It was so elementary you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of the Penn Quakers’ success last season.
That’s how much of a force Justin Watson was.
With 81 receptions for 1083 yards and 14 touchdowns, the kid who went on to become Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in this year’s NFL draft and might face the Eagles on Sunday, was virtually unstoppable for a 6-4 team that would’ve been even better if not for losing twice on the final play of the game.
“Obviously, last year we sold out on Justin Watson,” said third-year coach Ray Priore, who’s hoping greater overall depth makes up for the loss of individual standouts like Watson, quarterback Will Fischer-Colbrie and defensive end Lou Vecchio.
“It was always ‘Where’s Justin. Where’s Justin.’ Last year, he was in 60 percent of the offense. Now he’s left the room and we’ve found out we do have some other receivers.”
The Quakers also have uncertainty at quarterback, where both junior Nick Robinson and particularly sophomore Ryan Glover have limited experience. Being good teammates they say, it doesn’t really matter who gets the call since they’re pretty similar.
“I’d definitely say we’re both duel threats,” said Glover, who’s expected to get the nod first when the Quakers open up Saturday against Bucknell at Franklin Field.
“We’re both pass-first quarterbacks, who can run. But not necessarily running quarterbacks.”
Glover actually played considerably less than Robinson, who had one start and threw for 604 yards and six touchdowns overall.
“We both understand the offense and are learning how to run it more than last year,” said Robinson, one of a handful of Penn’s California recruits, including some from the same high school.
“Things are going a lot smoother,” he added. “We’re very similar quarterbacks. We do a good job taking care of the ball and making smart decisions.”
Among those smart decisions will be handing it off more, particularly to leading ground gainer Karekin Brooks.
“I won’t run anymore because we have a lot of good backs,” said the 5-11, 205 lb. junior Brooks, who rushed for 840 yards and nine touchdowns.
Penn also has depth on defense led by the return of senior linebacker Nick Miller (104 tackles) and defensive backs Conor O’Brien and Sam Philippi.
“The defense is good,” said the junior O’Brien, who rooms with his sophomore brother and fellow DB, Ryan, and Robinson. “We lost some big-time players, but we have some back and should be progressing.”
“We lost some games last year on crazy plays. So we had to come out strong after that.”
After dropping four in a row in the middle of last season, the Quakers bounced back by winning their last four. While it cost them a chance to defend their back-to-back Ivy League crowns, Priore believes the momentum carried over into the off-season.
Picked to tie for fourth in a recent poll, Priore will soon find out if the 2018 Quakers can surprise the so-called experts and make another Ivy run.
“I’m not saying we’re disrespected,” said Priore, who had back-to-back 7-3 seasons his first two years after taking over from longtime mentor, Al Bagnoli. “The bottom line is you have to earn everything you get.”
“Our league traditionally has been a league of quarterbacks,” he explained. “Both of our guys have made huge improvements from last year and are pushing each other. The question is how do they respond when the games start.”
For Penn, even with no Justin Watson around to help them solve the case, it’s as elementary as that.