One of the top shows on Netflix right now is Manifest. In the series, a plane disappears and comes back five years later. Passengers return to a world that’s moved on without them.
Well, it hasn’t exactly been five years, but college football moved on without the Ivy League last season. While the Ivy canceled its 2020 football season, the FCS and FBS still rewarded champions.
Penn was one of the Ivy League schools affected by a season without football. The team couldn’t even formally work out and lift until February of this year.
Some of Penn’s veteran players stuck it out, and head coach Ray Priore will continue to rely on those players this season. In his media day press conference, he emphasized the importance of leadership on a team that will essentially have two freshman classes.
“It’s different,” Priore said. “Any good program I’ve been associated with, it starts with leadership roles from the kids.”
Gone is Karekin Brooks, one of the all-time great Penn running backs. Isaiah Malcome could be a player who fills that void.
Malcome is versatile. He returns punts and kicks, receives out of the backfield and totes the rock. One of his biggest plays to date was a 69-yard punt return touchdown against Delaware in 2019.
He’s listed at 5-foot-5, so while there are the so-called disadvantages of being small in stature, Malcome can hide behind big offensive linemen and use his quickness in space against heavy-footed linebackers.
“I think it’s more so not me proving everybody else wrong, but me proving myself right,” Malcome said. “I would say I’m my own worst critic and I hold myself at a high expectation.”
It’s not completely a new team. The receiving core is returning quality production. Rory Starkey and Ryan Cragun each shined in 2019, and Malcome said he expects even more from them this season.
Starkey and Cragun averaged more than twice as many yards as the next Quakers receiver. Starkey broke out in 2019 with 39 catches for 643 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Cragun led the team with 58 catches and 885 receiving yards.
Both players were sophomores in 2019 and are now listed as seniors. Those two, plus Malcome and the running back core, excite Priore as the 2021 season approaches.
“I think it’s all about balance,” Priore said. “We use the pass game to set up the run and the run game to set up the pass. I do think we have talent in both. Basically, take what people give you.”
Linebacker Brian O’Neill is back as one of the defensive leaders. He had 58 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high three interceptions.
O’Neill said the defense can be “really solid,” but it has seen a lot of change around him. That’s one reason team chemistry has been emphasized.
When players couldn’t formally workout together, they sent each other videos to keep the communication going. They also kept up with each other through text. There were still some players who stayed at Penn last summer and worked out with each other as well.
“We knew at the end of the day we’re going to have a season eventually, and when our number’s called, you got to be ready to step up,” O’Neill said. “We tried to stay connected as best as possible.”
Penn opens the season Sept. 18 against Bucknell. The Quakers’ first home game is Oct. 1 vs. Dartmouth.
Priore said a big question is how much depth the Quakers can develop after missing almost two years. Most of the players who’ve had playing time will be starters.
Even though the names will be different, he expect the same identity.
“We will be gritty, we will be tough, and we will play for four quarters,” Priore said. “That’s all I can ask for.”