Listing the stars of Princeton’s highly successful 1A football operation over the past three seasons got to be routine for Bulldog fans after a run to the state semifinals in 2012 and a constant top-five ranking in the state last year. But gone are almost all of those standouts as the 2015 season begins.
Travis Gaster, the son of highly successful head coach Jack Gaster (Albemarle and Smithfield-Selma) and a former Cleveland High defensive coordinator, replaces Derrick Minor as head coach and is well into turning youth and inexperience into the kind of solid team that the tight-knit community of Princeton has gotten used to seeing this decade.
The Bulldogs return just five starters from a 12-2 club that fell to traditional state powers Wallace-Rose Hill and Warsaw’s James Kenan High last season.
“We have guys who were around for the success, but haven’t seen a lot of the field on Friday nights yet,” Gaster said. “We’re going to be relying on a lot of guys who either have had only JV experience or no experience at all on this level. We’re going to have to grow up quickly.”
We’re going to have to grow up quickly.
Princeton football coach Travis Gaster
Four of Princeton’s starters are back on defense, including one of the most talented and versatile players on the Bulldogs’ roster last year: senior 6-foot-2, 255-pound Adrian Whack. He will shift to defensive end this season after playing middle linebacker and running back last year.
He’ll be joined by three others starters back on a 4-3 formation defense – Chris Sauls, Codi Bryant and Jarrett Pearce.
Guard Leshane White is the lone returning starter on an offense making the shift to a run and play-action pass-driven pro formation from the spread the last few seasons. Adam Crocker is the projected starter at quarterback, while Matthew Stallworth and Earl Gibson will see time at running back, along with Whack.
But Gaster doesn’t want to rely on Whack too much offensively: “Your success as a football team is going to be based on how well your defense plays. Adrian is going to be a huge part of determining our success on defense, from the defensive line. He’s done an excellent job of accepting that role and becoming a real leader – on and off the field – to the younger guys.”
Turning those young guys into players with productive on-field experience will be the key to the Bulldogs’ success.
“These guys have to learn everything there is to know about success on the football field,” Gaster said. “The kind of effort it takes: every day in practice, in the film room and on Friday night.”
Question mark: Offensive skill production. So much of it from the last three years has to be replaced, both on the ground and through the air.
Expected team strength: The middle of the defensive infield.
Contributors: OL Leshane White, DE Adrian Whack, DL Chris Sauls, LB Codi Bryant, S Jared Pearce, QB Adam Crocker, RB Matthew Stallworth, CB/RB Earl Gibson.
Player they’ll miss the most: RB Johnny Frasier. There were plenty of talented players in the class of 2015 at Princeton, but when one of them was the No. 1-rated prospect in the nation who put up more than 7,000 yards rushing in his career, the choice gets pretty simple.
The main number: 19.8 – the average number of points the Bulldogs gave up per game last year. Anything approaching that mark this year will have a big bearing on Princeton’s hopes for another late November run.
Quotable: Gaster: “We’re becoming winners in the weight room with our work ethic there. They’re seeing their bodies develop and change. Now comes the next part – the harder part – of developing on the football field.”
Game to watch: Sept. 11 at North Johnston – Panthers took a 50-0 loss to Princeton last year and will be ready. It is Princeton's first real test of being the targeted instead of the one doing the targeting.
Last five seasons
2014: 12-2 (5-1), 1AA third round
2013: 9-4 (5-1), 1AA second round
2012: 5-9 (1-4), 1A East final
2011: 4-8 (1-4), 1A second round
2010: 2-10 (1-4), 1A first round