For the Penn football program, 2014 is set to be a season of firsts — and one, all-important last.
Let’s start with the firsts.
The first “first” may be the most unpalatable. Just one season after winning the Ivy title in thrilling fashion, Penn struggled in 2013, losing its final four games to finish 4-6. This was the first time that the Red and Blue had followed up an Ivy championship with a sub-.500 record under coach Al Bagnoli.
Plenty of factors contributed to the Quakers’ struggles last season: injuries, turnovers, a propensity to give up the big play — but all of that has been firmly put in the rearview mirror.
“I think we went into the offseason with a very different mindset,” Bagnoli said. “It’s hard to continually win in this league. I think we got humbled a little bit [last year].”
If the Red and Blue want to unseat Princeton and Harvard from atop the Ancient Eight, they’ll have to replace the question marks attached to multiple key positions with periods.
The Quakers will enter the 2014 season with no clear-cut, experienced option at quarterback for the first time since 2010.
Billy Ragone – and his beard – is gone, as is Ryan Becker, leaving the door wide open for any one of four remaining viable candidates, none of which has starting experience.
As it stands, sophomore Alek Torgerson has the inside track to be under center when the Red and Blue open their season against Jacksonville on Sept. 20. He emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the season finale against Cornell last year, entering in the fourth quarter and tossing two touchdowns in a near-comeback effort.
“Alek Torgerson is very, very talented,” Bagnoli said. “[But] he doesn’t have a tremendous amount of snaps behind him.”
Pushing Torgerson will be fellow sophomore Adam Strouss, who appeared in seven games in 2013 but only threw one pass, along with senior Patton Chillura, who missed all of last season due to injury, and junior Andrew Lisa.
Whoever ends up assuming the quarterback position full-time will have to rely on an equally inexperienced offensive line for protection.
Four different seniors graduated from Penn’s O-line last year, leaving senior Trent Rivera and junior Daniil Lysenko as the only offensive linemen on the roster with multiple games worth of starting experience — each started two contests last season.
There are no fewer than three juniors — Jack York, Miles Bartholomew and Luke Leshinsky — vying for slots on the line, but the most recognizable name on the offensive side of the trenches for the Quakers may hail from the other side of the ball.
After recording 12 tackles and a sack on the defensive line last season, junior Tanner Thexton has switched positions, adding another layer of intrigue to the preseason competition.
“We have some young kids that are very talented [on the offensive line],” Bagnoli said. “They just don’t have the game experience you’d ideally like, and the cohesion is gonna have to develop.”
What may make life easier for Bagnoli is the amount of experience the Quakers boast elsewhere.
Thirteen of Penn’s top 14 pass-catchers will return this season, including senior Conner Scott, who snagged 38 balls for 458 receiving yards and three scores last year. Meanwhile, 2013 honorable mention All-Ivy Kyle Wilcox will be relied upon once again to power the Quakers’ ground game.
On the defensive side, Bagnoli cites his team’s back seven as its greatest strength — and with good reason.
The linebacker corps will be solidified by two-time first- team All-Ivy selection Dan Davis, while virtually all of the starting defensive backs from 2013 return to the field, including senior standouts Evan Jackson and Dan Wilk.
But the driving storyline behind this year’s Penn football campaign will be the end of an era.
Just prior to the end of the 2013 academic year, Bagnoli announced that this season — his 23rd at Penn — will be his last as head coach.
Bagnoli has already tapped defensive coordinator and longtime right-hand man Ray Priore as his successor, preventing the speculation inherent to a coaching search and keeping the program’s culture intact.
With nine Ivy championships to his name, Bagnoli’s legacy as one of the greatest coaches in Penn history is already secured. But he doesn’t want a season-long retirement party.
“I certainly don’t want to take any onus away from the season,” Bagnoli said. “It’s just great to be part of a very special fraternity and it’s been a great run.”
And the pieces may be in place for one last great run.