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Junior linebacker Brian O'Neill is excited for a strong group of returning members of the defense. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

One last run.

As the Quakers prepare to take on No. 20 Delaware to open their fifth season under coach Ray Priore, the team recognizes that this season marks the end of an era for Penn football.

“It’s a new start; everyone is ready to get back on the field,” Priore said. 

Over the last few seasons, the departures of stars such as wide receiver Justin Watson and quarterback Alek Torgersen have made this squad almost unrecognizable from the back-to-back Ivy League champions of 2015 and 2016. 

However, the Red and Blue have not yet moved on from these historic teams, as 16 of their 44 players listed on the depth chart were a part of the 2016 Ivy League championship team. But this will be the final season in which Penn's players have any sort of championship pedigree unless they come away with another title.

“I think very good football teams start with great senior leadership. I think these young men have worked very hard since the end of last year’s campaign taking the younger players under their wing and leading by example in every aspect,” Priore said. “I think they all want to go out there and leave their mark with one final championship season.”

“I think getting that ring is the most important thing to every senior on this team right now,” senior offensive lineman Jeff Gibbs said. “We are just looking to go out on top.”

Part of the reason for Penn’s success early in Priore’s tenure was the dynamic duo of Watson and Torgersen, who led the Quakers to a top-two scoring offense in the Ivy League in both 2015 and 2016. However, outside of senior running back Karekin Brooks, a lack of consistent offensive production last season saw the Quakers put up their worst offensive season of Priore’s tenure. The unit scored just 18.6 points per game, but this season, new offensive coordinator Kevin Morris will be Penn's play-caller.

“I'm excited; we’ve got a lot of new stuff with our new offensive coordinator,” Brooks said. “I’m really looking forward to the new play calls.”

A major part of Penn's recent inconsistency has been the play at the quarterback position. For the third straight year after Torgersen’s graduation, the Red and Blue will run out a new starting quarterback on opening day. This season, Penn’s No. 1 will be senior Georgia transfer Nick Robinson, who is getting the nod over last year's starter, junior Ryan Glover, after Glover started all 10 games in 2018. Robinson is still relatively inexperienced, throwing just 40 passes last season, completing 67% of them for a total of 306 yards.

“Efficient in what we are trying to do, run the calls, run the offense, take what people give you, and control the ball,” Priore said of what he is looking for in Robinson.

Beyond the quarterback, there may be just as many questions at wide receiver after the graduation of top receiver Steve Farrell. One new face in the receiving corps will be senior Abe Willows, last year's second leading receiver in terms of yardage, who will make the transition from running back to slot receiver this season.

While there may be questions on offense, the defense seems poised to repeat a season as strong as their last one, when the group allowed the fewest points per game in the conference. This season, the Quakers will add fifth-year senior safety Sam Philippi, a two-time second team All-Ivy player who suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the 2018 season.

“It's great to have Sam back for a fifth-year campaign, but he’s just one individual in a host of other senior contributors on defense,” Priore said. 

“On the defensive side, we've got a lot of returning starters,” junior linebacker Brian O’Neill said. “We are going to come out playing hard.”

Both sides of the ball will have their hands full with a big opening test this Saturday against Delaware (2-1), as Penn will play a ranked nonconference opponent for the first time since 2015. Delaware will also be more prepared in terms of gameplay than the Red and Blue. This will be the Blue Hens' fourth game of the season.

“They are big, they are strong, and they are fast,” Priore said. “To beat them we are going to have to play 50-plus players and sub early and often because there is going to be that emotional high of the first game and how tired you get with all that excitement.”

“We have to play our game and do our job, fill our gaps, and fit our seams. They bring a lot of athleticism, but we have those same types of guys and we just have to show up,” O’Neill said.

While everyone respects the challenges ahead, the players are just excited to get back on the field.

“I really just want to hit someone who’s not on my team,” Gibbs said.

After a long camp, the Quakers are more than ready to make sure that their championship memories become reality once again.

For more football preview coverage, check out the main page here. 

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