a program that had fallen on hard times in the two previous seasons and win Ivy League Coach of the Year honors.

Through his first eight Ivy League games, he’s already beaten every conference opponent, becoming the third-fastest coach in Ivy League history to complete the sweep. Only Zubrow (7-0 in 1986) and Yale’s Jordan Olivar (7-0) did it quicker.

“I think Penn made a great choice with Ray,” Benson said. “It’s very rare someone would stay at an institution or place of employment for 30 years. I think it’s a credit to him and his belief in Penn that he stayed here. That’s the story for me — his belief in the University of Pennsylvania. There’s not much of that around. That’s pretty remarkable in my opinion.”

Benson added that one of Priore’s best attributes, aside from his kindness, is his work ethic and drive, pointing out that winning last year’s Ivy championship only made him want more titles. And Chuck said that his brother’s commitment to Penn might just be what keeps the Quakers on top this year and for many more to come.

“You can really tell recruits, ‘This place is an awesome place, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here for 30 years,’” Chuck said. “I think he has a great handle of what Penn can do for a student-athlete.”

Priore certainly takes recruiting seriously, doing his best to create special relationships with everyone he brings into the program, from the time they first step foot into campus to long after they leave. According to Benson, Priore is on the phone or computer “every day” talking to many of the alums who passed through the program over the past 30 years — men who learned about football but even more about life.

“The most important part of coaching in my opinion is that we are teachers and motivators,” Priore said. “We work at a kid’s game but so many life lessons can be taught on the field. I think we all as coaches are very blessed to have that opportunity to impact so many kids’ lives.

“When the kids come in, I say to them, ‘I have one daughter but I have 110 sons.’ You want to treat these kids as if they’re your own.”