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:
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.