The Lions took a step in the right direction in 2012, but they still have plenty left to prove.
Columbia went 3-7 (2-5 Ivy) in head coach Pete Mangurian’s first season in Morningside Heights, an improvement over the 1-9 (1-6 Ivy) record the Light Blue posted in Norries Wilson’s last season at the helm of the program. With key players returning and with a high-profile transfer—junior quarterback Brett Nottingham—in the fold, there are plenty of reasons to expect Columbia to continue its improvement this fall. But the Lions are far from satisfied with the status quo.
“As a team, obviously we want to improve on our 3-7 record. That’s not good,” senior running back and co-captain Marcorus Garrett said. “It’s a losing record.”
The Lions have worked to ensure that the program continues in its upward trajectory this year.
As one of the physically smaller teams in the league, a big offseason concern was lack of size and strength. By all indications, the Lions have confronted this issue head-on.
“We’ve made huge strides in the weight room,” senior linebacker and co-captain Zach Olinger said. “Our team is across the board bigger and stronger, faster. I feel like that is the biggest stride, overall, that we’ve made.”
Both Mangurian and the players gave a lot of credit to strength and conditioning coach Ryan Cidzik, whom Mangurian recruited last year, for helping the team turn the corner on that front.
“I’ve been around some guys that are pretty good, that are really good. And Cid’s as good as there is,” Mangurian said. “And our kids respond to him, they believe in him, they trust him. They know that if they do what he says that they’ll get better.”
According to senior offensive lineman Jimmy Yukevich, the strides the team has made with Cidzik have been dramatic.
When Cidzik started in 2012, “we had maybe 16 guys squatting over 400 pounds,” Yukevich said. “And now there’s something like 40 or 50.”
The strength gap that the Lions have addressed over the offseason should be most pronounced on the offensive line. Columbia allowed 40 sacks last season, by far the most of any team in the Ivy League. Dartmouth was next with 32.
According to Mangurian, the line that anchored the offensive unit—which finished seventh in both passing and rushing yards, and dead last in total offense a year ago—has taken steps to redefine itself.
“We had to get bigger and stronger, and we did, and we have to learn to play together,” Mangurian said. “Great lines play together. The sum has to be bigger than the individual parts.”
Yukevich echoed Mangurian, saying that the line has a more collective mentality going into the season than it has in years past.
“A lot of the time, in the past, the offensive line had fallen into, ‘I’m going to do my job and not worry about what anyone else is doing,’” Yukevich said. “Currently, everybody’s thinking, ‘OK, this guy is doing this, so in order to help him, I have to do this.’”
The Lions have a couple of question marks on the other side of the ball as well. Anchored by All-Ivy first-teamer Josh Martin, who is now in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, the defensive front seven was one of Columbia’s strong suits last year. But with Martin and linebacker Ryan Murphy gone, the Light Blue will have some major gaps to fill on the defensive front.
Senior captain and defensive lineman Seyi Adebayo, who missed almost all of last year after suffering a knee injury in the season opener, will play a big role for Columbia up front.
“He’s a huge help. He was named a captain for a reason. He’s a good guy, works hard, and he’s a great example for the rest of our team,” Olinger said of Adebayo.
For his part, Adebayo is confident that the line will be ready to go by the season opener at Fordham.
“It’s kind of just a consistency thing at this point,” Adebayo said. “We’ve definitely shown flashes of what we can do, so I have no doubt that once the time comes, we’ll be able to fulfill the role we’ll need to be a dominant defense.”
Defensive line is not the only position at which the Lions will have to fill a vacancy left by graduation. With quarterback Sean Brackett gone, Columbia will have a new man under center this fall—junior Brett Nottingham.
The team announced its starter on Wednesday, with Nottingham beating out sophomore Trevor McDonagh in camp. Of course, Nottingham’s highly touted transfer to Columbia from Stanford was the biggest storyline of this offseason.
Nottingham has an impressive résumé. A four-star recruit whom Rivals.com ranked as the fourth-best pro-style quarterback in his high school class, he was the backup to Andrew Luck his first two years in Palo Alto before coming to New York.
“He’s been around great players. He played with great players in high school, guys that went on and are in the NFL now,” Mangurian said. “He has credibility with our team because of where he’s been and what he’s done.”
Making the transition easier, Nottingham will have a stud in the backfield in Garrett, a first-team All-Ivy selection a year ago, as well as a receiving corps that showed some promise at the end of last season.
“They’re going to have to respect our passing game a little more. We have a lot of depth at receiver. Quarterback position, we have a lot of depth,” Garrett said.
Though there are plenty of question marks, the Lions do have some good pieces in place on offense as well as defense.
“We’re pretty excited, we’re going to be a very well-balanced team,” Garrett said. “We’re just ready to start playing.”
This article is part of our 2013 Football Season Preview. View the rest of the preview here.